This article appears in November issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, please click here.
READERS MAY HAVE NOTICED that science has been my preoccupation lately. That is because I have been writing a book. Regnery Publishing is putting out a "Politically Incorrect Guide" series, and mine is the third, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science. (Guides to American History and to Islam are already out.)
I have chapters on such hot topics as global warming, cloning, stem cells, endangered species, AIDS in Africa, the need to bring back DDT, and of course Intelligent Design. And more.
Normally, we think of science as being above politics. It is a neutral field in which facts are observed, theories are tested, and so on. Increasingly, though, science has been politicized. How come? In many fields of science there is great uncertainty about the facts -- as there has always been -- and therein lies an opportunity for those who would connect science to the great money machine of politics.
Agenda-driven scientists can choose the facts they want and present them in a certain way, send out press releases, and let the media take it from there. A key step is the proclamation of an approaching crisis. Scientists, we are led to suppose, can see it coming even if we cannot, because they have the measuring devices and the early-warning systems. So we must heed their warnings -- they are our white-coated priesthood -- and respond accordingly.
Respond how? By increasing government spending. That never changes. More government will be needed to solve whatever crisis has been spotted by the radar of science. A highland sheep has died of an undiagnosed disease? Seven people have come down with a strange flu in Ho Chi Minh City? Drops of mercury have been found in a school basement? More disease surveillance officers are needed and the CDC budget should be increased.
Look at Science magazine. The maintenance of government spending at undiminished levels is perhaps its leading preoccupation. The federal budget is a major topic, scrutinized by editors week after week. A few recent headlines: "Tight Budgets Force Lab Layoffs," "Bush Victory Leaves Scars -- and Concerns About Funding," "A Dangerous Signal to Science." (There was great concern in this last editorial because the EPA and the National Science Foundation "actually had their funding reduced from FY 2004 levels.") Dozens of such articles are published every year.
When you think about it, more government is not a particularly "scientific" response to any crisis. How many problems are solved by government spending? But that isn't the way we tend to look at it. Government spending does help some people, including the recipients of government grants, and those who administer them. The recent events in New Orleans suggest that government poverty programs succeeded, over the years, merely in locking the underclass into the welfare system. But the government workers were certainly helped. They enjoy lifetime tenure, and more money helps to separate them from the problems they are supposed to be addressing (which is the way they like it).
Or take public education. It has declined in quality, even as the taxpayers' money spent on it has dramatically increased. Step by step, the teachers and their unions learned they could put their own welfare ahead of the students'. And get away with it. Most people can't follow what's going on anyway. President Bush himself was played for a sucker by the education lobby when he called for "no child left behind." For years, the decline in public education has been construed as just another indicator that more money is needed.
Science is going down the same path. A problem is discerned, or invented, the government steps in, and then the problem seems only to grow more serious. And that suits the scientists just fine. They are more interested in their own funding, tenure, and security than in any detailed accounting of progress or decline in their own field.
They have learned to "game the system," in other words. Scientists didn't start out that way, any more than the teachers did. But slowly, incrementally, year by year, they learned what was to their advantage: discern a crisis, set up a hue and cry, send out press releases, and so on.
THE MEDIA COOPERATE with the scare stories, partly because they, too, have an unswerving devotion to government spending as the cure for all ills. More straightforwardly, crises sell newspapers. So the relationship is symbiotic. "You give us a crisis and we'll play it up," the journalists tell the scientists. "Give us the readers and you will get the funding."
One field in which scientists have played the game is toxicology. The original player was Rachel Carson, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before she published Silent Spring in 1962. She "alerted us," so it was said, to the dangers of chemical pesticides. The New Yorker spread the word. (The New York Times at that stage was not in crisis-mongering mode the way it is today.) From that time on it has been an article of faith (masquerading as science) that minute traces of toxic substances threaten our health.
The EPA didn't even exist in Rachel Carson's day. Today the agency's budget approaches $8 billion, with over 17,000 employees ("full-time equivalents," as they are called). The toxic-alarm story has continued in serial fashion, with officials detecting traces of dioxin and PCBs in places like Times Beach, Missouri, and the Hudson River, leading to immensely expensive clean-up mandates. The full-time equivalents have kept themselves fully employed.
It turns out that small doses of all these chemicals are good for you. The beneficial effects of poisons in small doses is called hormesis, and I am grateful to the New York Times for letting me have a virtual exclusive on that story. (I have two chapters on it in the book.)
Thousands (or millions) of species are endangered? Hire more Fish and Wildlife agents right now! The globe is warming? That has been the most ambitious play of all, because the scare scenarios are such that we would have to put the environmentalists in charge of the U.S. economy. They wouldn't mind that, of course, but it was too much even for Republicans to go along. But Science and other publications promoted the issue with very little acknowledgment of the underlying controversy. The cheerleaders of government science have recognized this simple truth: crises work to our professional advantage.
These days, government science is also devoted to spreading false alarms about infectious disease. AIDS, and then African AIDS (in which no infectious agent was needed to make the diagnosis) proved to be the great 20th-century triumphs of empire-building public-health agencies. The consequences of drug taking (at home) and a ruined public health infrastructure (in Africa) were blamed on a virus, and literally billions of dollars were pried loose from taxpayers as scare stories spread without check or balance.
But the AIDS story may have run its course and the empire builders will need a new infectious disease before too long. Check with Anthony Fauci of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has been warning us about "avian flu," the latest scam. So far, 55 deaths worldwide have been attributed to avian flu, but it could do wonders for the budget of public health agencies if they can add a few zeroes to those numbers. Don't rule it out.
THERE'S ANOTHER CATEGORY of politicized science, in which it is not so much the crisis as the solution that is hyped. Here, the "crisis" is real enough, in a sense, as it is embedded in the human condition. I refer to disease, aging, and death.
A rising brand of utopian science believes that relief from these conditions can be bio-engineered. Again, however, the government is expected to foot the bill. In that sense it's the same old story.
I have several chapters on genetic engineering, cloning, stem cell research, and the rest. Here, the great tendency is to over-promise. Readers should adopt a default position of disbelief whenever they see articles about these marvels. Notice what the stem-cell hullabaloo is really about: getting the federal government to pay the bills. But if stem-cell cures are just over the horizon, how come Bill Gates didn't fund a biotech company himself, rather than support the California proposition that put taxpayers on the hook for $5 billion?
Meanwhile a handful of inventors and capitalists have shown an opposite, dystopian tendency. Their strange concern is that robots will become conscious and "evolve" faster than us, becoming our lords and masters. Bill Joy, the co-founder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, wrote an article for Wired in 2000 ("Why the Future Doesn't Need Us") in which he argued that rapid technological progress threatens the human race. His argument might have come from the Unabomber Manifesto, and it was ready-made for the Aspen Institute. Joy's gloom was fashionable, at least for a while.
His guru was Ray Kurzweil, whose futuristic book The Age of the Spiritual Machines showed how smart people can be devoid of common sense. Soon we will be able to download our minds onto computer hardware, then slog on indefinitely as software, Kurzweil fantasized. By 2029, machines will "claim" to be conscious and these claims will be "largely accepted." Bill Joy heard all this from Kurzweil in a bar one night and became a believer on the spot. It was "only a small step to a robot species -- to an intelligent robot that can make evolved copies of itself."
Such predictions are placed close enough to our own time to seem impressive, and yet far enough in the future to be forgotten when they do not come to pass.
My own prediction is that neither the utopian nor the dystopian future will materialize. When it sinks in that genetic and stem-cell engineering is beyond our ken, the anticipated downloading of our minds will also be postponed -- indefinitely. (By the way, don't they know we haven't even been able to get robots to move around the room without bumping into the furniture yet?)
Underlying the thinking of both optimists and pessimists is the assumption of materialism. Matter is all there is. Only material causes impinge on humans. Our "free will" is an illusion. When we "reason," our conclusions are foreordained, and would be known to a computer fully acquainted with our antecedent brain state. Such computers are coming! Humans exist, therefore they must have evolved (how else could we have appeared).
Machines do things right now that require great conscious effort on the part of humans; sometimes they can do them better (beat the world chess champion, for example). Think what they will be able to do when they become more complex. They will become "more evolved" and smarter than us in every respect.
The reigning guru of science, Stephen W. Hawking, flaunted this philosophy in all its wondrous folly in 1998. He said:
At the moment, computers show no sign of intelligence. This is not surprising, because our present computers are less complex than the brain of an earthworm. But it seems to me that if very complicated chemical molecules can operate in humans to make them intelligent, then equally complicated electronic circuits can also make computers act in an intelligent way.
Hawking thinks humans are nothing but chemicals that self-assembled over the eons into ever more complex molecules. Complexity morphed into consciousness at a certain point. It is this philosophy that has been the main support for evolution. We are indubitably here, so how did we get here if not by atoms randomly bumping into one another? Scientists support evolution rather than creation or intelligent design, Richard Lewontin argued, "because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism." And that materialism is "absolute," for "we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door." The alternative "is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen."
But "miracles" do happen. They happen every time we decide to do one thing rather than another. The claim that we only have an illusion of freedom and that our decision was determined by our chemical and electrical brain states belongs to the realm of philosophy, not science.