Science Under Attack
AT “PERIHELION,” EVERYBODY should be aware by now, we do not publish fantasy. We like science fiction. Our masthead says science fiction. The harder the better, although the number of stories being written these days with strong science and technology content aren’t as plentiful as they used to be.
Back in the 1960s, when President John F. Kennedy pledged an American on the Moon before the end of the decade, science was “hot.” We kids grew up, literally, with stars in our eyes. We all had rockets. My best friend at the time had a chemistry lab in his basement that would rival that of any mad scientist you see portrayed on TV. He subscribed to “Sky & Telescope.”
I was heavily into biology. I didn’t want to become a physician, however. I wanted to go into medical research and battle bugs. My own basement held an assortment of dissection apparatus, microscope equipment, frogs, models of human anatomy. My mother once secured a cow’s heart from the local butcher for me. I was ecstatic. Best present ever!
This passion for science, fueled by movies like “Forbidden Planet” and “Destination Moon,” drove the science fiction of those times strongly toward the “hard” end of the spectrum. I would devour the monthly issues of “Analog,” “Galaxy,” and “If.” Notably “Fantasy & Science Fiction,” if I recall, published a lot of fantasy. That was OK. I subscribed to “F&SF,” as well, eventually getting to know and respect its editor, Ed Ferman.
When did all of this change? When did science come to be so distrusted, looked at like some kind of strange and fearful discipline? Well ... it is a commonly held axiom that people do tend to fear what they do not understand. Back in the ’60s, we kids (teenagers, actually) embraced the sciences. High schools promoted a good education in science. Even the TV show “Walt Disney’s Disneyland” frequently ran solid science-based episodes. “Our Friend the Atom” was one of my favorites.
Commenting on Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Anti-intellectualism in American Life,” Deborah M. De Simone, Associate Professor, CUNY, College of Staten Island, New York, pointed to “the increasing influence of Protestant evangelicalism, political egalitarianism, and the rising cult of practicality as the new criteria for assessing our private and public worlds.” Hofstadter “accused religion, politics, and the public schools of fostering in common people a resentment and suspicion of intellect, of the life of the mind, and of those who devote their lives to it.”
One of my close college chums is a respected high school biology teacher, now retired. Allen M. Rolnick received the Presidential Award from Long Island University in Recognition of Outstanding Contributions to Science Education; the New York Biology Teachers’ Association (NYBTA) Award for Outstanding Teaching, Dedication and Service; and the Science Council of New York City (SCONYC) Award for Outstanding Contributions to Science Education. He says: “In the 1960s and earlier in the century, science was dominated by physics—math on steroids. It got us jet planes and to the moon. We can see jet planes and, although some don’t believe men have actually been on the moon, most Americans do.
“The current era of science is dominated by biology and biology is tricky. We cannot see many of the things which biologists talk about and much of it is dominated by statistics—math—and it’s hard. Few have taken a course in statistics and even fewer really understand it.
“Blame the twenty-four-hour news cycle. People want answers. They want answers now! When a scientist is asked a question, the answer is qualified with statistics. Who can trust a person who will not give a direct answer to a direct question?”
This makes a lot of sense to me. It clearly explains the bizarre scare that linked vaccinations with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) only a few years ago. Some people, including elected government officials—which should come as no surprise—tenaciously hang onto this questionable belief.
In fact, the entire flap is the result of a fraudulent 1998 research paper by former gastroenterologist and medical researcher Andrew Jeremy Wakefield, who insisted there was a link between the administration of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, and the appearance of autism and other diseases. Sadly, Wakefield’s study led to a decline in vaccination rates in the U.S., U.K., and Ireland, and a corresponding rise in measles and mumps, resulting in illness and deaths. Wakefield’s continued warnings against the vaccine have contributed to a distrust of all vaccines and the reemergence of previously controlled diseases.
From a 2013 “Journal of Pediatrics” article: after exhaustive testing it was concluded that “it can be argued that ASD with regression, in which children usually lose developmental skills during the second year of life, could be related to exposures in infancy, including vaccines; however, we found no association between exposure to antigens from vaccines during infancy and the development of ASD with regression.”
A 2014 article in “SciBytes” by Ryan Hopkins references a 2012 survey by the National Science Foundation. In the survey “15 percent don’t believe in the efficacy or safety of vaccines ... 25 percent of American respondents also believed that the sun orbits the Earth ... as many as four in ten American adults doubt evolution ... over half aren’t confident that the Big Bang took place ... and just under 40 percent doubt that pollution is causing climate change.” Yikes!
Speaking of climate change, Rolnick adds: “Global climate change often interferes with the cherished social beliefs of small-government believers. Global climate change, the concept of, must be destroyed because its solution calls into question an important underpinning of their belief in social philosophy: individualism, man as the controller of his destiny. So, too, evolution, the concept of, must be destroyed because it calls into question an important underpinning of the interpretation of their holy writ.
“Fundamentalist Bible-believers and fundamentalist small-government believers both use the same tactics: out-of-context quotes, misuse of statistics, etc. But if global climate change is not really happening, why do climate science deniers have to resort to chicanery?”
Rolnick recommends that everyone use the “bullshit test” to evaluate concepts. If someone tries to convince you of something, look at how much bullshit you think is being used to support the position, then ask, “If what you say is true, why do you have to resort to alternative facts?”
There may be valid arguments for denying that global warming is human-induced, but we don't get that information because it would involve real science. Instead, counter-claimers toss out simple objections like “it’s all a hoax, invented by the Chinese!”
What concerns and baffles me is that we Americans appear to have elected a new government administration that promised to double-down on the criminalization of science and is quickly attempting to make good on that promise.
Sam Bellotto Jr.