Evolving Thoughts

When the Republicans began their deconstruction of American democracy, under Newt Gingrich, one of the immediate targets was the emasculation of the Office of Technology Assessment. Since that time, the Republicans have mangled, misused and rhetorically denied any science that failed to fit their self-interests or those of their sponsors, as Chris Mooney detailed in his magisterial The Republican War on Science.

There’s an old saying – you are entitled to your opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts. If there is nobody telling American legislators what the facts are, they seem happy to make them up. After all, by the time all hell breaks loose (for Nature will not be mocked or ignored), they will probably not be in office or power and have to fix it up. And their kids won’t be the ones who suffer from their stupidity, you can be assured of that.

Mark Hoofnagle, at denialism blog, and Pharyngula (by some guy whose name escapes me right now) have suggested that what the Democrat Congress ought to be doing right now is revitalising the OTA, so that the idiots can’t claim their own facts when formulating policy. I would go one further, and say that the legislation ought to specify a fixed percentage of the annual budget to fund the OTA, rather than holding it hostage to political fortunes (yes, even by Democrats) every year. It is a vital function of science in government, and should never again be demolished like this, with the drastic consequences we have seen since.

For that matter, being Australian I cannot fathom a politicised civil service either, but baby steps. We can bring America into the democratic community of nations if we try.

Comments

  1. #1 Aaron Clausen
    September 14, 2007

    Sadly, Canada is taking some steps back in this regard. Since the Conservatives took power a couple of years ago, they basically made it very clear that government scientists are to vet all public statements with their political masters, and that not asking permission will lead to nasty consequences.

    This policy (which probably has always existed in one form or another, but never so blatantly) was formulated specifically to combat the increasingly urgent evidence regarding global warming. The Conservatives, with their political base dominated by oil-producing Alberta, clearly does not want unpopular statements like “burning fossil fuels is having serious and even now observable effects on our climate” coming from government scientists.

    Of course, pictures of missing arctic ice and polar bears being forced to swim, and actually showing signs of being a species being severely effected by climate change, pretty much have mooted the Conservatives attempt at reality control.

    Some things you can lie about forever (racism, nationalism, chocolate vs. vanilla), but when you try to lie about things that people can look out their windows and see, eventually you’re going to get found out. Katrina, the series of massive storms that hit the Pacific Northwest last winter, shrinking polar ice, species under stress, water shortages for farmers, all of these things are clear and visible.

    The sad part is that Bush and like-minded politicians elsewhere have delayed reaction through the spreading of falsehoods, and in some cases, the outright slandering and misrepresentation of climatologists. How many more centuries of the damage of political expediency will it take before the common man and woman finally figure it out.

  2. #2 Ahcuah
    September 14, 2007

    John wrote:

    When the Republicans began their deconstruction of American democracy, . . .

    You misspelled “destruction.”

  3. #3 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    September 14, 2007

    First off, don’t bother with the name of the writer of pharyngula. Nobody can spell it, anyway, not even his own students.

    Secondl, I think it is time for some of the more enlightened countries to invade the United States, overthrow our dictator and try to impose a democracy. I volunteer to be an insurgent for real democracy.

    Thirdly, I want my OTA.

  4. #4 Caledonian
    September 14, 2007

    How many more centuries of the damage of political expediency will it take before the common man and woman finally figure it out.

    It’s remained the same throughout human history, and almost certainly all of our simian prehistory. I wouldn’t hold your breath.

    And what’s with this ‘common man’ stuff? The elites haven’t actually grasped it either.

  5. #5 John Wilkins
    September 14, 2007

    There are similar moves here in Australia, particularly with respect to global warming, but the interesting thing is that independent science advisory panels, and the general tradition here of that sort of thing, means that it hasn’t played out nearly as much as it has in North America.

    But even so, the conservatives haven’t ratified Kyoto for economic reasons. But it’s clear that the reasons are economic, not pseudoscientific.

  6. #6 Chris' Wills
    September 15, 2007

    And what’s with this ‘common man’ stuff? The elites haven’t actually grasped it either.
    Posted by: Caledonian

    Hey I agree with Caledonian, I need a drink :o)

    I’ld even suggest that as our political masters and the self styled “elites” (pop/film stars, news anchors etc) know the Truth about everything they really aren’t interested in democracy.

    In the UK this political control and politicalisation has been going on for a while and has reached great heights/depths under Labour (a nominally socialist party akin to Democrats) both within the civil service and scientific departments.

    The truth isn’t for the hoi polloi.

  7. #7 Ian H Spedding FCD
    September 15, 2007

    Colour me cynical but I doubt that civil servants were ever the knights in shining pinstripe of legend. Political control of the civil service may have been less obvious in past generations simply because both servant and master tended to come from the same social backgrounds and shared similar broad political perspectives, but it was there nonetheless.

    As for attempts to muzzle government scientists and keep them “on message”, a politician’s job is the proverbial herding of cats, trying to accommodate the many competing and often conflicting interests of society, trying to keep everyone happy – especially those who have the power to put them in office. The job of a scientist is easy by comparison. They just have to discover, describe and explain the way the Universe works as accurately as possible, regardless of consequences.

    Politicians want power in the sense of being able to bend society to their will. Scientists seek the truth. Politicians are afraid of scientists because deep down they know that, once out, truth is the most irresistible power in society.

    Ultimately, if global warming is, as the evidence suggests, the result of short-sighted human activities, then those purblind politicians who have pretended otherwise will – if their enemies are smart enough – pay the price for their wilful ignorance.

  8. #8 Caledonian
    September 15, 2007

    The politicians who did the lying won’t be around to face the consequences, and the politicians at the time will surely find a way to blame scientists for the problems that humanity has created with the tools science has given it.

  9. #9 Thony C.
    September 15, 2007

    to blame scientists for the problems that humanity has created with the tools science has given it.

    The last time I looked scientists were part of humanity.

  10. #10 Iorwerth Thomas
    September 16, 2007

    “The last time I looked scientists were part of humanity.”

    Actually, I’m an alien infiltrator pretending to be a solid state physicist. But don’t tell anyone.

  11. #11 Thony C.
    September 16, 2007

    Actually, I’m an alien infiltrator pretending to be a solid state physicist. But don’t tell anyone.

    The Men in Black will be visiting you soon.

  12. #12 Iorwerth Thomas
    September 16, 2007

    “The Men in Black will be visiting you soon.”

    Ah, good. I needed a light snack…

  13. #13 Silver
    September 16, 2007

    I would have said that this has been a problem in Australia as well. The CSIRO is a shadow of its former self, and many of the ‘scientific’ advisory panels the government has set up have been blatantly biased to give the outcome the government wants to hear. The last round of grants was also a farce, with some research proposals obviously defunded because they disagreed with the government stance. I’m thinking in particular of the ANU solar energy project. I know a lot of the staff there.

  14. #14 Caledonian
    September 19, 2007

    This is only to be expected. The ultimate control on the power of government is the people – and the people simply don’t care what the government does. Soon enough no one will even bother trying to silence inconvenient points of view, because no one will care what’s said anyway.

  15. #15 Aaron Clausen
    September 20, 2007

    This is only to be expected. The ultimate control on the power of government is the people – and the people simply don’t care what the government does. Soon enough no one will even bother trying to silence inconvenient points of view, because no one will care what’s said anyway.

    I think this is a rather awkward and faulty view of the relationship between government and people. Governments, directly or via proxies, have a great deal of power to influence people.

    Global warming is a rather good example. For what are fundementally economic reasons, an entire field of science has seen probably the most active campaign to discredit it since Creationism first really began to gear up to take on evolutionary biology. Whether it’s direct government intervention (ie. silencing and censorship of government scientists) or via proxies (ie. the oil industry and conservative commentators), the point of the entire exercise is to raise an unreasonable level of doubt. The ability to influence the masses, and thus put forward policies that may in fact be detrimental to them, is a rather old and effective ability of the state.

    Of course, the problem with climate change denial is that eventually the problem becomes so obvious and severe that all the well-paid industry shills in the world won’t help. We’re watching the Northwest Passage opening up, and the sounds coming from the anti-climate change community is sounding hollower and hollower. Reality doesn’t obey the dictates of political advisors and energy giants.