In the first installment of this series, I looked at the real dangers to scientific integrity and scientific progress presented by junk science, quackery and Luddism promoted and practiced by the cultural and political Left, including the use of bad science in product liability lawsuits and the Left’s attacks on vaccination, nuclear power and genetically engineered crops.
In this second part, we look at politicized science and the temptations of power. Part II is posted in its entirety at The New Ledger but my site won’t support a single post that long.
III. Polticized Science
Many of the worst kinds of junk science and quackery are to be found when science is used to advance political agendas. The corrupting influence of money has nothing on the corrupting influence of political power. And contrary to what the Left may wish you to believe, the espousal of left-wing causes that advocate the expansion of such power is not an ennobling but a corrupting influence on scientific integrity. As I will discuss below, the current controversy involving climate researchers – the “Climategate” scandal triggered by the release of emails by the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in Great Britian – vividly illustrates this.
There are at two main hazards presented when science is marshalled in political argument. One, politicians may take scientific data gathered in good faith and misrepresent, overstate or suppress it – witness John Kerry overstating the growth of carbon emissions by a factor of 32 for a recent example that didn’t stand up to even mininal scrutiny. And two, scientists themselves may become willing pawns in the circulation of bad science for political ends. Recent history shows that the agenda of greater government control of society pushed by the Democrats and others on the Left has often been abetted by bad science.
A. The Politics of Stem Cell Research
The most notorious recent example of politicians running far ahead of any scientific basis for their claims, of course, came from Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, who in the course of a diatribe about the miraculous promise of embryonic stem cell research, declared in October 2004, the day after the death of actor Christopher Reeve:
If we do the work that we can do in this country, the work that we will do when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.
Nancy Pelosi likewise claimed that embryonic stem cells had “the biblical power to cure,” and Ron Reagan told the 2004 Democratic Convention, “How’d you like to have your own personal biological repair kit standing by at the hospital? Sound like magic? Welcome to the future of medicine.” Of course, no such thing was or is imminent:
In January 2003, a science writer for the New York Times admitted: “For all the handwringing by scientists, you might think that therapeutic cloning is on the verge of curing a disease or two. . . . Almost all researchers, when questioned, confess that such accomplishments are more dream than reality.”
But Edwards and Pelosi had elections to win. And scientists who should have known better went along for the ride:
In the summer before the 2004 presidential election, Ron McKay, from the National Institutes of Health, admitted that he and his fellow scientists had generally failed to correct the media’s false reports about the promise of stem cells – but that was all right, he told the Washington Post, since ordinary people “need a fairy tale.” They require, he said, “a story line that’s relatively simple to understand.”
In fact, the hot story in embryonic stem cell research in the middle years of the Bush Administration was a South Korean researcher, Woo Suk Hwang, looking at the use of stem cells for spinal cord research who claimed to have implanted cloned human stem cells in a cloned dog – results that turned out to be fraudulent. And proponents of embryonic stem cell research had fallen for it:
For all the major scientific journals, embryonic research had become what Robert P. George and Eric Cohen would call “a litmus test for being pro-science and the central front in the alleged war of scientific reason against religious barbarians.” Science magazine had fast-tracked Hwang’s work to let America know the cost of President Bush’s refusal to fund embryonic stem-cell research. Scientific American published a mea culpa for all scientific journals, and it is, George and Cohen pointed out, “remarkable for both its honesty and remorse: ‘Hwang is guilty of raising false expectations, but too many of us held the ladder for him.'”
This would not be the last time scientists made themselves willing pawns of the Left at the expense of their integrity.