Hitting the nail square on the head

5 02 2007

Over at the LA Times there’s an excellent op-ed piece by Chris Mooney (of The Republican War on Science fame) and Alan Sokal discussing the sad state of science in the United States today. The article is a quick introduction to the changes occurring in the relationship between science and government, but perhaps the most important point Mooney and Sokal make is about the idea of “equal time” for crackpot claims about global warming, evolution, AIDS-denial, etc. in various media outlets. They write

…attacks on science by ideologues and special interests have a long history in this country. A stance of postmodernist relativism — or, on the part of the media, of giving “equal time” to unequally substantiated viewpoints — weakens us in the face of such strategic campaigns to undercut well-established knowledge.

How many people really invest the requisite time and money to look at data about evolution or climate change themselves? As far as evolution goes at least, there are lots of people I’ve run into who get their impression of evolution from ID/creationist sources (which, of course, paint an unflattering picture of evolution) and while the readers may have heard of Dawkins, Gould, Mayr, Wilson, Darwin, etc. they have never actually read the source material that gets quote-mined in books put out by the Disco Institute/AiG/etc. This is where periodicals play a part as well, as looking at recent magazines and news articles you would think that science is essentially becoming unhinged, pitting university against university. Scientists disagree about plenty of things, but the facts of evolution and global climate change remain unanimous, the only dissent coming almost entirely from a vocal minority with special ideological or financial interests to protect. News outlets shouldn’t be so quick to print criticism because controversy sells, but rather take a more ethical stance and filter through claims before publishing them. I am in no way suggesting that any criticism of scientific consensus should be quieted (how else are we ever to progress?), but as a writer from the New York Times suggested during the panel discussion after the showing of the film Flock of Dodos, not all criticism is equal.

The best part of the article is the conclusion, with Mooney and Sokal stating

journalists and citizens must renounce a lazy “on the one hand, on the other hand” approach and start analyzing critically the quality of the evidence. For, in the end, all of us — conservative or liberal, believer or atheist — must share the same real world. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria do not spare deniers of evolution, and global climate change will not spare any of us. As physicist Richard Feynman wrote in connection with the space shuttle Challenger disaster, “nature cannot be fooled.”

This holds especially true in the face of climate change. Regardless of political affiliation, belief system, nationality, opinion, etc. man-made climate change is real and to ignore it would be absolute folly. When someone argues that it isn’t important or isn’t real, I can’t simply say “Well, that’s your view and you’re entitled to it.” No, being indulgent of such beliefs won’t do anything to spur change, and just because you can put climate change, evolution, or any other controversial topic out of your mind does not mean that nature is going to be forgiving when it comes time to answer for the damage we’ve done to this planet. My wife has an excellent discourse on this subject over at her blog from a Biblical perspective, stating that Christians should be the most environmentally concerned people of all. Indeed, regardless of whether we are “creatures of accident” or we were created for a purpose by a divine being, this planet is our only home and we would do well to take care of it. If we are the mere products of random chance, how much more miraculous and treasured does everything in nature become. If we are the products of divine will, then we indeed have a mission to be good stewards of what we are provided. Either way, we should renounce our ignorant consumerism in the name of progress and start trying to live with the planet instead of raging against it in a war that we will surely lose. Like any gamble, the house always win, and sooner or later we’ll be called out to pay our debts.

(Hat tip to Pharyngula for the story)


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