Friday, January 18, 2008

The Politicization and Tyranny of Science

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. . . . The attitude of Western society towards science is intensely contradictory. In the absence of political vision and direction, society continually hides behind scientific authority - but at the same time it does not quite believe that science has the answers, and it worries about the potential rotten fruits of scientific discovery.

Yet whatever misgivings people have about science, its authority is unrivalled in the current period. The formidable influence of scientific authority can be seen in the way that environmentalists now rely on science to back up their arguments. Not long ago, in the 1970s and 80s, leading environmentalists insisted that science was undemocratic, that it was responsible for many of the problems facing the planet. Now, in public at least, their hostility towards science has given way to their embrace and endorsement of science. Today, the environmental lobby depends on the legitimation provided by scientific evidence and expertise. In their public performances, environmentalists frequently use the science in a dogmatic fashion. ‘The scientists have spoken’, says one British-based campaign group, in an updated version of the religious phrase: ‘This is the Word of the Lord.’ ‘This is what the science says we must do’, many greens claim, before adding that the debate about global warming is ‘finished’. This week, David King, the former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, caused a stink by criticising extreme green ‘Luddites’ who are ‘hurting’ the environmentalist cause. Yet when science is politicised, as it has been under the likes of King, who once claimed that ‘the science shows’ that global warming is a bigger threat than terrorism, then it can quite quickly and inexorably be converted into dogma, superstition and prejudice (1). It is the broader politicisation of science that nurtures today’s dogmatic green outlook.

Today, religion and political ideologies no longer inspire significant sections of the public. Politicians find it difficult to justify their work and outlook in the vocabulary of morality. In the Anglo-American world, officials now promote policies on the grounds that they are ‘evidence based’ rather than because they are ‘right’ or ‘good’. In policymaking circles, the language of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ has been displaced by the phrase: ‘The research shows…’

Moral judgments are often edged out even from the most sensitive areas of life. For example, experts use the language of medicine rather than morality to tell young teenagers that having sex is not so much ‘bad’ as bad for their emotional health. So pervasive is the crisis of belief and morality that even religious institutions are affected by it. Fundamentalists no longer simply rely on Biblical texts to affirm their belief in the Creation; today, the invention of ‘creation science’ by Christian fundamentalists in the US is symptomatic of the trend to supplement traditional belief with scientific authority. [Snip] [Spiked]

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