Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy

That’s the title of Dennis Overbye’s NY Times essay on what it means to restore science to its rightful place.*   He begins by sharing how he too wept tears of joy at the words of President Barack Hussein Obama (reference to the NY Times article Scientists Welcome Obama’s Words)Question:  If you’re a member of the scientific community, did you likewise become teary eyed (or even weep) at the words of our new President on your own (or with your colleagues)?  If so, why?  If you’re outside of the scientific community, what was your reaction (and those of your colleagues)?

Does it come from the anticipated ability to properly address:

[i]ssues like stem cells, climate change, sex education and contraceptives, [which] the Bush administration sought to tame and, in some cases, suppress the findings of many of the government’s scientific agencies.  Besides discouraging scientific pronouncements that contradicted administration policies, officials insisted on tight control over even routine functions of key agencies.  In early 2004, more than 60 influential scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, issued a statement claiming that the Bush administration had systematically distorted scientific fact in the service of policy goals on the environment, health, biomedical research and nuclear weaponry. — from Scientists Welcome Obama’s Words by Gardiner Harris & William J. Broad in NY Times, January 22, 2009.

Or for the benefits given by the research, findings, applications of science, which is not given highest priority by Overbye.

Or was it for reasons similar to those given by Dennis Overbye, who sees science On a Pedestal with it’s twin democracy, more basic to human progress than religious claims.  Watch out China ;-)  **

Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues. This behavior simply evolved because it worked.

It requires no metaphysical commitment to a God or any conception of human origin or nature to join in this game, just the hypothesis that nature can be interrogated and that nature is the final arbiter. Jews, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists and Hindus have all been working side by side building the Large Hadron Collider and its detectors these last few years.

And indeed there is no leader, no grand plan, for this hive. It is in many ways utopian anarchy, a virtual community that lives as much on the Internet and in airport coffee shops as in any one place or time. Or at least it is as utopian as any community largely dependent on government and corporate financing can be.

Arguably science is the most successful human activity of all time. Which is not to say that life within it is always utopian, as several of my colleagues have pointed out in articles about pharmaceutical industry payments to medical researchers. — Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy by Dennis Overbye in NY Times, January 27, 2009.

*In case you’re not familiar with Overbye as a science writer, he’s an alum of M.I.T. (B.S., Physics) with the beginning of a master’s degree in astronomy from U.C.L.A.  Overbye has spent most of his career writing about science.
**Keep in mind the definition of science offered in comment 4 of What is the ‘Rightful Place’ of Science?Science is the careful human study of the observable world.  It is one of the ways open to us to learn what God has done.  It can be pursued humbly and passionately in service to God.

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Tom Grosh IV

Enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa, four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he hosts the Christian Scholar Series), on campus as part of InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministry (serving fellowships such as the Christian Medical Society/CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine), online as the Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network, in the culture at large, and in God's creation.

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  • jbw7@comcast.net'
    Joe Whitchurch commented on January 27, 2009 Reply

    I’m not a scientist but am a a friend of several and a friend of aspiring ones as well. I am aware of none who wept in my presence or spoke of such.

    That said, it does not surprise me that 60 scientists and Nobel laureates could be found who oppose nuclear weapons, support a view of health care that includes permissive abortion and human embryonic stem cell farming, and wish we’d signed the kyoto protocol who would sign a university approval gaining letter against the science of an unpopular President who seemed sympathetic to intelligent design.

    If one believes the former President was possessed of some sort of religious, anti-rational Satan, that they might be weeping over the new nationalizing of everything, especially if increased departmental research funding is involved.

  • tobingrant@gmail.com'
    JTG commented on January 28, 2009 Reply

    Imagine devoting your entire life to a career whose primary purpose is to figure something out. You go to college and grad school for nearly a decade, just to get a job where if you don’t start showing that you can figure this thing out better than everyone else, then you’re canned. Everyone has access to the same information, and eveyrone is trying to figure out the same question faster than everyone else.

    Now, imagine that despite all the work that you and hundreds of your colleagues have done, the government ignores, distorts, or suppresses what you’ve found.

    There is more than one way to deal with scientific results, but they need to be addressed with respect. They’re not authorities on policy. They don’t need to be obeyed. Instead, we should treat the scientific community as we would the CIA or other intellegence–tell us what the situation is (including what you do and do not know) and let the elected officials decide what to do with it.

    That’s restoring science to its rightful place.

  • demunyan@gmail.com'
    Dan Munyan commented on January 28, 2009 Reply

    As a geologist by training, technologist by vocation, and historian by study, I feel we just can’t allow the new high priests of science to create their own religion that is tax-payer funded and without any controls.

    Science is amoral by definition, so we shouldn’t assume that it can exist in society without a moral framework. I am not the first to point out that science can serve evil or good, and has a history of doing both…keeping in mind that evil pays better.

    The most advanced scientific society in history in the most educated country in the world gave us the Nazi’s, with their own directed scientific studies to eliminate congenital deformity and strengthen the genome. The Soviets had huge government funded scientific programs that either started from false assumptions (parallel human evolution), or were directed at completely irrational goals (growing corn throughout central Asia by draining the Ural Sea). Our own nation has an amoral scientific history that includes the syphilis experiments at the Tuskegee Institute, designing cigarettes to enhance addiction, and many other misdirected efforts.

    The real danger is not from national leaders that hold back scientific studies until they match the pace of society. The danger is when science for its own sake becomes a religion, for in a globalized world, the Jinn can never be put back in the bottle, nor Pandora’s box ever closed. Both the legends of the Jinn and Pandora are perfect examples from our ancient collective memory of human will unleashing the human mind without reference to the questions of right and wrong.

    The scientific study and experimentation with embryonic stem cells has resulted in nothing but suffering – witness the increased symptoms from Parkinson’s patients “treated” with the first embryonic stem cell results. Adult stem cell research on the other hand, has already resulted in a number of effective treatments and cures – but that barely makes the news. We would be wise to remember that the ancients were no less intelligent than humans today – for human evolution has not moved one iota since at least the last ice age. Their evil calculus that assumed their novel human actions would change the fertility of the earth or themselves, give them eternal life, or make them unbeatable in battle – all at the cost of animal and human sacrifice.

    The ancients would look on us today with familiarity at the animal holocaust we have caused in the last 150 years, mostly for our beauty products and treatments to hold off the inevitability of death. The Aztecs, Canaanites, and Druids would see our embryonic stem cell work, trading babies’ lives for eternal human life as quite reasonable.

    Science NEEDS a moral leash, for it is like a precocious child. By definition it is wrong FAR more than it is right, for science is the search for truth, not truth itself, and there are an infinite number of “answers” that are wrong but supportable, and usually only one, strictly limited right answer.

    Today’s assured results that lead government policy require only one peer-reviewed study refuting the results to cast all of the previous conclusions onto the dung heap. Scientists are never held to account for wrong interpretations, and in fact the first scientific voice on Global Warming was the leading voice on Global Cooling just 30 odd years ago. Ten straight years of global cooling from a high in 1998 are not enough to derail the government-sponsored freight train that is the anthropomorphic climate change religion.

    The development of five successful treatments with adult stems cells since 2001 AND the demonstrated ability in 2007 to turn regular human cells INTO stem cells are still not enough to end funding for embryonic stem cell research that has requires the destruction of human embryos. The scientific challenges of getting anything from embryonic stem cell research have proven to be insurmountable despite billions spent around the world, when there is a working alternative in place now.

    Science needs moral direction, clear-headed priorities from OUTSIDE the scientific community, and a very tight leash – which means controls on the money allocated and clear requirements/expectations of results. Holding scientists responsible for the accuracy of their results and getting them off of the public dais that makes policy and decides budgets would be a really good start.

  • tobingrant@gmail.com'
    JTG commented on January 28, 2009 Reply

    “Leash”? What does that mean? Regulate science more? How?

    I disagree that science is amoral. I disagree completely. It may not have moral answers for everything, but it does have morals. Overbye does a good job lsiting them:

    “Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view.”

    I agree that future research could overturn our current udnerstanding, but so what? Here are two options (and let me know if there are others):

    1. Science may be overturned, so ignore them. They’re not authoritative and more likelyt to be wrong than right.

    2. Science may not be right, but smart people with good ideas and methods have studied an issue. We need to take their views into account. And if they find our they’re wrong, we’ll take the new evidence into account.

    Ideologies are always cosistent. Science isn’t. Consistency is going to be wrong more often. I’ll take science.

  • Tom Grosh commented on January 29, 2009 Reply

    Thank-you to Alan W. Rice, retired Professor of Engineering, Grove City College, who passed along the material below for posting as a comment. I have another book on my ‘to read shelf.’ Has anyone read “Science for Sale: The Perils, Rewards, and Delusions of Campus Capitalism”?

    Hi, Tom –
    In the quotations on your post, Dennis Overbye seems to idealize scientists as unfallen humans primarily in pursuit of Truth, and not of their own fame or fortune, and he states that scientists became possessed of all the virtues and generosity needed to participate constructively in the scientific enterprise by an evolutionary pragmatism without the help of God. Yet serious historians observe that modern science did not develop among the philosophers of ancient Greece, nor in the advanced Islamic civilizations of the Baghdad caliphate or the Ottoman Turks, but in the Christian civilization of western Europe, and they link it to the enduring theological conviction that the Creator is a rational being.

    As to Overbye’s apparent view that the community of scientists pursue no agendas in their research proposals and results, the following book review, posted by David W. Opderbeck at Amazon.com, points to a contrary assessment by the book’s author, Daniel S. Greenberg. — Alan
    “Science for Sale: The Perils, Rewards, and Delusions of Campus Capitalism”
    by Daniel S. Greenberg
    Edition: Hardcover
    Price: $16.50

    2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
    “Good Anecdotes, Few Proposals, July 9, 2008”
    S. Greenberg is a seasoned science journalist who has been reporting on research and industrial science for over forty years. In Science for Sale, Greenberg explores the web of relationships among academic science, private industry, and government.

    A primary strength of Greenberg’s approach to this question is his journalist’s ability to tell colorful stories, often based on personal interviews with key players, which elucidate both individual personalities and big questions. For example, Greenberg has Drummond Rennie, an activist and editor of prestigious medical journals, explain a key problem in scientific publishing: “‘What we’re talking about . . . is the influence of money on research that my journal and other journals publish. The distorting influence of it. And this distorting influence is huge.'” This sort of first-hand testimony – and there is much of it in this book – is a powerful indictment of the supposed Mertonian neutrality of academic-industrial-government science.

    The primary strength of Greenberg’s book, alas, is also a major weakness. Very often, the book reads like a string of tedious, unending anecdotes and quotations lacking a cohesive vision for reform – which is a fair description of the book as a whole. In a very brief concluding section on “Fixing the System,” Greenberg suggests “transparency” is the key to reform, but he never explains what this might mean. In a major omission, he does not examine at all whether “open access” publishing models might help push things towards greater transparency. Moreover, his dismissal of the Bayh-Dole Act and other legal developments that have encouraged universities to privatize their research through patent protection is so cursory that it flies by almost unnoticed. Yet the tension between “open” and “property” models of scientific research surely is both a driver and a symptom of the problems Greenberg exposes in his anecdotes and interviews.

    On the whole, Science for Sale contains some useful source material for those who are interested in the sociology and business of institutional science in an age of money. It also will open the eyes of those who naively assert the neutrality of the scientific establishment. It does not, however, provide any meaningful proposals for reform. – review by David W. Opderbeck

  • lhynard@livejournal.com'
    Lhynard commented on February 3, 2009 Reply

    Rather than posting an enormous comment here, I responded to Overbye at my own blog:


    (Apologies to fellow Grover, Dr. Alan Rice, whose comment I did not see before posting. We say some of the same things.)

  • mikehickerson@gmail.com'
    Micheal Hickerson commented on February 3, 2009 Reply

    Thanks for posting the link – I appreciated what you wrote. It’s interesting that on our blog, we’ve mostly focused on the “elevating science” part of Overbye’s opinion piece, but you’re right about the danger in elevating democracy, as well.

    My own observation about the values that Oberbye attributes to science is that these values are valuable in many walks of life and many fields of study, and hardly derive from a particular academic discipline or group of disciplines.

    Further, if Overbye truly intends to say that “this [virtuous] behavior simply evolved,” then it must have evolved long before the rise of modern science, and therefore have little or nothing to do with the scientific project.

  • lhynard@livejournal.com'
    Lhynard commented on February 6, 2009 Reply

    Thanks for reading it.

    Yes, you are correct that they do not belong solely to science, nor is their “evolution” a recent thing.

    It’s as if scienct is a religion for these people.

  • amywung@gmail.com'
    Amy commented on February 12, 2009 Reply

    What an odd essay. It’s interesting that he describes his view of science as “utopian.” I would have used the same word, with the intention of pointing out his impossibly idealistic view of science as an open community of honesty and free-flowing ideas. Maybe I’m just become cynical in my late grad school years, but that doesn’t seem to be realistic as the norm for the scientific community.

    And his words seem to really be glorifying the mechanism of observing the world. He completely leaves out the awe and wonder of the actual world which is being observed. If I were to get teary eyed about science, it is because it points to so much majesty and complexity in the world we live in. It is not because of some odd pride in my ability to be super-rational.

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