Science Is Politics

When I received my PhD in elementary particle physics from UCLA in 1963, numerous opportunities presented themselves. I decided to take an offer from the University of Hawaii to join the faculty as a tenure-track assistant professor. I was able to avoid the two or three years as a postdoc that most fresh graduates in physics were required to do even then before taking up faculty positions. But those positions were far more numerous then than now, at least in the physical sciences and engineering.

Now, this was not just because I was so brilliant. Almost everyone with a background similar to mine had no trouble finding decent employment in universities or research institutions. This was because America had just survived a tremendous scare. Prior to World War II, the US lagged far behind Germany and other European countries in basic science. As far as we knew at the time, Hitler might have developed a nuclear bomb before we did. If that had happened, we would be all speaking German and world would be controlled by a racist dictatorship.

Fortunately, many great European scientists, most but not all of them Jewish, fled to the US or Britain and joined with the handful of exceptional American scientists such as Oppenheimer and Feynman to develop the first nuclear bomb, which quickly ended the war.

As a result, after World War II the US government realized that fundamental research, especially in physics, was an absolute necessity for national survival. This was brought home even more emphatically when the Soviets exploded their first bomb long before we expected them to, thanks to their spies at Los Alamos. And then there was Sputnik, which was a great blow to our confidence in American superiority.

So, when I joined the faculty in Hawaii my colleagues and I were able to set up a small research group in elementary particle physics funded by the Atomic Energy Commission. Eventually that funding was taken over by the Department of Energy, which still supported basic research even when it had no immediate military or technological applications.

However, it's worth mentioning that this is the 25th anniversary of the invention of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, the premier laboratory for elementary particle physics research.

The Hawaii group continued to expand to where it is today, a major participant in elementary particle research. During my 37 years in the group, I collaborated on many important experiments that eventually led to the standard model of elementary particles. I retired from Hawaii in 2000 after playing a small role in an experiment in Japan that in 1998 provided the first evidence that the neutrino has mass.

In short, I spent my career during an unprecedented time when scientists had rewarding, enjoyable lives doing interesting work and did not have to worry too much about the rest of the world. In particular, they could choose to stay out of the nasty disputes that were beginning to develop among other elements of society, in particular, in religion and politics. Most scientists today still hope things can stay that way. But that's a forlorn hope.

In a book titled Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America (Rodale, 2011) Shawn Lawrence Otto provides many examples of attacks on science that are now occurring, especially in America, from both the Conservative Right and the Academic Left. The Academic Left is that part of academia, mostly found in the humanities, that claims science is just one more cultural narrative, no better than any other. But, like most university professors, those promoting this notion have little influence these days.

The Conservative Right is far more powerful and damaging. Otto describes the strategy used to undermine science in the interest of those industries where science has pointed out the dangers of their products to individuals and human life in general. Basically these industries have developed a technique that was first used a generation ago by the tobacco industry to deny that smoking was the cause of cancer and other deadly diseases.

First they manufacture uncertainty by raising doubts about even the most indisputable scientific evidence. Then they launder information by using seemingly independent front organizations to promote their desired message and thereby confuse the public. And finally they recruit unscrupulous scientific spokespeople to misrepresent peer-reviewed scientific findings and cherry-pick facts in an attempt to persuade the media and the public that there is still serious debate among scientists on the issue at hand.

While the tobacco effort was unsuccessful, fundamentalist Christian groups wishing to repudiate evolution and fossil fuel industries trying to prevent any controls on their foul emissions have adopted this method. Between 1999 and 2010 the energy industry spent more than $2 billion fighting climate change legislation using these tools and others equally reprehensible.

The strategy, according to Otto, is designed to erode the primacy of knowledge and provide cover to elected officials so that they can favor rich interests while dismissing the science as "controversial" and "not proven."  They don't even have to move public opinion to accept their position as reasonable; only to believe the issues are not settled even when they really are.

The way climate scientists have been publicly vilified in recent years should be a wake-up call to all scientists. In a Washington Post op-ed on December 9, 2009, Sarah Palin wrote: "The emails [of one English climate scientist, Phil Jones] reveal that leading climate 'experts' deliberately destroyed records, manipulated data to 'hide the decline' in global temperatures, and tried to silence their critics by preventing them from publishing in peer-reviewed journals."

In the infamous email, Jones had referred to using a "trick" to "hide the decline." This was poor wording, to be sure. However, the email was not referring to the global temperature data but rather to a decline in the close correlation between tree-ring density and temperature after about 1950, making the tree-ring data since then unreliable.

Jones and his colleagues were investigated independently by the University of Pennsylvania, an international panel set up by the Royal Society, the US EPA, and the UK House of Commons.  All four found that all of Palin's charges were false and Jones was completely exonerated. But, still, the climate-change deniers had their "Climategate."

Republican Senator James Inhofe had in the past been ridiculed for proclaiming "global warming is a hoax." Now he claims he's vindicated. In an action reminiscent of another senator from the 1950s named McCarthy, Inhofe publicly named eighteen climate scientists he wants investigated by the US Justice Department for possible prosecution for scientific fraud. As a result, the scientists have received hundreds of attack emails, including death threats, accusing them of falsifying science for political purposes. Who will be next? Physicists talking about the "God particle"? Cosmologists talking about an uncreated, eternal multiverse?

Around 1965, I had a brilliant graduate student working with me in Hawaii named Norm Rogers. Rather than finishing up his PhD, he quit the university and served two years as director of operations for Zero Population Growth under Paul Ehrlich. In 1980 he founded Rabbitt Semiconductor and did all right for himself. Now he is a policy advisor to the Heartland Institute and the author of many articles denying anthropocentric global warming.

In 2011, an editorial in Nature said of the Heartland Institute:

Despite criticizing climate scientists for being overconfident about their data, models and theories, the Heartland Institute proclaims a conspicuous confidence in single studies and grand interpretations. . .makes many bold assertions that are often questionable or misleading. . . Many climate sceptics seem to review scientific data and studies not as scientists but as attorneys, magnifying doubts and treating incomplete explanations as falsehoods rather than signs of progress towards the truth. . .The Heartland Institute and its ilk are not trying to build a theory of anything. They have set the bar much lower, and are happy muddying the waters.

Roger's latest contribution, on the American Thinker website, is called "The Corruption of Science." In it he says: "Scientific advice is contaminated by political considerations aimed at protecting the interests of science and scientists. . . A common corrupt path to scientific success is to discover and over promote a new danger; perhaps something that causes cancer, hurts children, or poisons the environment. The scientists who discover and over promote the new danger become heroes and get more grants and more money."

I strongly disagree with my old student Norm. He can provide no examples of how science, as a whole, is corrupted by political considerations. While you can always find a few isolated cases of scientists faking data, these are very rare. The scientific method is designed to make it virtually impossible for scientists to cheat. Every important claim is always examined by other experts who have no stake in the claim and are perfectly happy, even delighted, to shoot it down if they can. Furthermore, any significant result will always be tested independently. Any that fails to be replicated is dismissed.

And where are all these scientists who have gained great wealth from over promoting dangers? Name one, Norm.

In his article, Rogers repeats one of the common climate-denial mantras: "Global warming actually stopped 15 years ago." As the figure shows, there was a big bump temperature in 1998. Using that as a base, you might conclude that there has been no change since then. However, instead of choosing 1998, you could have chosen 1999 or 2000. In that case, you might conclude that the temperature had increased by 0.2°C since 1999.


Obviously, to be scientifically honest you have to look at the whole picture. If you do, you will see an indisputable temperature rise during the twentieth century with an occasional short flat period that is fully compatible with our understanding of climate change. We can make a prediction that in the next few years we will see the resumption of an increase in temperature. So, we can await the testing of this prediction.

The problem, Norm, is that science is not political enough. Scientists need to start paying more attention to politics -- not to promote themselves and protect parochial interests, but to promote the truth. My generation of scientists was coddled. The current crop is not, but they still seem to think that they will continue to get support from politicians and the public. They need to get their heads out of the sand.

Certainly scientists must do a better job in communicating science to the public in a way that's understandable and not full of equations and other technicalities. Otto makes a good suggestion that instead of scientists trying to explain complicated concepts to the public they should focus on the scientific process. Show people how science works as a means for gaining knowledge that is valuable to them. Explain how they use the scientific method themselves in everyday life when they observe the world around them and try to understand it rationally. All science does is make that process very precise and provide the means by which claims can be tested and verified -- or falsified.

However, this strategy is not likely to be effective in the fights already engaged: global warming, population control, pollution, water conservation, and so on. Hurrah to Neil de Grasse Tyson for showing the historical roots of these antiscience movements in his new Cosmos series. We need more like him.

Scientists must become part of the political process and run for office. At a time when science bears on many of the world's problems, we have a Congress full of lawyers who are trained not to get at the truth but to defeat their opponent at any cost -- including the truth. As Otto points out, science is unavoidably political. Science is knowledge. Knowledge is power. Power is politics. So, science is politics.