Political “Science”

Winter 2011-2012

From Brenau Window Winter 2011-2012 issue. Click image to see all issues.

Brenau’s Honor Code requires students and faculty to embrace truth. The university supports and enforces the honest pursuit of educational studies and respectful behavior towards others. When they graduate, Brenau alumni take honor code experience with them in life. It occurs to me that Brenau people could be outstanding role models and examples for those in our society who should have spent more time in their lives developing an appreciation for honor and truth. Dr. Ed Schrader

Why do I bring this up now? Here’s a news flash for you at the beginning of the 2012 election year: Politicians sometime manufacture issues to get the public’s attention. They base their positions on these issues on gross exaggerations, deceptions or outright lies. In the past, those issues usually went away once ballots were counted. Unfortunately, in today’s polarized political and media environment, some of these fake issues stick and, frighteningly, shape policy. As a result, the fake issues-makers actually manufacture some real problems.

As a scientist (the “hard science” kind, not the political kind), it drives me a little nuts that many of these fake issues appear to be giving momentum to an escalating war on science. The anti-science politicians have also reactivated some old prejudices that science somehow undermines one’s religious faith. Aside from violating any honor code I know, this runs against the grain of our work at Brenau to purposefully and aggressively step up science education and honest inquiry and research, like the extremely successful undergraduate study of endangered plants that you read about in a previous issue of this magazine. Science plays a central role in our understanding of the formation and sustainability of the earth and all living things. The ultimate sacrilege is misleading the public with provably untrue “interpretations” of basic science to legitimize questionable political or social positions.

I blame the media, of course – not for its lack of objectivity, but its lack of subjectivity, its absolute failure to dig for verifiable truth, like true scientists do. A recent published report noted that about only one percent of the articles in all unbiased, peer-reviewed scientific journals in the past 10 years raised any doubts about the existence of climate change whereas more than 50 percent of the media reports did. That is happening because, to create the illusion of an unbiased reporting of news, when there is not enough science to support a logical debate on issues and facts, the media turns to unverifiable and inaccurate “opinions,” mostly from people who cannot spell science.

In a new book, The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America, University of Pennsylvania professor and adviser to three presidents Jonathan D. Moreno writes that the alternative to science-based “experimental confirmation is, in a word, dogma. Dogmatic statements may have many fine qualities. They may be beautiful, inspirational, and convey a kind of wisdom, or at least the impression of wisdom. But they can never be verifiable and self-correcting in the manner of science.”

It is galling to me, too, that we are at a point in history when we should be using science to study real problems and develop real responses instead of wasting time and resources haggling over fake issues created to frighten the public. Half a century ago the science-based space program led to an unprecedented explosion of discovery that not only put man on the moon but also made human life on earth healthier and more productive. Today, because of “political science,” we’re thumbing rides on rockets from Russia. In the 1980s American scientists pioneered miraculous fetal surgery techniques and instruments; today we rank 25 th in the world in infant mortality. Because the politicians and pundits have no real grasp of science, we’re forced into debates over whether “climate change,” which has been around for millions of years, even exists; we cannot even begin the tougher undertaking of determining what we must do to address the impact of the interaction of human society and its byproducts with the scientific phenomena. We now fight legislative battles over textbooks with “alternate theories” to solid discoveries in paleontology, geology and genetics. Recently, even seemingly benign efforts to get kids to learn healthy nutrition have drawn political lightning.

We are smarter than that, aren’t we? The university must redouble its efforts to remain a bulwark against those who would play politics with basic truths that just happen to include the survival of the planet and the health and safety of human beings. Our world faces many serious problems. However, one of the most valuable tools with which our Creator endowed us, the power of science, can help us solve them. We cannot abandon that gift – or abdicate our responsibility for using it – to cable news pundits.

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