Monday, June 19, 2006
What ho! In February the Union of Concerned Scientists released a paper denouncing the Bush administration for its general hostility toward the scientific method, citing government manipulation of research into "climate change, forest management, lead and mercury contamination, and a host of other issues." Visionary-in-residence Bruce Sterling warns that unless America can reverse its descent into Lysenkoism, we might as well bend over and kiss our competitive advantage goodbye:
State-sponsored pseudoscience always fails, but slowly, like a wheat field choked with weeds. (This is a particularly apt comparison, because Lysenko claimed that the weeds infesting Soviet wheat fields had evolved from the wheat itself.) It fails in predictable ways, and these are the very ways in which the Bush science policy is going to fail.
The rot begins to set in when honest local institutions, appalled by high-level misdeeds, denounce federal policy as corrupt and corrupting, just as the UCS has done. There will be much more of this: congressional investigations, high-minded committees. Government officials will temporize by getting scientists to "compromise" and "split the difference" between actual science and partisan jiggery-pokery. This will fail because science just isn't politics. You can't legislate that E=mc2 1/2.
Before long, the damage will spread beyond our borders. International scientific bodies will treat American scientists as pariahs. This process has already begun in bioethics, meteorology, agriculture, nuclear science, and medicine, but doubts will spread to "American science" generally. (In Lysenko's heyday, when scientists abroad came across a halfway-decent Soviet scientist, they would charitably offer to publish his books offshore, then maybe help him defect to someplace where he could get serious work done.)
Meanwhile, gaps will open between research establishments in the US and other countries, much like the one that now yawns between American and Korean stem-cell producers. US science will come to have a stodgy, old-fashioned, commissar-style inability to think and act freely. Yankee initiative and ingenuity will bow to bulging pie-in-the-sky superprojects like unproven antimissile systems, hot-air broadband initiatives, and swashbuckling moon shots.