Sunday, July 26, 2009

Moral Fashions and the Corruption of Science

I asked John A. for his last name in order to properly credit this commentary, but he commented that he keeps his “surname off the Internet." He went on to say, “Just link to my blog, Things I Don’t Understand, and people will know who I am.”

John apparently is a history buff and categorizes himself as a “classical liberal”. Those among us who are history buffs will find that statement insightful. For those who aren’t, I have linked the history of “Classical Liberalism”. It isn’t what you think. I have also linked a number of names and events that may not be commonly known to most people in order to give everyone the true flavor of what John is saying. I would also like to thank him for allowing me to reprint what originally was an e-mail that appeared in the blog Greenie Watch. RK


The history of science is rife with examples of political, social and moral fashions which not simply influence, but pervert the scientific method and corrupt the conduct of scientists. Einstein faced off the political and moral fashions of Nazism and eugenics but plenty of his colleagues happily incorporated those twin systems into their own research. Eugenics also laid the foundations for the moral crusade against alcohol in early 20th Century America which was again a supposedly scientific assessment delivered as a moral panic which must be addressed immediately lest America fall into a deep pit of moral degeneration.

The example of Trofim Lysenko and the political outlawing of Mendelian genetics in Stalinist Russia is a particularly scary example of a political fashion given to be a moral and political imperative by a dangerously unstable man who became President of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The parallels with the modern global warming scare are obvious.

Another example would be neo-Malthusianism as popularized in the 20th Century repeatedly by Paul Erlich first in the 1960s and more recently by the scarily named "Optimum Population Trust" (and here)which includes such luminaries as Sir David Attenborough calling for mandatory limits on family size to prevent near future overpopulation and mass starvation. Once again, a supposed scientific analysis is communicated as a moral imperative.

John Holdren,now President Obama's Climate Czar, co-wrote several books with Paul Erlich in the 1970s at least one of which argued for forced abortions, forced adoptions of illegitimate children or from mothers "who contribute to general social deterioration by overproducing children" and the introduction of chemicals into water and food that rendered people sterile. All of this to forestall a crisis of overpopulation by the year 2000!

Carl Sagan, Erlich and others began and propagated the Nuclear Winter story of the 1980s, together with scary scenarios about likely darkening of the skies due to dust from burning cities rising into the stratosphere and blocking out the Sun. All with the aid of computer models with extremely rubbery parameters and dubious simplifications. A moral imperative against nuclear weapons? You betcha. Even Richard Feynman, iconoclast as he was, while averring that the underlying theory was nonsense, could not raise his voice too loud lest people think he was in favour of nuclear proliferation. Moral panics do that to the best of scientists.

There are lots more examples, but you get the idea. These scientific fashions all in their own time held great sway in academia and mainstream media. They divided scientists into those who were credible and those who were so morally and intellectually corrupt as to actually oppose these ideas.

Modern environmentalism has most, if not all of the above ideas incorporated into the unholy fusion of science and Marxist political theory now called "ecology", but is really a manifestation of what David Henderson memorably called "Global Salvationism".

The most interesting thing about all of this is that I, as a classical liberal, can find common cause with people from a wide spectrum of political and philosophical beliefs that the lessons of history are that moral fashions in science are endemic, cyclical and a constant menace to the real business of scientists to understand how the Universe works.

Scientists don't live in a fashion-free vacuum. They dress themselves in the fashions of the day, read the latest scare stories of the day, follow the latest celebrity soap operas of the day and most of all abide by rules to not upset the funding apple-cart from which their work is done, whatever their personal and moral qualms, at least until retirement.

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