The Stars and Stripes Down to Earth (posted for Daniel Davies by HF)

by Henry on March 27, 2006

Chris Mooney’s book, “The Republican War on Science” seems to me a very American book. It’s not that Europe is bereft of “sound science” hacks trying to influence the process by which regulations are made, or even of our own brand of home-grown irrationalists of one kind or another. However, America does seem to have a hell of a lot of them, and they seem to pick battlegrounds (like creation science, to take the clearest example) which suggest that the purpose of a lot of the Republican War on Science is not so much to push an alternative pseudo-scientific agenda for political and economic gain, but rather to knock scientists off their pedestal for the sake of doing so.

Because I’m not really familiar with the ins and outs of American regulatory politics which are the meat of TRWOS, I thought I’d pursue this line of thinking a bit further. What I mean to suggest is that to a certain extent Chris has got the causation wrong in his underlying analysis of the Republican War on Science. In other words, it’s not so much a case of vested interests wanting to tear down good science in order to replace it with bad science that supports economically convenient conclusions, as a case of the hack science being generated in order to fill a vacuum created by an original desire at the heart of right wing politics to bring down good science for the sake of doing so.

I think that this causal story fits the facts at least as well as the more obvious one and perhaps even a bit better. After all, there is a clear economic interest in trying to ensure that rare species are miscounted or that the impact of pollution is underestimated; there’s no need for any other explanation there. But there is rather less obvious economic interest in trying to deny the facts about global warming, still less in pretending that DDT (a commodity chemical) is a panacea for malaria and as far as I can see none at all in “intelligent design”. Intelligent design isn’t even a particularly congenial theory for fundamentalist Christians to be pushing, as it appears to me to be inconsistent with the literal truth of the Book of Genesis, which was surely the only point in opposing the teaching of evolution in the first place.

So if there’s a unifying reason behind all these different phenomena (and it is surely the thesis of TRWOS that there is), then I don’t think it can be narrow self-interest. I think it’s something more like the “authoritarian irrationalism” that Theodor Adorno identified in books like The Stars Down To Earth, and that, in its guise of anti-intellectualism, De Tocqueville identified before that as being particularly common in American public life. I realise that Adorno’s theory is right out of fashion these days, but it’s always appealed to me and I think it has decent explanatory power over this phenomenon.

There is a particular kind of irrationalism, Adorno identified, which is characteristic of authoritarian politics (and therefore also, I hardly need to say, of the kind of authoritarian politics which these days calls itself “libertarian” but never saw a pro-business law it didn’t like). It’s rooted in status insecurity and a consequent distrust of ambiguity. Adorno’s book carried out an analysis of the astrology columns in the Los Angeles Times, demonstrating how their underlying theme was always the same; they encouraged the readers to believe that there was an underlying order to the world, that following simple rules was always the right thing to do, and that behaving in the “right” fashion would always have the right results. The readers of the astrology column probably didn’t believe that the stars controlled their destiny, but by pretending that they did, they were able to reduce the stress caused by the fact that whatever controlled the readers of the astrology column’s lives, they themselves didn’t.

This is the root of authoritarian irrationalism; for people who are status-insecure (which Adorno argues is the root of authoritarian politics; he notes that second-generation immigrants systematically score much higher for right-wing politics than other groups), the fact that the real world is a complicated, ambiguous and uncertain place creates intolerable stress, and the defensive reaction to this stress is a retreat to somewhere safer and more predictable; a world in which the unpleasant facts of the matter are simply denied and their occasional intrusions explained away as being most likely the result of some shadowy conspiracy.

And when you look at the Republican War on Science through this sort of a lens, it makes a bunch of sense. It is intolerably stressful for technological process to be both good for the economy and bad for the environment. Or for science (which is good) to contradict religion (which is also good). Or for the companies that create the modern world to be also selling us dangerous products. So, the “science” that shows that all of these things are happening has to be denied and rejected. Thus, a world of “sound science” is created, and real science is portrayed as a conspiracy of ideologically motivated men. I think that Mooney is correct to identify “sound science” as a creation of the PR industry, but the PR industry can’t create something unless it has some basic desires to work with. If the audience for “sound science” was thinking at all, nobody would be fooled, so we do need a theory of why it is that they aren’t thinking, and I think that Adorno’s is quite convincing. Or in other words, it makes no sense for scientists to tear their hair out about the state of science politics and blame it on “the low quality of scientific journalism”. There is no other kind of scientific journalism possible. It’s certainly not realistic to hope for popular acceptance of confidence intervals, the tentative nature of scientific theories and the differing standards of proof and certainty, because this is just more of the ambiguity that has already been judged intolerable by a large chunk of the American polity in much more diluted form. The underlying problem is one of political psychology and it’s not going away.

Which leaves two questions; could there be a “Democratic War on Science”, and is this purely an American phenomenon?

I think that the answer to the first is yes there could. There are authoritarians on the political left of the spectrum as well as the right, and I can’t help but notice that it is in the American university system that quite sensible French theories of literary criticism have been given a specifically irrationalist interpretation that was never really there in the originals. But I think that the answer to the second is also yes it is. There is a lot of anti-science thinking in Europe (and I’m sure there is in Asia too, but I don’t know much about it), but it has a much less specifically irrationalist cast to it, using the term in Adorno’s sense. It is probably irrational (in the everyday language sense) of Europeans to be so implacably opposed to genetically modified food, but their opposition is not in general cast in “irrationalist” terms; it’s based on “despite what the science says, I don’t believe it” rather than “the science cannot possibly be saying that because I don’t want to believe it”. And I don’t think that this is a coincidence; authoritarian politics in general are these days much less common in Europe than in America. I don’t know why the politics of status insecurity are more common in the last remaining great world power, or why they have got more rather than less influential since the end of the Cold War, but I suggest that this is the root of the troubled relationship between American politics and American science, and that because of this, the Republican War on Science is likely to get worse rather than better.

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{ 73 comments }

1

abb1 03.27.06 at 3:42 pm

Nah, psycho-babble is nonsense. It’s all based on financial interest; every bit of it is coming out of various industry-financed think tanks, effectively distributed, neatly phrased, poll-tested, equipped with talking points and FAQs. Routine PR operation.

2

Charlie Murtaugh 03.27.06 at 4:20 pm

Great post, I really think you’re on to something.

3

Slocum 03.27.06 at 4:49 pm

Intelligent design isn’t even a particularly congenial theory for fundamentalist Christians to be pushing, as it appears to me to be inconsistent with the literal truth of the Book of Genesis, which was surely the only point in opposing the teaching of evolution in the first place.

That’s a basic misunderstanding of the ID proponents in two respects, I think. ID proponents are not trying to prevent the teaching of evolution but rather are trying to get ID into the mix. And the point is to generate a sense of uncertainty and doubt that will create space for creationist beliefs of various kinds (young earth, old earth, ‘guided evolution’ — whatever). If that came to pass (though given the Dover case, it won’t), the children of creationists won’t learn in school that their religious beliefs are flat wrong but rather that (ID proponents hope) things are uncertain, nobody knows for sure, evolution is by no means proved, etc, etc.

and therefore also, I hardly need to say, of the kind of authoritarian politics which these days calls itself “libertarian” but never saw a pro-business law it didn’t like

Now that is just beyond bizarre. I know that libertarians come in for particular approbrium on CT because they are much harder to dismiss as uneducated, knuckle-dragging yokels, but libertarians as proponents of “authoritarian politics”? No pro-business laws that libertarians don’t like? How about copyright extentions, the DMCA, and the use of eminent domain to advance private development interests to name three obvious examples off the top of my head? And then, of course, more broadly, is a very strange sort of ‘authoritarian politics’ that would like to see a smaller government that gets out of the business of exercizing authority over private behaviors with respect to sex, marriage, and drugs.

I think it’s something more like the “authoritarian irrationalism”

And I think the term you’re really looking for is “anti-authoritarian irrationalism” — that is, a stubborn, toe-kicking refusal to accept the pronouncements and direction of credentialed elite authorities (very much including scientists). The IDers have also picked up ideas from the pomo-left (e.g. there is no scientific ‘truth’ there is only the self-interested exercise of power). So–according to this view–ID papers aren’t accepted into mainstream journals not because the science is unsound but because the mandarins in charge are closing ranks and protecting their turf. And scientists are pro-Kyoto for lefty political reasons as much as scientific reasons. I would say “anti-authoritarian” is a much more apt description of this attitude.

authoritarian politics in general are these days much less common in Europe than in America.

When David Duke comes in 2nd in a presidential election (as Le Pen did in France) get back to us.

4

Michael Dietz 03.27.06 at 5:10 pm

I think what we’re seeing here is a somewhat accidental but very powerful convergence of interests: on the one hand, the economic self-interest of corporations whose profits (or even, in some cases, continued existence) are threatened by indepenedent scientific research; on the other, the political interests of a coalition of right-wing authoritarians, centered on Christian fundamentalists, for whom the authority and prestige of science is a chief cultural enemy. The long corporate war against the environmental sciences (broadly speaking: I think of the epidemiology that exposed the tobacco-cancer link as a kind of environmental science) predates the post-Vietnam Culture War, and was ready with techniques (forms of PR obfuscation, kept “scientists,” etc.) and funding networks when the latter began to emerge in the Reagan Eighties.

In other words, this is a question both of financial interest and of political psychology.

What we have here is an instance of a classically fascist alliance between big capital on the one hand and a party of cultural authoritarians on the other. How long can the alliance thrive? For the corporations, after all, this is a tricky thing to manage: a full-scale assault on scientific rationalism would ultimately compromise the technical basis for corporate growth in general. The problem is in keeping just enough of the populace just agitated enough, and against just the right (or wrong) kinds of science, for the environmental pirates to continue extracting their profits: a foredoomed enterprise, as we’re already seeing. The fundies, playing for the long-range goal of replacing the church of science with the Church tout court, don’t have those sorts of contradictions to worry about.

5

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.27.06 at 5:25 pm

“It is probably irrational (in the everyday language sense) of Europeans to be so implacably opposed to genetically modified food, but their opposition is not in general cast in “irrationalist” terms; it’s based on “despite what the science says, I don’t believe it” rather than “the science cannot possibly be saying that because I don’t want to believe it”.”

I don’t understand the distinction you are trying to draw here. The first suggests that something is wrong with science because it comes to a conclusion the speaker doesn’t like while the second suggests the same.

6

Mike D 03.27.06 at 5:28 pm

Slocum, I think you’re confusing anti-authoritarianism – opposition to authoritarian policies – with anti-elitist populism. Hating experts is about hating elites, rather than being opposed to authoritarian laws.

7

Slocum 03.27.06 at 6:01 pm

Slocum, I think you’re confusing anti-authoritarianism – opposition to authoritarian policies – with anti-elitist populism. Hating experts is about hating elites, rather than being opposed to authoritarian laws.

I don’t think so. Creationists are opposed not just to scientific elitism but particularly to central authorities (operating in a partnership with those scientific elites) exercising control over school curricula (they want local control). Their opponents want federal legal authority to overrule local control (as it has–the Dover case is final nail).

But the tendency to try to wield centralized authority when possible and resist it otherwise is seen on both left and right in the U.S. and both tendencies fluctuate depending on circumstances. Of course, the authoritarian tendencies differ as to goals — the right tend to be authoritarian with respect to personal morality and laissez-faire with respect to economics while the left tends toward the reverse. Libertarians (Henry’s ‘authoritarian’ betes noire) are laissez-faire across the board (sex, drugs, and free-trade).

8

armando 03.27.06 at 6:15 pm

I don’t understand the distinction you are trying to draw here. The first suggests that something is wrong with science because it comes to a conclusion the speaker doesn’t like while the second suggests the same.

Science doesn’t decide issues, it gives you information on which to make judgements. You can deny the validity of the information, or you can come to a judgement that doesn’t rely on the supplied information.

It may be true that fruit is better for me than a hamburger, but I might have a hamburger anyway. Having said that, there is a difference between having the hamburger because I have decided it is healthier than fruit, or having the hamburger because of personal preference.

This is relevant to the GM debate, since that is as much (probably more) about economics as about science.

9

ogmb 03.27.06 at 8:05 pm

Which leaves two questions; could there be a “Democratic War on Science”, and is this purely an American phenomenon?

I think that the answer to the first is yes there could. There are authoritarians on the political left of the spectrum as well as the right

Can you cite examples where Democratic politicians try to participate in or benefit from staging a left-wing anti-scientific crusade? We shouldn’t be too lazy to distinguish between “left” and “right” as general ideological labels and “Democratic” and “Republican” as specific political platforms.

10

Matt Weiner 03.27.06 at 8:54 pm

Creationists are opposed not just to scientific elitism but particularly to central authorities (operating in a partnership with those scientific elites) exercising control over school curricula (they want local control).

Do you think creationists would object to a federal law that required that any school district receiving federal money teach ID as an alternative to evolution?

11

Thomas 03.27.06 at 8:58 pm

Matt, I expect that many creationists would. See, for example, the widespread conservative opposition to NCLB, precisely because of a fear of centralization, and despite attempts to avoid the opposition by avoiding true national standards.

12

jasmindad 03.27.06 at 9:44 pm

Can you cite examples where Democratic politicians try to participate in or benefit from staging a left-wing anti-scientific crusade?

How about any study of group and gender differences being a priori racist/sexist? That is, ruling out explanations of certain observed inequalities as at least partly due to such group or gender differences. My point is not that these are settled explanations, but that the very attempt so stufy them or look for them would be dismissed as politically unacceptable.

13

Barry 03.27.06 at 10:09 pm

DD: “I don’t know why the politics of status insecurity are more common in the last remaining great world power, or why they have got more rather than less influential since the end of the Cold War,…”

One reason would be the greater economic uncertainty and risk experienced by the middle class since then (actually, since 1973, but deprived of the Evul Commie to blame).

14

Matt Weiner 03.27.06 at 11:27 pm

Thomas, were those conservatives necessarily creationists? In any case, an alternate explanation is that the conservatives don’t want to fight a battle on a ground on which they’ll lose. Lynne Cheney (a conservative, I have no reason to think she’s a creationist) favored national standards so long as they were being drawn up by her ideological compatriots.

Unfortunately, ID proponents as a group are so intellectually dishonest that if they were to say, up front, that decentralization was their main concern, we wouldn’t have any reason to believe them.

15

Thomas 03.28.06 at 12:19 am

Matt, the question of whether the conservatives who oppose mandatory national standards are creationists isn’t an easy one–there aren’t any easy markers for “creationism” in politics, but, given the political realities, I’m guessing that that creationists are over-represented within that group of conservatives. (Those opposed to national standards tend to be from the social conservative wing of the party (business leaders and other Main Street types tend to support national standards), and tend to be from states that are disproportionately “creationist”.)

The opposition to mandatory national standards in education isn’t narrowly focused. The Cheney effort was an effort to create voluntary national standards, not mandatory standards. The effort fell apart not because Cheney favored national standards only when drawn up by fellow conservatives, but because the history standards were condemned by a vote of the US Senate 99-1 (with the one vote opposed to the condemnation in favor of stronger words). Opposition to federal control over curricular decisions is long-standing and is actually enacted into law. (The US Code has for more than a generation contained the following provision: “No provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system, or over the selection of library resources, textbooks, or other printed or published instructional materials by any educational institution or school system, or to require the assignment or transportation of students or teachers in order to overcome racial imbalance.”)

16

ogmb 03.28.06 at 12:54 am

How about any study of group and gender differences being a priori racist/sexist?

I don’t think you understood my point. Is there any Democrat-sponsored legislation that outlaws studies of group and gender differences? I have no problems with the idea of left-wing antiscientific stances. I just don’t see how they are being milked for political purposes by the Democrats as ID is being milked by Republican politicians.

17

Matt McIrvin 03.28.06 at 1:12 am

Can you cite examples where Democratic politicians try to participate in or benefit from staging a left-wing anti-scientific crusade?

There’s Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s insistence, on the basis of studies done by quackish alternative-therapy promoters, that mercury in childhood vaccines is a primary cause of autism and that the CDC is conspiring with Big Pharma to suppress the fact.

Granted, it’s not an exclusively left-wing crusade. As Orac has pointed out, this one is really non- or bipartisan, with both liberals and conservatives pushing it; but I know that on the liberal side the claim has a sort of anti-corporate cachet.

18

Barbar 03.28.06 at 1:32 am

Yeah, the RFK Jr. thing is the best example I can think of. Anti-corporatism has some political appeal. The gender differences stuff, not so much. Some of Summers’ biggest critics actually *do research on gender differences* (unlike, say, Summers) so accusing them of refusing to treat the subject as open to investigation is a bit rich.

19

Jonathan Goldberg 03.28.06 at 3:29 am

” I don’t know why the politics of status insecurity are more common in the last remaining great world power”

A combination of increasing economic insecurity, manifested in things like higher income variance and outsourcing (hardly unrelated) and no safety net? Ideological opposition to the idea of a safety net, combined with the fear that it won’t be there when needed? For further details see e.g. Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling.

20

fred 03.28.06 at 4:37 am

daniel davies says:
I can’t help but notice that it is in the American university system that quite sensible French theories of literary criticism have been given a specifically irrationalist interpretation that was never really there in the originals.

What “sensible French theories” do you have in mind? I’m drawing a blank here.

21

abb1 03.28.06 at 4:38 am

…on the one hand, the economic self-interest of corporations [...] on the other, the political interests of a coalition of right-wing authoritarians…

C’mon, what ‘right-wing authoritarians’ – this is America. Right-wing authoritarians are also businessmen or their PR agents; your ‘on one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’ are one and the same.

Pat Robertson.

22

soru 03.28.06 at 4:55 am

“the science cannot possibly be saying that because I don’t want to believe it”.

One UK issue where the attitude taken seems to match that pattern is the use of animal testing for medical research. Many, maybe most, campaigners against such testing flat out deny there is any trade-off or moral issue involved, they would say testing is not only immoral but also, conveniently, completely useless.

Is that a political issue in the states at all? What do politicians have to say about it?

23

James Wimberley 03.28.06 at 5:16 am

The GM analogy is weak. First, that dispute isn’t about science – GM opponents don’t reject the underlying biological knowledge of genes and chromosomes and DNA, genetic determinism if you like – as about its use in technology. The same holds for opponents of nuclear power. (I’m not in either camp as it happens). Isn’t it reasonable to fear the consequences of complex and powerful new technologies introduced into poorly understood ecosystems and societies, in the hands of people whose strong interest is to minimise or conceal the risks? I do agree that sometimes this shades into paranoia (“Terminator seeds will starve millions in the Third World”), and the implication that doing nothing is risk-free is simply untrue, but the converse position of cheering on Monsanto doesn’t make any more sense.
It boils down to trust rather than knowledge. Is the optimum strategy for an averagely educated and busy citizen, faced with complicated sets of facts and theories and dispute among self-declared experts, is probably not to mug over science journalism. In the iterated Prisoners’ Dilemma, the best rule is simply tit-for-tat. Trust once, then if you find out you’ve been lied to, never trust again. Falsus in unum, falsus in omnia. That roughtly speaking is what happened to the nuclear industry.

24

Scott Martens 03.28.06 at 5:21 am

I agree that there could well be a “democratic war on science”, but I think it’s more present in Europe than the States. I think that the reason anti-scientific claims are presented differently in Europe than the US has a different origin: In the US, anti-scientific claims are closely tied to alternative sources of authority with well organised proponents, usually religion or some kind of spirituality. In Europe, no such alternative exists. Contempt for religious authority is very widespread in Europe, even among believers; in America it isn’t. Favouring an alternative source of authority is not especially democratic.

The status insecurity argument might come into play there: Go to church, pray regularly, trust in God and the American way, and everything will be okay. Or, be a good person, take St-John’s Wort, and feel spiritual, and you’ll have good karma. Or some vaguer kind of spiritual reassurance. There’s no simpler set of rules to be had than that. But there’s nothing democratic in believing that truth comes from the Bible or astrologers.

The “junk science” business is quite explicity undemocratic. It is a claim to higher scientific authority by claiming to be better scientists.

But I think that in so far as there’s a democratic war on science, there is no clearer example than the anti-GM movement in Europe. A public which, following Mad Cow, simply no longer trusts scientific authorities as currently constituted, decides that it can’t trust those same authorities when they say that the lastest new thing is perfecly safe. If there is a clearer appeal for democratic values to trump scientific claims to authority, I can’t see what it is.

25

Doormat 03.28.06 at 5:53 am

I think I agree with Scott and especially James here. However, some thoughts with regards GM. I am currently anti-GM, in that I am quite happy with the status quo in the UK. If and when a seed company wishes to introduce some GM technology which farmers want, which does actually increase bio-diversity, and which actually does improve the food, then I’ll be all for it. AFAIK, however, so far the companies have only tried to introduce varieties which are more resistance to their special pesticides, and which were shown by the official government tests to decrease biodiversity. I’ve also read that these pesticides are decreasing in usefulness in the US, because of increasing resistance. However, it could also be that the seed companies have simply given up on Europe at present, given the very wide-spread consumer dislike for GM.

However, my point is that while much of opposition to GM might be irrational (“frankenfoods” etc.) it does seem to be grounded in some very reasonable fears that, at least for the current generation, GM is going to benefit no-one but very large corporations. Scientists (and industry lobbyist types: sadly you’ll find that many of the “scientists” who actually get on radio and TV are rather less independent than we might hope) keep mentioning the possibility of GM really improving food, especially for the 3rd world. When pressed, however, they have to admit that this is on-going research, and actually no-one wants to commercially grow such varities in the UK anyway.

Opposition to nuclear power is more irrational, in that the safety record has been much improved. Again, however, the UK nuclear industry was very recently caught lying to Japan over safety issues, so there are valid issues of trust. I suspect a lot of environmental compaigners also see the incredible cost of nuclear (both now and on-going with storage issues) and ask if, with a limited pot of cash, we wouldn’t be better off with more decentralised, renewable systems.

So, I do think these sort of “anti-science” (or more really, “anti-technology”) views are rather different from ID teaching, denying human-caused climate change and so on. The use and/or abuse of science is far more subtle, and often, one can make a very good argument which uses the science correctly, but draws differing political/economic conclusions (although maybe the general public, or some of the more vocal looney elements don’t do this). I see no way that one can do this with ID; one could, maybe, do this with climate change, but it isn’t what most people are doing: they are denying the science.

26

Alex 03.28.06 at 6:08 am

Democratic war on science? I suppose it’s possible, but I think there’s a significant difference between a drive to deny the validity of biology, genetics, meteorology and, dammit, geology! and an intellectual movement primarily concerned with literary criticism.

It’s not as if our civilisation is threatened by global Leavis, peak Kristeva, Islamic 4th Generation Tynan terrorists or nuclear E.M. Forster.

27

abb1 03.28.06 at 6:13 am

The anti-gm/anti-nuclear sentiment is a very healthy and rational sentiment indeed. It is the manifestation of public understanding that financial interests will inevitably try to suppress and distort unfavorable information; assurances of safety can’t be trusted; the public wants more, it wants to be convinced before they start eating this stuff or living near nuclear reactor. It’s called: healthy scepticism.

28

Steve LaBonne 03.28.06 at 10:18 am

abb1, when it’s based on not trusting large corporations to implement technologies in a way that benefits anyone but themselves, I’m very sympathetic indeed. But I do get angry when anti-GM (not so much anti-nuclear) types pollute the intellectual atmosphere with pseudoscientific garbage that really doesn’t help their case. And there has been quie a bit of that, for example Rifkinite mystical bullshit about the evils of crossing (purely imaginary, since there’s plenty of horizontal gene transfer in the natural world) species “barriers”. That kind of stuff actually costs them potentially valuable support from the scientifically literate.

29

abb1 03.28.06 at 10:33 am

Fair enough. The sleep of reason breeds monsters, as they say.

30

SamChevre 03.28.06 at 10:36 am

Democratic war on science–things that come quickly to mind.

Opposition to studies of racial differences
Smoking bans
Opposition to nuclear power
Opposition to GM foods
Liability for mercury-preserved vaccines
Net cost of smoking to the government
Opposition to cost/benefit analyses of regulation

I agree in part with Henry’s thesis–after 50 years of seeing scientists mock them, and the courts impose the scientists’ preferred ideology on them, a large portion of the American public would like to see scientists’ authority in public discourse lessened; however, I think this is an incomplete explanation. The other side is after having their livelihoods devastated by “scientific” regulations (fishing, grazing, timber-cutting, mining, textile-making, tobacco-growing), a lot of people are convinced that the scientists are enemies.

31

Jonathan Goldberg 03.28.06 at 11:34 am

As a symptom of a democratic war on science, I take exception to :

“Opposition to cost/benefit analyses of regulation.”

The principle that costs should be less than benefits is a tautology. But, following the line of arguement used by Steve Labonne, above, I am at least very skeptical of the way it’s done in practice. There is a long history of regulations that would cost politically powerful corporations money having their benefits understated and their costs overestimated. In the real world, costs and benefits are often computed using assumptions rather than proven facts. I don’t trust the people choosing the assumptions.

I’ve seen this attitude taken to hysterical extremes. This sort of thing does not lend itself to non-trivial absolutes.

32

abb1 03.28.06 at 11:50 am

May I suggest the “Controversies over risks” section of wiki’s GM article. I think it’s rather obvious that the jury is still out on this and a reasonable person is entitled to have reasonable doubts.

And how does “smoking bans” amount to war on science? C’mon, man.

33

Drm 03.28.06 at 12:12 pm

abb1, I’ve read the wiki article you point to and I am familiar with several of the studies mentioned therein. On balance, it seems a quite strong endorsement of GM safety. Every GM product needs to be evaluated separately as the Pioneer experience shows. However, as a geneticist I have greater (albiet still slight) concerns about conventional plant breeding practices – especially with respect to introducing allergens, etc.

34

Steve LaBonne 03.28.06 at 12:19 pm

Yes, drm’s point is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. Introducing a well-characterized novel gene in a controlled fashion is if anything inherently safer than selecting novel traits by breeding (especially after random mutagenensis) without having any idea what else they might be linked to. Where there are believed to be good arguments against specific GM crops they should be made rationally without bullshitting and fear-mongering. (Never forget that the fundraising needs of advocacy groups also constitute an “interest”.) I was a grad student duing the incredibly stupid and non-productive recombinant DNA wars of the 70s so for me a lot of this is deja vu.

35

abb1 03.28.06 at 12:32 pm

I dunno, it seems to me the burden of proof should be on the gm proponents to convince the public that it’s safe.

36

Steve LaBonne 03.28.06 at 12:35 pm

Water isn’t safe- you can drown in it or drink so much you have a heart attack from potassium depletion. So one ought to phrase the demand a bit more thoughtfully than that…

37

Drm 03.28.06 at 12:55 pm

abb1: The point is that far more effort is made to prove safety of GM foods in situations where comparatively riskier conventional practices are given a pass. I don’t have a problem with that, but it is something to be aware of. For example, a large proportion of conventional breeding in crops is directed toward disease resistance. Typically, the genetic sources of disease resistance are crossed in from exotic wild relatives. Hundreds of other wild alleles come along for the ride. In the case of tomato for example some of the wild relatives are pretty nasty and highly toxic. Should you be worried? Not especially, but objectively the risk is greater.

38

Bruce Baugh 03.28.06 at 1:31 pm

Libertarian claims to ever be anti-corporatist founder on a simple test: faced with an overtly, flagrantly, thoroughly corporatist political regime, what steps are they willing to take to counter it? Even now, most (though not all) my libertarian friends and acquaintances insist that a Democratic alternative would be no better or even worse than the current Republican administration. They’re willing to shout and holler about this measure or that, but if the prospect of another Clinton-like muddled center-liberal administration is still worse than that, I don’t take the overall claim seriously.

As for GM food and a bunch of other issues, I take a simple stance on it right now – I oppose most changes now because there are too many business incentives to lie and the political apparatus of review and inspection has been gutted. If and when an administration comes to power that believes in honest supervision, then I’ll be willing to look at the situation again.

39

SamChevre 03.28.06 at 1:36 pm

Abb1,
You ask where smoking bans come into the war on science.

Here’s the basics:
It is indisputable that smoking is harmful to the smoker’s health.
It is probable that constant exposure to high levels of second-hand smoke (living with a chain-smoker) is somewhat harmful to health.
It is unlikely, given our knowledge of the body and the lack of studies, that occasional exposure to low levels of second-hand smoke (passing smokers at the entrance to the office, eating in a restaurant with a smoking section) has any harmful effect on health in most people (some people who have allergies/allergic asthma are affected).

Despite this, smoking bans outside offices and in restaurants are promoted as a public health measure.

40

JRoth 03.28.06 at 1:38 pm

Water isn’t safe- you can drown in it or drink so much you have a heart attack from potassium depletion.

Yes, Steve, and as I recall, we are all raised with a healthy fear of bodies of water. Do you propose lifeguards in the produce aisle? And I’ll set aside the likelihood of death from drinking – what is it? 2 gallons of water in an hour? – to create a critical potassium imbalance.

Two different things are being mischaracterized here: the logic/motives of anti-GMers and what a “Democratic war on science” would be (note the capitalization, people – the question is not whether demos might oppose science, but whether the Democratic Party in the USA might act, politically and legally, to harm the proper process of science).

No one has offered any concrete examples of actions by the national Democratic Party or its leaders – as opposed to individuals, elected or otherwise, who are Democrats – that constitute an attempt to subvert science qua science – to characterize scientists as a dishonest elite producing fraud. The weakness of samchevre’s list – none of those items is part of the Party platform, and most have little to do with science per se – is indicative, I think. Certainly, some policies generally favored by liberals and Democrats (overlapping, not equivalent, groups) run counter to the best available science. But that’s a far cry from attempting to attack science itself. One can come to a policy conclusion on the basis of concerns apart from scientific ones, and, if you’re not misconstruing the science to do so, that’s fair game.

On the GMO front, I would say some significant portion of the opposition to GMO is based on squishy, nonscientific feelings that are a big turnoff to Steve. Well, sorry, Steve, but pretty much any position held by more than 20% of any electorate will be held by hoi polloi, and they may not have come to their conclusions through the sophisticated analysis you’ve used. Do you reject all stances supported by the many?

Those who aren’t simply scared of “unnatural” Frankenfoods are basing it, in part, on a decently sophisticated understanding of science – see Doormat’s comments about biodiversity. You may not agree with them, but I think you’d be pretty unfair to characterize them as of a piece with ID or the Republican position on Global Warming. The other part of mistrust comes from mistrust about corporate motives, and I’d argue that equating the motives of nonprofits with those of for-profit corporations is the kind of dishonest misdirection that PR firms and Republicans have perfected in their actual – not theoretical – war on science. It is simply not honest to say that environmentalists who oppose, say, logging in a given area, are driven by the same motive (greed) as the logging companies. The enviros may well be wrong about the science, but not because being wrong is profitable.

41

Steve LaBonne 03.28.06 at 1:50 pm

Perhaps you might try rereading my comments and addressing them rather than your own strawmen.

42

abb1 03.28.06 at 1:50 pm

Sam, I’ve heard that it’s a health issue in respect to barmen and waitors; I’ve never heard that it’s a health measure for the people who eat in restaurants. To them it’s a nuisance issue.

There is no smoking ban where I live now and everyone I know – 95% no less – would like to have a ban. Isn’t this enough of a reason?

43

JRoth 03.28.06 at 2:07 pm

Touchy much, Steve? Although yours (and samchevre’s) were the only names mentioned, there were probably a dozen posts I was responding to.

I took your water comments as tongue in cheeck, and responded in kind. Sorry if you didn’t catch that.

I don’t think anything in the Democrat portion of the post had anything to do with you.

But I do get angry when anti-GM (not so much anti-nuclear) types pollute the intellectual atmosphere with pseudoscientific garbage that really doesn’t help their case. And there has been quie a bit of that, for example Rifkinite mystical bullshit about the evils of crossing (purely imaginary, since there’s plenty of horizontal gene transfer in the natural world) species “barriers”. That kind of stuff actually costs them potentially valuable support from the scientifically literate.

I’m not sure what you think is so subtle about your argument that my characterization of it is “stawman.” You get “angry” when the “intellectual atmosphere” gets “pollute[d]” by “pseudoscientific garbage,” and imply that it costs anti-GM types your “scientifically literate” support. Sounds to me like you refuse to look past the less-informed positions on one side of an argument to make a decision based on the better-informed positions. Or maybe you don’t. But that’s what you said you did – or that the scientifically literate do.

(Never forget that the fundraising needs of advocacy groups also constitute an “interest”.)

Here, perhaps I was a bit strident. But this really is identical to arguments continually put forth by corporate PR firms, as well as conservatives who argue that social workers earning $20k in inner cities are profiting from poverty. Yes, advocacy groups get strident for publicity and fundraising reasons. But the raison d’etre of advocacy groups is to advocate; fundraising is incidental. Whereas the raison d’etre of Monsanto, International Paper, and Westinghouse is to maximize profit. To equate the two is dishonest or hopelessly naive. I’m sorry if your intention was not to equate them, but I have trouble deriving another reading of your parenthetical.

44

Steve LaBonne 03.28.06 at 2:11 pm

Sounds like you still can’t bother to consider the plain sense of my words- if one feels there are good reasons why certain GM crops should be fought (and I by no means excluded the possibility that there may be- in my opinion they are more likely economic than safety-related), spouting pseudoscientific rubbish is in multiple ways a poor strategy for doing so. Do you agree or not?

45

SamChevre 03.28.06 at 2:34 pm

There is no smoking ban where I live now and everyone I know – 95% no less – would like to have a ban. Isn’t this enough of a reason?

I would argue that it isn’t–but that’s not a dispute about the science, but about political morality. Replace “smoking” with “homosexual activity” and you’ll be close to my reason for arguing that it isn’t–I own my body, what I do with it isn’t your business unless you’re harmed.

46

abb1 03.28.06 at 3:20 pm

But people normally aren’t allowed to engage in homosexual (pretty much any sexual) activity in public, in private places that is, such as restaurants, open to the general public. That’s just how this society is arranged, sorry.

47

Drm 03.28.06 at 4:13 pm

jroth: While I have somewhat greater sympathy for opponents of GM foods than proponents of ID, some of the methods for spreading disinformation are similar. The common strategy is to exploit the uncertainty inherent in any scientific result however small that may be. My favorite example is the Nature paper a few years back claiming to show that GM maize had contaminated traditional maize landraces in central Mexico. Their evidence was based on using a very sensitive method (PCR) at its extreme limit of detection, then reporting data that were later shown (predictably) to be spurious noise. They could easily have built a convincing case (if they were right) by making measurements within the appropriate range of sensitivity. Sample availability was not limiting. The authors diliberately chose not to. The Union of Concerned Scientists later used the same approach to “show” contamination of heritage seed sources in corn. Theirs at least was not peer-reviewed. These strategies amount to deliberate obfuscation disguised as science. The problem is glaring to anyone with experience in the relavent methods, but laymen and journalists are understandably misled. In this case, we still don’t know the correct result though I imagine a positive result would have been confirmed by now.

48

John Quiggin 03.28.06 at 5:38 pm

It’s clear which side the science is on regarding passive smoking, and it’s not the Republican side represented by Sam. The suggestion that passive smoking is harmless is implausible, since tobacco smoke contains numerous potent carcinogens. Epidemiological studies are difficult, because nearly everyone has been exposed, but meta-analysis supports the obvious prediction taht exposure increases cancer risk – the association is stronger when you throw out the studies financed by tobacco money. The scientific bodies that have examined the question (American Cancer Society, WHO) etc have all supported bans.

In fact, the passive smoking debate turns out to be the central front (at least in financial terms) of the War on Science. Phillip Morris and others have spent a fortune buying pundits like Milloy, scientists-for-sale like Singer and Seitz and setting up front groups to provide Sam’s talking points.

The fact that this can be cited as an example where Democrats are anti-science is a perfect illustration of the parallel universe inhabited by Republicans.

49

Brendan 03.28.06 at 6:29 pm

Sorry but my attention was drawn to the fact that it is apparently because of political correctness that ‘Democrats’ have an ‘opposition to studies of racial differences’. For a start I don’t even know what such studies might consist of. Race is (pardon the phrase but it’s true) a ‘social construct’. Are you perhaps suggesting that the (completely trivial and uninteresting) scientific fact that some people have darker skin than other people might be connected with IQ? Why? How? How about hair colour? Might that be connected? Or eye colour? Where are the studies claiming that people with green eyes have higher IQs than people with blue eyes? They don’t exist, because the whole idea is too preposterous to even study. What about hair? Are hairier people smarter than non-hairy people? Or the size of people’s feet? Is it because of PC that people don’t study this?

All I can say in my own limited experience is that people who evince an interest in so-called ‘racial differences’ are people who

a: believe in ‘race’ (whatever that word means)

and

b: have already made up their minds about the existence of such differences and then go about looking for evidence to ‘prove’ it.

50

Clark 03.28.06 at 6:49 pm

What about all those horrible anti-vaccine pseudo-science claims still being propounded by liberals like Robert Kennedy?

It seems to me like the Liberals and the Conservatives are equally bad. We can just attack the Republicans because they are in charge of government right now. If (assuming Democrats don’t remain as incompetent as they appear) regain the Presidency and the Congress then we’ll be talking about liberal pseudo-science and political abuse of science. One hopes all those (typically rightly) criticizing Republican excesses will do the same for Democratic excesses.

51

John Quiggin 03.28.06 at 7:15 pm

“What about all those horrible anti-vaccine pseudo-science claims still being propounded by liberals like Robert Kennedy?”

I think it’s telling that this one example has come up so many times. As observed, it’s not “liberals like Robert Kennedy” who push this particular barrow, it’s “a diverse bunch of people, including Robert Kennedy”. And the fact that you have to go the views of someone who’s never run for office, and is notable primarily for his surname, is an indication of how limited is the set of examples of Democrats opposing scientific consensus.

52

Drm 03.28.06 at 7:29 pm

Brendan: At the risk of lending inadvertant support to the other side of the “racial differences” debate, the facile conclusion that race is not genetically meaningful seems a bit rushed to me. Skin color does correlate at least roughly with groups that have been separated the longest in human history. Hence, there is probably a somewhat higher liklihood of finding correlations with an underlying group differences than with the other traits you mention. So what you might say, and I would agree.

Curiously, supposed racial differences in IQ seem to have narrowed over the last century – not what one would expect for a genetic difference.

53

Brett Bellmore 03.28.06 at 7:36 pm

If race can be correlated with the frequency of sickle cell anemia, why not IQ? Because it’s too awful to be true?

If you were really confident there was nothing there to find, you’d want people to look…

54

Steve Reuland 03.28.06 at 9:43 pm

Daniel Davies writes:

Intelligent design isn’t even a particularly congenial theory for fundamentalist Christians to be pushing, as it appears to me to be inconsistent with the literal truth of the Book of Genesis, which was surely the only point in opposing the teaching of evolution in the first place.

This is not the case. There is nothing about Intelligent Design that is inconsistent with biblical literalism. ID simply holds that there must be a “designer” responsible for… something, but any and all details of natural history are left unaddressed. Thus ID is as equally compatible with a young Earth as an old Earth, and that is why some of its leading advocates, like Paul Nelson and John Mark Reynolds, are YECs.

What is true is that some YEC outfits (with their own lucrative turf to defend) have criticized ID for being insufficiently biblical. However, these criticisms are soft and hard to find, and the YEC and ID movements generally act as allies.

Additionally, I wouldn’t say that Biblical literalism is the *only* point in opposing evolution. For the literalists, everything may follow from the Bible, but ultimately they are pushing cultural conservatism. The ID folk are doing the same thing but without the need for a literal Genesis, arguing instead that theism per se supports such politics. In other words, what they’re really arguing for is the Divine Command Theory of morality.

55

Steve Reuland 03.28.06 at 10:02 pm

slocum writes:

I don’t think so. Creationists are opposed not just to scientific elitism but particularly to central authorities (operating in a partnership with those scientific elites) exercising control over school curricula (they want local control). Their opponents want federal legal authority to overrule local control (as it has—the Dover case is final nail).

You must not know much about the creationists. They are extremely authoritarian; that is in fact the basis of their entire worldview. That is why, for example, they feel the need to slap the label of “science” onto their belief system. Science is an authority, and thus they see it as a major weakness if this authority is against them. Therefore, they either need to adopt the authority as their own, or they need to destroy its status as an authority. Otherwise, why not just say that science is wrong and be done with it?

As for “local control”, in every case the creationists have always appealed to central political entities to further their agenda, and have only pushed for local control after they were frustrated at the larger level. The very first political manuver by the ID movement was to insert language into a Federal bill, the No Child Left Behind Act, and then they went aroung the country claiming that this required local schools to teach ID. Only later did they go after state legislatures and state school boards. Now with that tactic not faring so well, they’re starting to argue that individual schools or teachers should be able to teach what they want without the state making them follow the curriculum. Calling for local control is purely a matter of political pragmatism; if they could get a Federal law passed that required the teaching of ID (assuming it would pass the courts), they’d do it in a heartbeat.

56

Clark 03.29.06 at 2:05 am

It seems to me that many movements have both liberals and conservatives. I brought up Kennedy and the vaccine issue because I’ve honestly not met any conservatives up in arms on this. By the same measure I have met many people basically liberal who want “to teach the controversy” with regards to evolution.

It’s not just the vaccine issue though. I’ve met many liberals but few conservatives up in arms over silly pseudo-science concerns regarding radiating foods, over GM foods, over nuclear power and so forth. That’s not to say that there aren’t legitimate concerns on all these. Just that the pseudo-science I hear comes from largely one side.

Now, to what degree do Democratic officials push this? Well, it’s hard to say since they are out of office, as I said.

57

John Quiggin 03.29.06 at 3:40 am

“I brought up Kennedy and the vaccine issue because I’ve honestly not met any conservatives up in arms on this. “

Here’s Dan Burton for example.

I agree on GM foods & irradiation, but these are more issues for Greens than for Democrats. And the Dems are in office in plenty of states, but don’t seem to be pushing an anti-science line.

58

SamChevre 03.29.06 at 9:21 am

Actually, John, my position on small-dose passive smoking is not a “Republican talking point”–it’s the most unbiased evidence I know of. I’m a life insurance actuary; figuring out what factors increase risk of death is a key part of our job. To my knowledge, no one in the industry underwrites based on small-dose smoke exposure.

59

John Quiggin 03.29.06 at 2:59 pm

Some clarification on this. Do you mean that if I smoke a single low-tar cigarette per day, I get the non-smokers rate, or even a reduction on the standard smokers rate, on the basis that exposure to small doses doesn’t increase risk.

I suspect not, and that the issue is not one of actuarial calculation, but of verification. You can divide the population into smokers and non-smokers, but trying to distinguish within these groups (low vs high-dose smokers and low vs high-dose passive smokers) is just about impossible, particularly in the latter case.

60

SamChevre 03.29.06 at 5:11 pm

JQ,

I can speak to what I know–I can’t answer all your questions, though, as to industry practice.

In the cases I know of, you can have an occasional cigar/cigarette and get non-smoker rates if you test clean for nicotine on a blood test.

Having a smoker in the household increases rates to some extent in some cases, but I don’t know the rules in detail.

I am not aware of any underwriting for exposure to tobacco smoke other than “live in the same household as a smoker.” If exposure to tobacco smoke was measurably harmful to health, we’d have a strong incentive to know that and underwrite for it–even if we had to use proxies, we could add bartending (e.g.) to the list of occupations that increase rates (there’s a long list of those).

61

Glen Raphael 03.29.06 at 9:18 pm

I agree with the Catallarchy trackback that the main Science Democrats wage war on is economics. For example: anti-”price gouging” legislation, “living wage” mandates, minimum wage laws, rent control.

Other issues where politicians War against the Science of economics are more bipartisan: protectionist import tariffs and quotas, farming price supports, immigration restrictions.

62

abb1 03.30.06 at 3:08 am

anti-price gouging legislation – how is it a war on economics? I thought price gouging is a war on economics…

63

Doormat 03.30.06 at 4:55 am

Erm, not to derail this thread completely, but Economics not does equal Science! And I suspect you’d find a lot more debate between economists on those listed subjects that you would between scientists on any of the subjects Mooney addresses.

64

Seth Edenbaum 03.30.06 at 5:46 pm

I could argue all over the place about any number of comments made here, since I think the most important problems are avoided by assuming that ideas can not be contradictory in themselves.

There is a difference between the authoritariarnism of people and of ideas. Plenty of people are comforted by the thought that God is in control. But they might rise up in arms if a mere person were running things. It mght make sense to think of the relationship of creationism to science as similar to the rise of plain spoken protestantism against the obscurantist ritual of the Catholic liturgy. Why should people trust what they can’t understand?

Also this is the country of Fordism and the myth of mechanics and science: of equating technical and moral progress (and in the silliest possiible ways). And as far as biotech is concerned the fear is the result of memories of that arrogance more than anythings, of the fear of unpredictable consequences.
Creating genetic mutations in a lab is not the same as cross fertilizing corn. What we live with today are end products of evolution over millions of years, of a cone of experience and time narrowing to a point in the present. The desire to expand from a point is one of the most famous fallacies of moderniy,”The Year One” being a famous early example.
Modernity prefers theory to history. The recent religious revival is the unintellectuals’ anti-intellectual defense of the moral primacy of history over theory.
The humanities at their best represent the intellectuals’ (secular)defense of the same thing.

And especially in this country people can be on different side of the argument at different times of any given day.

65

Drm 03.30.06 at 6:30 pm

“Creating genetic mutations in a lab is not the same as cross fertilizing corn.”

Seth,

What’s your point exactly. GM technology is not based on creating mutations, “mutation breeding” had its hay day back in the ’60′s. It was not considered controversial at the time as far as I know. Domestication of corn from its wild relative involved selection of a whole series of mutations that radically changed the form of the plant – making it among other things totally dependent on man for propagation. That biotechnology crime was committed >8,000 years ago by native women (most likely) in the Central America. The ensuing bio-catastrophe converted the American midwestern plains into the monocultural corn desert we enjoy today. We didn’t actually get around to crossing corn in ernest until the late 19th century. Lewontin still claims that the hybrid seed industry built on wonton crossing of corn is a capitalist conspiracy, but not many agree with him. Ilegitimate crossing of corn with other grass species also has a rich history. In recent years, some real sickos at the U. of Minn even crossed corn with oats. On the other hand, maybe its like the guy who wrote “Botany of Desire” suggested, agriculture is nothing more than an elaborate conspiracy of the grasses to get rid the trees. It seems to be working ;)

66

radek 03.30.06 at 7:46 pm

Re: 65
Economics is a soft science. It’s probably more scientific than some subfields of biology. It’s about as scientific as evolutionary biology where there’s no lab to run experiments in either.

As far as whether economists disagree more than other scientist, going by the list, I’d say:

anti-”price gouging” legislation

– little disagreement in general, seeing as how economists don’t even define ‘price gouging’. In some rare particulars there may be disagreement. Can’t think of any cases though.

“living wage” mandates

– little to no disagreement

minimum wage laws

– yes, in this case there is disagreement here.
Mostly about the size of the effects and how they are distributed. There’s good reasons for these disagreements.

rent control

– very little disagreement

protectionist import tariffs and quotas

– small to moderate amount of disagreement. But not about the standard theory. Most of the disagreement is on the size of the effect on inequality.

farming price supports

– pretty much same as above.

immigration restrictions

– a moderate amount of disagreement largely due to the difference in approach of the Labor Economist and that of the International Economist

Now if say, monetary and fiscal policy were on that list I’d say you’re right, there is a lot of disagreement. But so what? That just means that science, economic or otherwise is hard. Models are sensitive to assumptions. Testing models is not simple. Intelligent well informed people can disagree. Or are there no controversies in physics, astronomy or chem?
(In fact I’d be more worried about a discipline, math aside perhaps, where there is NO disagreement. It’d mean people aren’t thinking seriously)

67

Seth Edenbaum 03.31.06 at 8:23 am

drm,
I apologize for using the wrong terminology. but you know exactly what I meant to say,
Stop quibbling, respond to the comment itself or shut up.

68

Drm 03.31.06 at 10:23 am

seth,
My apologies, my intent was to place GM technology and breeding into some perspective with respect to the history of agriculture in a light-hearted way – not to cause offense. I understood your point about public perception and distrust of technology. Those attitudes have to be respected whether well founded or not. That being the case, it is important for scientists to address the sorts of misconception that are deliberately abused by idealogical opponents of technology. Unfortunately, paying attention to such details can easily come across as pedantic and/or arrogant.

69

Seth Edenbaum 03.31.06 at 11:36 am

You still missed my point, which was that this mistrust is often justified.
Is there not a quantitative difference between cross breeding and even simple genetic manipulation among strains, and the production of rabbits that glow in the dark? I’m not talking about abstract morality (I’m not about to argue that a mule is a crime against nature).

“What we live with today are end products of evolution over millions of years, of a cone of experience and time narrowing to a point in the present. [and our impact is minimal seen in this scale] The desire to expand from a point is one of the most famous fallacies of modernity,”The Year One” being a famous early example.”

Read that carefully. By your logic the harnessing of nuclear energy is the equivalent of the discovery that a mixture of olive oil and vinegar goes well with ripe tomatos.
Less glibly, even fossil fuels are less of a transformative break than nuclear energy and they’ve been problematic enough. I’ll return to the image of a cone of events, leading to a point in the present, or from the present into the future.
What’s the number of combinations that computers have been able to map out and predict on a billiard table?
Every event is at the end of a process of narrowing cone of probability and the beginning of another cone of widening probability. Revolutionary modernists like to say they can predict the future, and that everything will be fine, but their success rate isn’t very good; and though it isn’t very sexy the basics of improved public health have saved more lives than high tech science, which seems driven more by desire than the mundane logic of human decency.
I prefer a retrospective intelligence to a simply predictive one. That’s preference but not a religious one.

70

Drm 03.31.06 at 2:23 pm

“Is there not a quantitative difference between cross breeding and even simple genetic manipulation among strains, and the production of rabbits that glow in the dark?”

Not in any objective sense. Technically, putting a florescent protein gene into a bunny is a well defined operation. Cross-breeding involves altering relationships among thousands of genes (e.g. my earlier comment on tomato breeding) with consequences that are in principle harder to predict. Our cummulative experience indicates that the risks of conventional breeding are also very low. But, very occaisionally stuff happens.

Horizontal gene transfer between kingdoms is not new. The most common method used for inserting foreign genes into plant genomes was invented by a species of bacteria that has been genetically engineering plants for millions of years.

My earlier point was meant to illustrate that GM technology is not likely to be nearly as transformative as the pre-historic domestication of the grasses.

All that said I’m not trying to trivialize the issues involved. Is it possible to make GM organisms that have bad consequences? Yes. But, its pretty low on my list of things to worry about.

71

Seth Edenbaum 03.31.06 at 5:57 pm

“The most common method used for inserting foreign genes into plant genomes was invented by a species of bacteria…”

drm,
I won’t quibble with your personification of bacteria[!], but I’d tend to see a difference between organisms that developed by evolutionary processes parallel to our own, and those we’ve manufactured. Beyond that, I began my rant along the lines you assumed: talking not about science but its reception. I can argue against the sensibilities of scientists as inventors who are often more interested in satisfying their own curiosity than anything else, but I’m not a scientist myself (and I don’t play one on the web)
s.

72

Drm 03.31.06 at 6:29 pm

seth,
Quite right. Thanks for the discussion

73

Seth Edenbaum 03.31.06 at 11:48 pm

“Quite right.”
I did try end on a note of civility.

I hope you read numbers more carefully than you read words.
I should have just gone back up the thread and read Scott Martens and ‘doormat’ and left it at that.

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