Last month the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or
AAAS, the premier science organization in the U.S. and publisher of
Science magazine, held its annual conference, this year in Vancouver.
Over 8,000 scientists attended what has become the largest
organization of scientists in the world.
This annual meeting, however, was unusual. Robin McKie, writing in
Britain's The Guardian newspaper, reported that the outgoing president
of the AAAS, Nina Fedoroff, broke with the usual tradition of shying
away from political controversy that is customary for high ranking
Dr. Fedoroff told her colleagues that she was "scared to death" at the
continuing attacks on science throughout the West and in the United
States. Dr. Fedoroff said, "We are sliding back into a dark era and
there is little we can do about it. I am profoundly depressed at just
how difficult it has become merely to get a realistic conversation
started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified
Fedoroff and other scientists are positively amazed at the hostility
towards scientific methods and scientific proposals put forth to solve
many of the problems facing the world today. Not only do powerful
corporations and the (mostly) Republican politicians they control
brush aside scientific evidence regarding climate change, endangered
species, health issues, food safety, and so on whenever this evidence
conflicts with the profit motive, but they also have begun to
personally attack individual scientists and scientific institutions,
trying to damage their reputations or to have them defunded.
Fedoroff understands that President Obama, at least, is not against
science. "The trouble is," she says, "that he still hasn't been able
to do anything to help. He is continually blocked by Congress, and
that only adds to our worries and sense of desperation. If the current
president is for us, but still cannot do anything to help us, then
what will happen if a Republican gets into the White House this year?"
Actually that would not happen until Jan. 15th of next year - but the
point is well made. Fedoroff has learned a lot, it seems, since she
was appointed to high scientific office by George W. Bush and then
served as science advisor to Condoleezza Rice in the State Department.
Even though the overwhelming scientific consensus is that manmade
atmospheric pollution with greenhouse gases is causing the earth to
warm up and that this is leading us down the road to a world wide
catastrophe, all of the leading Republican contenders, egged on by
lobbyists and corporate funding - especially from industries
producing, or dependent on, oil, gas, coal and other pollutants - deny
the scientific evidence. Rick Santorum goes so far as to call global
warming a "hoax."
Naomi Oreskes, a professor at University of California - San Diego,
who attended the meeting, remarked, "Those of us who grew up in the
sixties, when we put men on the moon, now have to watch as every
Republican candidate for this year's presidential election denies the
science behind climate change and evolution. That is a staggering
state of affairs and it is very worrying."
Professor Oreskes added, "Our present crisis over the rise of
anti-science has been coming for a long time and we should have seen
it coming. It has taken the scientific community a long time to
realize what it is up against. In the past, it thought the problem was
just a matter of education. All its practitioners had to do was make
an effort to reach out and talk to teachers, the public and business
leaders. Then these people would see the issues and understand the
need for action. But now they are beginning to realize what they are
really up against: massive organized attempts to undermine scientific
data by people for whom the data represents a threat to their status
quo. Given the power of these people, scientists will have their work
cut out dealing with them."
But what does this say about our educational system in the U.S.? The
fact so many people have been through the public school system and are
so scientifically illiterate that their ignorance of evolution and the
science behind climate change can form the basis for a major political
party (and still have plenty of people left over) should tell us that
a major reform of the educational system is in order - not only of the
curriculum but of the qualifications of teachers as well. This reform
should involve the unions, elected officials, parents, students and
teachers - it cannot be made from above by the imposition of
privatization, ill conceived standardized tests, mass school closings,
or firings and layoffs of school workers for lack of finances.
A real educational reform would solve the problem brought up by
Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists, since an
educated population would not be open to the corrupting influences she
discusses. She is attacking the Supreme Court decision that opened the
floodgates of unlimited corporate contributions to candidates for
elected office (the Citizens United ruling).
"That has opened the gates for corporations," Grifo said, "often those
associated with coal and oil industries, to flood the market with
adverts that support right-wing politicians and which attack
government bodies that impose environmental regulations that these
companies don't like. The science that supports these regulations is
attacked as well. That has made a terrible difference over the past
year and it is now bringing matters to a head. People may believe that
political interference in science went extinct when George W. Bush
left office, but the reality is that the pressure to politicize
science is still with us."
Now that the scales have fallen from the eyes of the scientific
community we can only hope that scientists will become more active in
the fight to preserve democracy and join with the rest of the
progressive America in the struggle to prevent the takeover of the
U.S. government by the ultra-right and anti-scientific Republicans.