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Connexions Other Voices -- Science and its enemies
April 23, 2016The April 23, 2106 issue of Other Voices, the Connexions newsletter, is now out. The focus of this issue is science and its enemies.
Our society and its institutions, public and private, regularly tell us that science, and education in the sciences, are crucial to our future. These public declarations are strangely reminiscent of the equally sincere lip service they pay to the ideals of democracy. And, in the same way that governments and private corporations devote considerable efforts to undermining the reality of democracy, so too they are frequently found trying to block and subvert science when the evidence it produces runs counter to their interests. Real live scientists doing real live science, it seems, are not nearly as loveable as Science in the abstract.
The trouble with science, when carried out conscientiously in accordance with the principles of rational inquiry, is that it may produce evidence and conclusions that run counter to the interests of the powerful and the rich. The science of global warming is a huge threat to the immensely profitable fossil fuel industry. Exxon knew, decades ago, that carbon emissions are linked to climate change - and acted to suppress and lie about the science, using the same techniques that had been used for many years by the tobacco industry to deny that smoking is linked to lung cancer.
In the same way, scientists who have shown that fracking produces earthquakes and poisons water are now under constant attack by the industry. Universities, ever more dependent on corporate funding, are told that they won't receive money if they employ scientists who engage is such unwelcome research. So too, evidence of the dangers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) threatens immensely profitable agribusiness corporations, and scientists who produce that evidence are attacked and threatened with losing their jobs.
Corporate money is also used to subvert science in other ways. There are always scientists and researchers who are prepared to produce conclusions that are welcome to their funders. As Upton Sinclair once said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it." Unfortunately, there are more than a few trained scientists who now earn their salaries by failing to investigate what they should investigate, and failing to see what they should see.
Where scientists persist in producing unwelcome evidence, another tactic in common use is suppression. Scientists whose research is funded by a corporations are frequently made to sign non-disclosure agreements as a condition of receiving funding. They are forbidden to release their findings unless the company, for example a pharmaceutical company testing a new drug, agrees to release them. In this way unwelcome results never see the light of day. Scientists employed by a government are commonly gagged in similar ways. This was notoriously the case in Canada under the late and unlamented Harper regime, which, in addition to gagging scientists, actually went so far as to destroy entire libraries of scientific records.
At the same time that corporations and the state seek to control or suppress science, social currents have emerged that attack science from other directions. Creationists loudly reject the science of evolution, anti-vaccine activists spread fear, and, in some parts of academia, schools of thought have emerged that see the whole idea of science as an example of western imperialism.
This issue of Other Voices dips its toes into a few areas of current scientific controversy. The Connexions website features a wealth of articles and books on many other issues in the world of science.
See the April 23, 2016 issue of Other Voices at http://www.connexions.org/Media/CXNL-2016-04-23.htm
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