Thursday, September 9, 2010

Scientific Firewalls: Vrtpaleo, CERN, Koch Hall of Human Origins

A trio of stories prompted thoughts about the influence of politics and corporate interests on science and scientists.  Science separated from politics, or science separated from financial interests – interesting concepts, but I’ve always assumed that any firewalls surrounding science are very suspect, very porous.  I forget that sometimes.


Scientists are political animals who are able, like the rest of us, to act poorly when debating their beliefs, be those beliefs political, religious, social, scientific . . . .  Consider the recent kerfuffle on Vrtpaleo, the listserv intended to serve the vertebrate paleontology community.  Among the enlightening exchanges were the following:

Comment:  I'm sick of checking my email and seeing your stream of perverted right-wing slander. . . .

Rejoinder:  I am neither a racist nor a bigot. Such terms are used by leftist idiots (or as Lenin used to call them, 'useful idiots') to slander and smear people whose views they find objectionable . . . .

The language was coarse, dripping with vitriol, and so over the top it was almost funny.  Almost.

Should it be surprising that some scientists and science hangers-on (who’s commenting isn’t always evident on the listserv) have obnoxious political, social, racial, or economic opinions?  We’re talking about human beings, a species whose members are well known for embracing the rational and irrational in the same thought.

I wasn’t the only one put off by the Vrtpaleo display.  This latest flare up of political crossfire was the last straw for several members.  The best announcement of an intention to drop out of the listserv came from Chris, a museum curator, on his fine blog Prerogative of Harlots.  (Thankfully, he didn’t do what many on the listserv do, send an unsubscribing message to the whole list.)  On point, he observed,

I think it's great that the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of expression - I just wish it carried a rider that citizens think before they exercise that right.

The whole thing reminds me of Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England.  Nicolas Slonimsky, who conducted the world premiere of the piece, described the relevant portion perfectly.

In the second movement there is a scene which represents the meeting of two marching bands in the village, and they play the same marching rhythm but at different tempi because they are coming from different directions.  (Charles Ives Remembered:  An Oral History by Vivian Perlis, 2002, p. 148.)

The result, for me at least, is a discordant mess.

European Economic Crisis and Science

The current financial crisis has directly affected science and science education worldwide.  These funding decisions are not in the hands of scientists, they are decisions being made by politicians, among others.  The closing of university science museums in this country is but one case in point.

According to a recent article in the Washington Post (In Europe, Science Collides With the Bottom Line, September 7, 2010), the severely constrained budgets of European nations are now forcing governments there to take whacks at some of the most exciting pure science going.  Reporter Anthony Faiola, describes several European scientific agencies and efforts that are being cut back, put on hold, or coming under the threat of such action.

I found it particularly dismaying that the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) is shutting down all of its particle accelerators beginning in 2012.  Okay, the Large Hadron Collider, that $10 billion accelerator near Geneva, was already slated for a year-long hiatus for upgrades.  But, now, none of the CERN’s nine particle accelerators will be functioning.  Faiola writes:

The move will mean a critical period of lost opportunities for visiting research fellows and a year without fresh data for projects, including one on the cusp of trapping an atom of antimatter to better understand the early formation of the universe.


The Smithsonian’s Koch Hall of Human Origins

For the August 30, 2010, issue of The New Yorker, Jane Mayer wrote a fascinating piece (entitled Covert Operations) on the Koch brothers, David and Charles, libertarian billionaires with a profound dislike of government in general, and the current administration in particular.

The industries that make up the Koch brothers’ corporate holdings are, reportedly, serious environmental polluters.  So, it may not be surprising that Mayer describes the Kochs as advocates of “much less oversight of industry – especially environmental regulation.”  Climate change denial is apparently one of their causes.

At the same time, David Koch, in particular, has been providing substantial funds to various medical and scientific institutions.  The signs of that generosity abound.  The American Museum of Natural History’s wing housing dinosaurs is now known as the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing.  The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History recently opened the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins.

Private philanthropy in support of science – good thing . . . if the financial largesse doesn’t come with pressure to influence the science supported and displayed by the recipients.  And that’s what some have alleged about the Koch Hall of Human Origins.  Mayer outlines the arguments in her piece.  Among those she quotes is Dr. Joseph Romm, physicist and climate expert.  Romm, blogging on ClimateProgress, had this to say:

Two things are clear if you visit America’s leading 'science museum' — the National Museum of Natural History.  First, the Smithsonian downplays or ignores the risks posed by human-caused climate change in a number of exhibits.  Second, the worst of the exhibits is the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins.

Yes, the Smithsonian took $15 million from a billionaire polluter — who is an even bigger funder of disinformation on climate science than Exxon Mobil — to fund a misleading exhibit on evolution and climate change.

That appears to be the crux of the indictment of the Hall of Human Origins.  According to its critics, while positing that climate is a key agent in the human evolutionary history, winnowing the various human species down to one, the exhibits (1) fail to attribute current climate changes, including the record high (and rising) levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, to human action and fossil fuels, and, by making those changes appear to be part of a natural cycle, (2) posit human adaptation as the only rational response.

Mayer says that the messages from the Koch Hall of Human Origins “uncannily echo the Koch message” on climate change.  She quotes from a Koch Industries in-house publication which argues, “Since we can’t control Mother Nature, let’s figure out how to get along with her changes.”  That quote is from a column entitled Blowing Smoke in Discovery, a Koch Industries newsletter (January 1, 2010).  The Discovery piece is an amazing read.  Particularly, in its consideration of what was learned from the pilfered e-mail correspondence of climate scientists at the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit.

But what the recent 'Climategate' scandal at the University of East Anglia may have illustrated is just how suspect many of those scientific assumptions [behind man-made greenhouse gas emissions] may be.

Correspondence indicates that when the data didn’t support their hypothesis, leading climate change advocates in England decided to change, hide, or, if necessary, destroy conflicting data.

The author goes on to write:

The scientific process of discovery is completely undermined if important information gets modified, manipulated, distorted or dropped if it contradicts a preferred outcome.

Amen, brother.  Hard to disagree with that last sentence, though I don’t think that is what’s revealed by the stolen e-mails from the Climate Research Unit.  (But, that’s another story.)

Is that, though, what happened with the Hall of Human Origins and its treatment of climate change?  Should it have explored the causes of global warming and proffered possible solutions to same?  I’m not sure, but I’m inclined to think not.  Still, when I read Mayer’s treatment of the Kochs, I was struck by how oblivious I was the couple times I toured the Hall to even the possibility that what was on display might have been skewed to serve special interests.  Pretty stupid of me, because, as I stated at the outset, I don’t believe there’s an effective firewall separating science from the influence of other interests.

Yet, it’s ironic that, if, indeed, the Hall of Human Origins has this nefarious intention – acceptance of global warming as just part of the nature of things and something we should adapt to – it failed to deliver the message, at least to me.  Maybe I was just asleep at the switch.  The message I felt it was sending, as I described it in a previous posting, was that

climate change has made a huge difference in the high stakes hominid species-survival lottery. . . . Climate change takes on the role of an evolution machine.  In the human family tree, Homo sapiens is the sole survivor, in part because our great capacity to adapt to variable climate.  Yet there was nothing certain about that survival.

Can a visitor take the displays to be saying that extreme climate shifts, including the one ongoing, are part of natural cycles?  Sure.  But, they don’t, in my mind, promote complacency in the face of those climatic changes.  Even a slightly attentive visitor (the category I guess I fell in) should came away with an understanding that there’s nothing certain about our future survival in the face of severe climate change.  I don’t see the displays purposefully advocating any response, including one that concludes we’ll just have to adapt.

Anyway, it’s good to be reminded that science and scientists function in the “real” world.

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