I am angry today. I tried to watch Michael Specter’s “The Danger of Science Denial” at TED.com. This post comes in two sections. I wrote the first section after I cooled down enough to analyse the video in its entirety and reflects what I consider to be several reasonable issues with Specter’s presentation. The second I spent most of the day writing as I watched the video. I do not think it reflects a reasonable analysis of his presentation in that it is more of an ideological tirade against a way of looking at the world that I find pernicious and annoying.
The central problem is he pulls the switcheroo several times. He leads in with a supposed case of people doing something relatively harmless that he alleges goes against scientific evidence, then relates that relatively harmless behavior to an horrific extreme example that no compassionate human being could condone. If you have a problem with GMOs you are directly responsibly for denying African villagers a cassava plant that has vitamins and proteins that would stop them from going blind. This seems like a fake chain of causation considering that most of the anger over GMOs is targeted against one or two kind of evil companies (Monsanto and Novartis), and that neither of those companies is likely to be involved in such a project, but that doesn’t stop him from drawing that conclusion. It’s a somewhat confusing talk because he seems to recognize and acknowledge the flaws in his own arguments, then repeatedly tramples over them to make his point anyway. He recognizes some of the valid reasons why a person should distrust authority based on recent experiences, but in saying that public concerns are law and policy issues relating to corporations and governments and not science, he is ignoring the symbiotic and often consciously complicit relationship between scientific institutions, corporations and governments. The capper is his inflammatory language. He invokes shame and value judgments in a way that makes argument with his more dubious points seem morally wrong, not on their own merits, but by the associations he draws.
Ironically Favorite Line: “You don’t get to have your own facts.”
All I can hear when I listen is the mythology of progress, a creation myth of our society with science and industry as its culture heroes, a myth that is ignorant of the real forces which have shaped our societies and dismisses the rampant destruction of our life support systems on planet Earth. There is no recognition that this myth of progress is a large component of what has pushed us to our present extremity and that when our environmental factors of favorable climate and cheap, abundant energy come to and end so will our progress (http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2010/02/becoming-third-world-country.html). Likewise, a passing nod is made to the damage caused by our society’s sociopathic use of scientific knowledge and power, but there is seemingly no awareness that further developments of this power will be misused by the same forces that caused us to misuse it in the first place.
He aims to lampoon the fear of vaccines, GMO bans and herbal medicines as distortions and denials of science, while he lampoons his own absurdity. What are these petty trifles at the feat of our strange gods of war, industry, famine and disease, Haliburton, Exxon Mobile, Monsanto, Glaxosmithkline. Have we not reason to be afraid of vaccines when it seems the World Health Organization is in the pocket of the pharmaceutical companies (http://www.wodarg.de/english/2948146.html). Have we not reason to be afraid when we have no ability to control genetic contamination of crops (http://www.biotech-monitor.nl/4411.htm) and when agribusinesses can lie and distort the truth about their crops with impunity, to devastating affect (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Ffv0cUpUF4 , http://www.i-sis.org.uk/BtCottonKillsSoilandFarmers.php). Have we not reason to be afraid when pharmaceutical companies can pick and choose what studies they release about their products and maintain unwholesome relationships with the doctors who prescribe their drugs(http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2009/jan/15/drug-companies-doctorsa-story-of-corruption/).
This is not so much a plea of innocence for his targets as an indictment of his myopia.
In the face of these affronts how is paranoia an irrational response.
I love this picture. To me it represents the promise of science, to understand the universe from the smallest to the largest and back to the smallest, to see its beauty and complexity while saying something profound and powerful in the face of it all. Science, or more accurately, the institution that we have constructed around that word, the universities, the foundations, the labs, the R&D departments, the very system of acknowledgement and recognition upon which they stand, does not fulfill this promise today, not in more than the smallest measure. This is because (forgive me, please forgive me) our institution of science is prostituted to the least among us, those who have given their lives in the pursuit of power and wealth. The CEO, the general, the career political appointee and those who have found power through religious institutions or special interest groups.
The development of the corporation, its structure and function, has been far more the creative force behind the evolving form of our society than science ever has. Science has merely been the tool, wielded by masters unconcerned by the scope and wonder of the cosmos, but by the mastery and control of that which they could own and profit from. This is what determines the course of scientific endeavor, not high minded ideals, but where funding is allocated. If the scientists should arrive at the “wrong” answer then the funding will move else where.
The institution of science, despite all that it could be, all that it might be, is today a weapon of control and oppression, used by those with power against those without. No different than any church that twists its teachings, the internal meanings of its sacred words, for the sake of power and political expediency. What of the power that science has give you, your car, your laptop, camera phone and the internet in all its glory? what of them? They are toys compared to the powers we have invested into a handful of human beings around the world. We have gone from free bacteria, inefficiently processing anaerobic nutrients to eukaryotic cells in the organism, furiously processing from the oxygenated blood stream of the world fossil-fuel-subsidized transport system and communicating over its fiber optic neurons. We have power within the system, but there is a master of whom we are only dimly aware. A master who moves the whole.
The very system of monetization that these corporations have engendered in their role as centralized banks necessitates the form and course of our society, its endless exponential growth and transformation of the natural world into products and services (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVkFb26u9g8).
None of what I have written denies the power of the scientific method If you seek to understand or control the physical world, but science is not free.
“Science is so powerful that it drags us kicking and screaming towards the truth despite our best efforts to avoid it. And it does that at least partly fueled by our pettiness and our rivalries. Science is alchemy: it turns shit into gold.” – Peter Watts
Watt’s quote exemplifies an ideal that even under the most adverse conditions the scientific method will, through its hard attrition of peer review and defense of academic territory, somehow manage to edge toward the truth. I think in someways he is right, but he also left academia in part because his work was being distorted, both by those who funded it and by the activist NGOs that misrepresented it to the public. For the record, I doubt he would agree with the point I am trying to make, or enjoy that I am making it.
Newton was one of the first great scientists, he was also one of the last great mystics. He wanted to know God through understanding the calculus. There is a false division between those who think that everything in the universe may be understood and controlled and those who think that the universe is inherently beyond our understanding and control. As William S. Burroughs said “the road to the Western Lands is the most dangerous in the world” and the Western Lands are not a pleasant afterlife, they are a metaphor for achieving awareness of the ultimate immortality of the spirit/consciousness, beyond form, and are thus completely indivisible from an ultimate perception and understanding of reality as it is. They are part of the one and the same that is beyond the power of my words to express or to reach. There is a point on the road beyond which neither your analysis of reality nor your fundamental beliefs will carry you. This is the unknown, the mystery. Eventually our fear and self entrapment will dissolve in the winds of time, but how and when is up to us. Will you fall into it or will you fly.
Forgive me for this act of polemics that I have committed. This attempt to colonize the minds of others. I am, to paraphrase what Alan Watts once said, like a bird whose nature it is to sing. This is the song that comes out.