Boldly Go Back: Anti-Science Regressivism from the Left and the Right
Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is on track be the biggest blockbuster to end this year. Lauded as an emotional roller coaster ride by early critics and reviewers, it will be a suitable end to a year that had its fair share of ups and downs when it comes to science. However one particular scene, notable in the teaser trailer, is sparking immense interest. In that scene, in a not-far-off dystopian future, a twenty-something female teacher refuses to teach about the moon landing to the daughter of the protagonist while following a politically-decided course curriculum which states that the moon landing was fake. Nolan’s films often push us to the limits, making us question the seemingly innocuous realities around us, which are intensely terrifying if you look deep.
The Dark Knight series brought us one insanely-delusional, narcissistic psychopath, suffering from a God complex, trying to destroy a whole city for no other reason than his own sick amusement; and a group of anarchists under a charismatic leader taking over a city and bringing about vindictive retributive justice, without any due process of law, over another group of people who are perceived to be from the exploitative class, chosen arbitrarily because of their social class, while being cheered as liberators by the brainwashed proletarian masses. These plots are not just the stuff of Hollywood, they are the stuff of nightmares for any civil, sane and democratic individual, because they are so real, they can actually happen around us. Just read the self-described revolutionary manifesto of Russell Brand, or listen to any random speech by Arundhati Roy, Johann Harri, Julian Assange, Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden.
This particular anti-science teacher, who was passionately denying the moon landings and the contributions of space research and trying to discourage science education due to a biased socio-economic and political point of view is representative of a very real phenomenon that is happening now as the film screens. A growing populist mass movement, converging from the extreme right and extreme left, is taking shape around us, denouncing science, technology, research and any futuristic endeavors, while trying to take the planet back to a pre-industrial revolution era. These myriad groups come from various ideological strains of apologists, activists, perpetually offended social-engineering advocates, right-wing climate change deniers and Greenpeace, but are united in their fundamental opposition to progress.
While their ideological inspirations couldn’t be further apart, their rhetoric and actions are aligned in hardline opposition to technological advances. Sen. James Inhofe, Republican from Oklahoma and presumptive chairman of the Environmental and Public Works Committee, who cites Bible verses as evidence that global warming doesn’t exist, and Greenpeace, which tries to shut down working nuclear plants, come from far different starting points, but their actions ultimately align to oppose the development of safe, effective, carbon-free energy.
Greenpeace may claim they support renewable energy, but as a study by Paul Joskow of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows, wind and solar cannot provide all of the world’s energy. Due to the intermittent generation of wind (none on calm days) and solar (none at night), traditional power plants must be on standby, and, if those power plants are coal or gas, that means more emissions. Nuclear power is $420,000 cheaper than solar per MW per year and $230,000 cheaper than wind, Joskow calculated, in numbers that took into account the cost of capacity, energy, and emissions.
As for safety, Greenpeace often fear-mongers about the threat of a hypothetical meltdown that “could kill and injure tens of thousands of people.” Looking at the actual numbers, nuclear is by far the safest means of electricity production. The largest nuclear disaster in the past three decades, Fukushima, which was brought about by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, resulted in 0 deaths. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization estimates that “4.3 million people a year die prematurely from illness attributable to the household air pollution caused by the inefficient use of solid fuels.” A study from the Clean Air Task Force found, “[O]ver 7,500 deaths each year are attributable to fine particle pollution from U.S. power plants.” Coal mining itself results in fatal disasters, with over 2,000 miners dying each year in China.
Yet, Greenpeace tactics rely more on anecdotes and irrational fear rather than comprehensive analysis. So it is with genetically modified crops, that Greenpeace also opposes. Never mind that GMO crops can provide vast increases in crop production to feed the world’s developing countries and that no evidence has been found linking them to adverse health effects. Greenpeace has been destroying GMO crops in private laboratories around the world. These actions aren’t just attacks on promising new food sources with benefits of their own—they are attacks on science itself, because they are attacking the very laboratories conducting studies on the plants (that would discover adverse health effects if any existed).
It brings to mind some of history’s darkest moments, like the Catholic Church throwing Galileo in prison because they didn’t like his findings or the attacks on Chinese intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution.
The viewpoints espoused by radical environmentalists and conspiracy-mongering anti-vaccinators have unfortunately had an impact in American politics. Despite a promise in 2009 to “restore science to its rightful place”, President Obama has taken stubbornly anti-science positions on certain issues where science conflicts with his or his supporters’ ideologies.
A good example is energy. Obama has often spoke about the need to combat global warming. It is reassuring that in 2012 the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a license for two new nuclear reactors to be built in Georgia, the first new license granted since 1978, but there is still no unified site to store all of the nuclear waste. Right now, spent fuel is stored on-site in pool. This method is unsustainable and potentially dangerous, as the Fukushima disaster proved. That’s why, in 1987, the federal government began development of the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository. The site is located deep underground, far from any population centers, in a closed hydrologic basin. In 2009, 22 years and tens of billions of dollars later, the facility’s construction was completed when Obama acted on his campaign promise to close Yucca Mountain.
While development of alternative energy sources is an important long-term goal, the fact remains that electric cars are not in a position yet where they are affordable to most people in the mass market. Oil continues to be necessary for transportation and other purposes now and for the foreseeable future. Environmentalists rail about “peak oil”, but there is more than enough untapped conventional and unconventional sources to last for centuries longer. Indeed, North America has seen a spike in fracking and unconventional methods of production in the 21st century. Peter W. Huber, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists, said, “The tar sands of Alberta alone contain enough hydro carbon to fuel the entire planet for over 100 years.” Goldman Sachs predicts that, driven by the boom in shale, oil prices will fall to $70 a barrel in 2015, which would be the lowest price since 2010.
But when it comes to approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring that new oil to American refiners safely and efficiently, the Obama administration has again put politics and ideology above science. After the BP Oil Spill, the Obama administration convened a panel of experts to review drilling safety, but, rather than listen to the experts, the Obama administration altered the report by adding a recommendation for a moratorium on drilling. According to an inspector general’s report, “The White House edit of the original DOI draft executive summary led to the implication that the moratorium recommendation had been peer-reviewed by the experts.” Whether driven by his own anti-oil drilling environmentalism or by that of his most ardent supporters, Obama has on a number of occasions taken positions against oil exploration that are not backed up by science.
But he’s not alone in letting political bias seep into science. The Republican Party, which prior to 2008 already had a bad track record on issues like evolution, stem cell research, federally-funded science research, and climate change, has gotten even worse with the rise of the Tea Party, which pushes a vicious anti-intellectualism within its anti-elitist message. The idea that Ivy League degrees don’t give anyone any special expertise means that Tea Partiers are able to deny the findings of 98 percent of scientists on climate change or other issues just because they distrust authorities. In a way, the Tea Party rhetoric and radical left-wingers has converged. Left-wing distrust of big business has caused some, like Robert Kennedy Jr., to oppose vaccinations, as has right-wing distrust of big government.
Kennedy wrote in The Rolling Stone and Slate in 2006 that “The story of how government health agencies colluded with Big Pharma to hide the risks of thimerosal from the public is a chilling case study of institutional arrogance, power and greed.” In a 2012 Republican primary debate, Rep. Michelle Bachmann attacked Gov. Rick Perry for encouraging Texas students to get vaccinated for HPV because she thought the program was a form of “crony capitalism” that benefited a pharmaceutical company. After the debate, she even warned that the vaccine might cause “mental retardation.”
These fears are based on a long-discredited 1998 fraudulent research paper by Andrew Wakefield in which Wakefield claimed there was a link between vaccines and autism. The “study” was already discredited by 2002, and Wakefield was found guilty by the British General Medical Council in 2010 of four counts of dishonesty and 12 counts of abusing the twelve children he conducted research on and thus barred from practicing medicine.
Despite this, the conspiratorial anti-vaccine movement is so strong in the US that outbreaks of measles and whooping cough, diseases which had been long wiped out, are on the rise again. In 2012, 50,000 Americans were afflicted with whooping cough, the most in more than 50 years. Already from January 1 to October 31, 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented over 600 cases of measles, more than any year since 2000.
Democracy in America encourages politicians to pander to idiots (voters, that is). Even President Obama and his 2008 opponent both endorsed the inaccurate views of their supporters at events. Obama said, “We’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it’s connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science is now inclusive, but we have to research it.” McCain added later that year, “[W]e go back and forth and there’s strong evidence that indicates it’s got to do with a preservative in vaccines.”
The science is in fact clear that there is no measurable risk from vaccines. While Obama may have simply been pandering to a voter, Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell argue in Science Left Behind that the Obama White House policy towards the flu vaccine caused unnecessary suffering in 2009 when his administration refused to allow immune system-boosting adjuvants, the use of which, the authors argue, “may have quadrupled the U.S. vaccine supply”, and insisted on producing single-dose vials instead of multi-dose vials. 274,000 people were hospitalized by swine flu and more than 12,000 died, the authors wrote. “It’s not possible to calculate how many of those illnesses and deaths could have been prevented if the Obama administration’s pandering to the irrational concerns of [anti-vaccination] progressives hadn’t contributed to the vaccine shortage. However, what is certain is the administration has been far more anti-science than pundits and progressive activists would like to believe.”
Berezow and Campbell weren’t the only ones troubled by Obama’s swine flu vaccination policy. Scott Gottlieb, a physician and resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who was a deputy commissioner of the FDA under the Bush administration, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that said, “[W]e are shunning new, superior vaccine science by being overly cautious.” He also noted the lack of adjuvants and the insistence on single-dose vials, as stumbling blocks to creating a greater supply of vaccines.
If one looks at the broader anti-science picture, across the globe, and going back to the earlier theme of Interstellar, space research is advancing quickly in real life as we speak. This year, NASA’s Maven craft joined Rovers and Curiosity in Mars, probing further on the advisability of colonization of the Red Planet. India’s ISRO Mars Orbiter Mission, or MOM, which made India the first country, to have a successful Mars mission on a first try in the entire world. China successfully sent a lunar probe on a flyby of the moon, firmly propelling the Asian giant towards the goal of a manned moon mission. The US, Canada, China, Japan and India, are constructing and operating the largest telescope ever in Hawaii, which is of course marred by local tribal protests, opposed to the construction because of a belief in a mountain god. Private sector space travel continues to advance; though there have been challenges recently with Antares and Virgin Galactic flights exploding, the long term trends point to huge growth in the industry.
In the midst of such great human endeavors, comparable only to the age of explorers, one is disappointed to find the reaction of mass society ranges from indifferent to negative to outright hostile and derogatory. The criticisms are plenty; one just needs to see the comment boards of news sites and blogs to fathom. For the case of America and Europe, it is extreme apathy, for China and India the arguments are socio-economic. The primary argument, irrespective of country or agency is this: How dare Governments spend so much money on space research, when the money could be used on the “uplift of poor”. Cheered on by post-modernist and regressive left activists and even some academics, general commentaries reflect these inane queries.
On the right, anti-government activists concerned single-mindedly with shrinking government want the government to stop spending money on science research simply because they don’t like government spending. Often they will try to simplify an important government-funded study in order to portray it to the public as wasteful. On the 2008 campaign trail, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin said, “Sometimes these dollars, they go to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good, things like fruit fly research in Paris, France.” Palin was mocked when it was pointed out that research on the Drosophila melanogaster fruit fly was the basis of human benefit research for which Thomas Hunt Morgan won the Nobel Prize in 1933. The huge amount of benefits humanity has derived from Morgan’s research, which are ongoing, certainly couldn’t have been forecast at the time. No matter how clichéd the economic arguments are, this ceaseless barrage of criticism keeps ever growing. Not only are these viewpoints flawed, they are included within a neo-Luddite trend that is also extremely dangerous.
First of all, let’s analyze the economic argument. The advocates of “uplift of poor” show a shocking lack of even rudimentary understanding of both science research and economics. The auxiliary industries from space research are probably the greatest and most prominent among any research. Inventions as varied as energy saving LED bulbs, geopositioning satellites used for phone and cars, frying pans, canned foods, modern fibers and metal alloys, software and meteorological technology, and more, which make our modern existence possible, can be attributed to technologies that originated because of space research.
The biggest argument made by the activists in India is that space research does nothing to save suffering downtrodden people. But space research has already saved the masses more than once. During the last two cyclones in Bay of Bengal, owing to the most accurate forecasts in entire Indian subcontinent, the entire coastlines were evacuated, businesses were protected, fishermen barred from going to work, and millions lives were saved. Without investment in space research, there could have been catastrophic tragedies.
There are advocates who would prefer governments spending more and more money on social services, than any scientific research. “Build toilets instead of nuclear plants and rockets,” is the common rallying cry. By that logic, the entire investment on science, technology, industries, railways, during the industrial revolution days was misplaced, and Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Nicola Tesla, and every other Renaissance man should have been building toilets. After all, Europe in those days was not very sanitary or hygienic. Columbus and other explorers should have stayed back, believing the world is flat. If they had, we never would have made the world flat. Newton would have done apple farming rather than trying to understand the forces of gravity.
Science research and development is a huge industry, especially in developing countries, with billions of people actively working, which keeps the global economy rolling, supports families, maintains a work force and creates innovation that makes our lives easier and those of future generations. The government, moreover, is a necessary player in the funding process. In the U.S., 57 percent of basic research funding came from the federal government in 2008, and only 18 percent came from business, because businesses spend most of their R&D budget on developmental research that can create viable commercial products. When James Clerk Maxwell discovered radio waves in 1867, no one could guess the impact it would have in our daily lives, revolutionizing communication around us. There were similarly skeptics of Wright brothers, when they dreamed of human flight. And yet here we are, a species that could barely fly a hundred years back, now planning to colonize another planet for resettlement and mining.
There is a natural instinct among many people to oppose any new technology or idea. For one thing, people are afraid of change and afraid of the uncertain. The idea of genes being crossed from different species into another — the “Frankenfood” myth—may sound strange and “unnatural” when it is first described to someone untrained in plant sciences, but so do many new things that become introduced. Acceptance of gay people still lags in many societies because of the false and logically fallacious “unnatural” argument.
Berezow and Campbell in their book Science Left Behind tie many of the anti-science beliefs afflicting the Western world today to the cult of the “natural”. Anything deemed “natural” is considered by some to be safe and better than “unnatural” things. Thus, some people will drink unpasteurized milk because that is how it came from the cow, never mind that pasteurization prevents many diseases which can come from raw milk. Anti-vaxxers are scared of vaccinations because they are based on science and might opt for some kind of “alternative medicine” even if it doesn’t work in reality. Pop culture doctors like Mehmet Oz sell flim flam “natural” products like green coffee extract on the basis that they are “magic” and “miracle” solutions. Cell phones, wifi, and wind farms have all sparked paranoias about headaches or cancer from the new technologies that studies have again and again found ungrounded.
“Of course, rattlesnakes come from nature,” the authors wrote, “as does arsenic. And how about the entire process of agriculture? Plowing, sowing seeds, harvesting — none of that is, strictly speaking, natural. In order to cultivate food, farms destroy the existing environment.”
To insist on “natural” products (even if an exception can be made for organically farmed crops), is thus, to insist on Stone Age technologies, to oppose modernity itself. All the technological advances known to man that help extend our lifespans, cure diseases, and increase the quality of life to levels never known in the history of the world are based on the concepts of using science to manipulate the world around us for the benefit of humanity. To oppose science and technology, then, is not really a progressive goal to advance humanity; it is the exact opposite, a regressive state of mind that opposes progress. To follow the anti-science agenda would be to oppose new medical procedures that can cure the sick, farming techniques that can increase crop yields even in places that suffer from drought to feed more of the world’s hungry, and to do all kinds of good.
Ironically, some groups whose supposed causes would have helped by these very scientific advances oppose them. We have already noted how nuclear power is much better for the environment than other viable alternatives, and crops that are genetically resistant to pests would decrease the usage of pesticides, which are a problem for the environment as well as for human health, though Greenpeace is opposed to both. Raising livestock also uses a lot of resources and contributes to global warming, from the energy used to grow and transport plants for the feed to cow burps. Yet, when the San Francisco Chronicle wrote an article in 2013 about the promising developments in the field of lab-grown meat, Greenpeace gave them a statement that said they opposed it because, “Synthetic meat distracts agricultural research and funding away from ecological farming, the real solution to the disastrous livestock model that causes environmental and socioeconomic crises and does not meet the dietary needs.”
“When Edison invented the lightbulb he put countless candle makers out of work. When Steve Jobs invented the iPod, traditional stereo manufacturers took a hit.”
It’s not only extremists and new age psychotics, business interest groups have a financial incentive to oppose change. As Matt Miller wrote in The Tyranny of Dead Ideas, “When Edison invented the lightbulb he put countless candle makers out of work. When Steve Jobs invented the iPod, traditional stereo manufacturers took a hit.” A 1991 Radio Shack flier popularized on the internet this spring shows $3,000 worth of electronics—including an alarm clock, a computer, and a camcorder—whose functions can all be done now on an iPhone. What’s bad for Radio Shack is good for consumers, though, who now have access to all of those functions in a cheaper and more convenient form.
So it is no surprise companies competing in related industries are also some of the fiercest opponents of technological advances. Organic farming companies poured money into anti-GMO referendums in Colorado and Washington this November, and car dealers trade associations have lobbied successfully for states like Colorado, New Jersey, Texas, Arizona, and Virginia to ban the sale of the Tesla Motors, whose electric Model S was named 2013 “Car of the Year” by Motor Trend magazine, because its model of direct sales threatens dealer profits. Similarly the use of Thorium as a nuclear fuel is being opposed by oil companies.
Thorium is a material that is found in abundance in China and India and can produce more energy than Uranium, and, as an added benefit, it cannot be used as a nuclear weapon, making it easier to slow nuclear proliferation. The spin on Thorium being dangerous is plainly ridiculous as Thorium is the most non-reactive radioactive material, and that’s specifically the reason why it cannot be used as a bomb. However as the world population is expected to touch 9 billion around 2050, it will be naïve to think we have much time to find a cleaner and renewable energy source, and Thorium might well be the answer.
It’s a similar story in every industry in every era, and every time it results, at best, in a slowdown in human advancement, and at worst in tragedy. The march of extremists, from Greenpeace to the Tea Party, urging actions to ban scientific advancement with the force of law or even the burning down of research labs, is eerily reminiscent of one dark cold night in Germany around eighty years ago, when thousands of books were burned by youths wearing black shirts in the name of ideology. If we are ever to move forward as a people, we need to throw away such discredited doctrines along with the predecessors from whence they came.
Mitchell Blatt is a columnist, author, and editor. His writings are available at www.ChinaTravelWriter.com and he tweets at https://twitter.com/MitchBlatt. Subscribe by email at www.ChinaTravelWriter.com to receive updates when he publishes new articles.
Both authors are columnists for China.org.cn.