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 scientific spokespersons.
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 organisms."
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.