Scientists Rally to Quell Anti-Science Political Movements

Article excerpt

Scientists feel threatened by something they consider more insidious than funding cuts. It's a rising tide of anti-science sentiment that they believe could erode public trust in their work and submerge their status in society.

University scientists are finding that some liberal arts colleagues now argue that science has no more validity than other "ways of knowing" - unverified personal intuitions or such hoary humbugs as astrology, parapsychology, and spiritualism. In this view, mysticism and magic would have equal rank with knowledge gained by observations and experiments that can be repeated and independently verified.

What's new is that scientists who have tried to ignore what they consider nonsense now may be ready to fight back. A few weeks ago, a couple hundred of them met for three days at the New York Academy of Sciences to assess the situation. It is too soon to know whether this will result in a significant counterattack. But the discussions did drive home the point that scientists have to face up to the insidious nature of the anti-science threat.

Harvard University science historian Gerald Holton, who took part in the conference, has been trying to sound this alarm for several years. In his book Science and Anti-science (Harvard University Press, 1993), he explains that scientists are not just confronted by relatively harmless delusions such as mental telepathy. They also face a hard core of people who hold strongly to alternative world views that devalue objective, impersonal science and who are committed politically to imposing their views on society.

The persistent drive of religious fundamentalists to have "creation science" taught as an alternative to evolution in public school science courses is a contemporary case in point. But the dark side of a marriage of anti-science to political power is better illustrated by Nazi "scientific" racial theories used to justify the Holocaust or the Stalinist "science" of the former Soviet Union.

It was politically dangerous in Stalin's Russia to promote Einstein's relativity theories or certain aspects of quantum physics. …