Thursday, February 09, 2006

Republican war on science watch

Last week, we learned that Bush-appointed PR flacks at NASA were attempting to censor the organisation's top climate change scientist to prevent him from presenting inconvenient facts on global warming. But it's not just global warming that is in their sights. In October last year, one of those same PR flacks instructed a NASA web-designer to add the word "theory" after every reference to the Big bang. His reason?

The Big Bang is "not proven fact; it is opinion," Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, "It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator."

It continued: "This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA. That would mean we had failed to properly educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most."

Really, this is a government, of, by, and for banjo playing Kansas hicks. Next they'll probably be demanding that NASA remove any references to heliocentrism or the stars being other suns, as its "not NASA's place to make declarations about man's place in the universe"...

(Hat tip: Washington Monthly)


You're a bit behind the times on this one, the gentleman involved has subsequently resigned. He appears to have falsified his qualifications on his resume... here and here


Posted by Anonymous : 2/09/2006 11:13:00 AM

I know. I spent far too long trying to work that in under the theme of "making the president look good" (the guys description of his role). But it didn't work out, so I decided to focus on the banjo-playing hick factor instead.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 2/09/2006 11:34:00 AM

i never thought i'd actually say this, but "in the redneck's defence" the Big Bang is just a theory.

and it's not even a very good one. my astrophysics degree is being downloaded, but i did see a serious docco that tried to argue einstein inventing it in response to pressures from a local clergyman.

apparently, the bigbang was a way to accomodate the 'finger of god' getting the whole 'universe' ball rolling. plus, it linked well to the question of why all universe appears to be expanding.

the possible irony being that you've described a religious guy trying to undermine a theory proposed to keep another religious guy happy.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/09/2006 11:49:00 AM

che, Einstein didn't come up with the big bang theory. It's generally credited to Edwin Hubble.

Einstein in fact made what he later called the biggest mistake in his career when he jigged his general realivity equations to explicitly favour a stable universe.

I can't help thinking that the doco might not have been that creditable.

But the big bang theory stil has quite a few problems and there are a range of variations but I 'd think that many scientists would deny that the universe started off small and expanded.

So not much of a defense for this chap. But I would like to know what alternatives Deutsch had in mind. Maybe it was a genuine statement about scientific method or may be he believes it all started 6,00 years ago.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/09/2006 12:15:00 PM

that should be "...but I don't think that many scientists would deny that the universe started off small and expanded."

Posted by Anonymous : 2/09/2006 12:16:00 PM

I read your fisk, I'm not impressed. Those denying anthropic climate change keep saying "we need more data, it's all just models"

And as laypeople we don't know. I tend to fall back on the smartest person I personally know; a cosmologist at a major American university. He actually understands the climate models. He says, like apparently nearly everyone else with some insight on the issue, that there's a problem, and it's anthropogenic.

Now that even the evangelical Christians are lining up, I suspect that it would take a whole lot of effort to find AL's naysaying "younger scientists". That, of course, will not stop people trying ...


Posted by Russell Brown : 2/09/2006 06:15:00 PM

So what about those of us who are working scientists and do understand "the models" and come to a different conclusion?

BTW my PhD supervisor was a cosmologist (well, that was one of his fields anyway) at a major NZ university and was a bible-literalist. Argument from apparent authority is a very tricky thing.

If anything the NASA debacles are yet more good examples of why the bloated bureaucracy it is should be savagely pruned or shutdown.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/09/2006 07:08:00 PM

There will always be some debate in the scientific community over issues. Deciding where broad consensus lies over what is the most likely explanation is a pretty good way to judge scientific debates.

You'll always get dissent from the fringe - and sometimes (although not very often) over time the fringe becomes consensus.

Even Bjorn Lomborg, when I spoke to him, agreed that there's anthropic climate change. "It's certainly indisputable that there is global warming, and that it is partly caused by man."

Even more interestingly, 86 American evangelicals86 American evangelicals leaders have thrown their weight behind antropic climate change.

It says something if the scientific and religious communities of America see eye-to-eye on an issue.


Posted by Matt : 2/09/2006 10:49:00 PM

Dissent is not always on the fringe. Take a collection of cosmologists and ask them whether or not the cosmological constant is zero. Neither position is fringe, yet has huge importance to cosmological theories, and you won't find "consensus" except that setting it to zero is simplest. That question is not even political.

Relying on a consensus is a first approximation. But when it is not clear there is even a consensus among the true expert field it becomes problematic. Why do I not take the "modelling" to be so reliable? Because I work with physics and modelling every day. Why would I trust the consensus presented, when my opinions and experience aren't what could be called fringe?

Lomborg's position has always been one of it being better to adapt than to drastically alter the economy. His position doesn't really bear on the judging of modelling results.

Frankly that a given group of Christians agrees is utterly irrelevant, unless you admit that their religious beliefs somehow impact on the fundamentals of data collection, statistics and modelling. Although why "Christians" should have a position on climate models I'm not sure. Evolution I can see, but climate?

But again, why do I come to a different conclusion to the "consensus" when I have most likely better qualifications than a cosmologist, no financial interest and no political interest?

Posted by Anonymous : 2/09/2006 11:22:00 PM

Is there a Republican "war on science"? Isn't it really just a disagreement over policy.

Take global warming - the US governement spends billions of dollars on global warming researcn. Bush acknowledges that it is occuring. But he advocates a different solution to that of Kyoto. Isn't that actually a reasonable policy decision to make? Even though one might disgree with it hardly ammounts to a "war on science".

If you go back and look a Clinton he was often in disagreement with scientists over policy and even Gore had a falling out with the perpetually outspoken Hansen. Sience cannot determine government policy, that's a matter for politics.

I don't think that that sort of demonsing of one's opponents is constructive.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/09/2006 11:51:00 PM

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator. Posted by Matt : 2/10/2006 07:48:00 AM

che, after a bit of hunting around it turns out the big bang theory was first suggested by two people one of which, Georges Lemaître, was indeed a priest. So maybe there was something that doco afterll but just with some confusion over personalities.

But the wikipedia entry on Lemaître has this -

"This proposal [BBT] caused a sharp reaction from the scientific community of the time. Eddington found Lemaître's notion unpleasant. As for Einstein, he found it suspect, because, according to him, it was too strongly reminiscent of the Christian dogma of creation and was unjustifiable from a physical point of view. The debate between cosmology and religion took the form of a polemic that would last several decades. In this debate, Lemaître would be a fundamental actor who unceasingly tried to separate science from faith."

So Lemaître was a scientist first believer second, but it's unclear from the rest of the entry just how Lemaître saw the relation between the BBT and the "creation" of the universe. It's possible that he saw the BB as god jump-starting the universe. All wikipedia has is -

"Lemaître himself liked to describe his theory as "the Cosmic Egg exploding at the moment of the creation", which was later to be coined by his critics as the Big Bang theory".

Posted by Anonymous : 2/10/2006 08:23:00 AM

neil, thanks. i thought it prudent not to kick up a fuss about a documentary i may well have watched at 2am...

the BBT being informed by Judeo-Christian thought is kind of intuitive though. another culture might have posited a theory that the universe has just existed forever, and expands and contracts under an unknown force.

which would explain the movement of galaxies as efficiently as a primeval explosion. or, at least it does based on my expansive knowledge of "that astronomy stuff".

by way of example, another favourite anthropomorphic-sounding theory of mine is the one where comets and meteors float to Earth to begin Life.

maybe Gaia should have stayed on the pill.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/10/2006 12:38:00 PM

It's possible as you suggest that the Judeo-Christian tradition may have scewed things towards a "begining". But then many cultures have creation myths. I think most do. Which suggests that the idea of a begining is profound in some sense. Also many contributors to modern physics have come from non-Judeo-Christian cultures.

What occurs to me is that any decsription of even something like the BBT is ultimately a story. And stories have beginings, middles and ends. (Unless you go out of your way to be all post-modernist in which case your audience drops off considerably).

Another sort of related issue is our ability to form mental represntations of what is going on. Take the old wave/particle duality thing. We know what a wave does and what a partilce does becasue they are things we have observed and have had experience of throughout our evolution. So naturally when it comes to thinking about the subatomic world we use these categories, only to find they don't work so well. Which is hardly surprising. Perhaps if our consciuosness existed at the subatomic level we would have evolved categories that represented that world better.

So i think we are a bit trapped by our mind when it comes to forming a picture or a story of what the nature and behaviour of the unviverse is. One variation on the BBT is the boundary-less uninverse where there is no begining and no end but at the same time expansion and contraction.

I'm just still trying to work out why all electrons are the same. How do they do it - compare notes?

Posted by Anonymous : 2/10/2006 01:37:00 PM

i agree. we tend to use ideas that can be easily translated for listeners, and i think the trend is worsening with TV attention spans.

thing is though, not all cultures have 'instanteous' creation myths. witness maori with rangi and papa (they were just 'there').

on the other hand, the electrons are probably just a bit like oompa-loompa. the neutrons found them somewhere to do all the work.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/10/2006 03:42:00 PM