As James Randi continues his recovery from heart surgery, he's asked Hal Bidlack to line up some stellar guest writers for Swift.
This Week's Swift was written by Dr. Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer.
I’m so very pleased to bring the words, insights, and passion of Dr. Phil Plait to Mr. Randi’s readers this week. And, as an aside, just this day, February 28th as I type this, Mr. Randi called me for the first time since his illness. We had a terrible cell phone connection, so he either said “Hal? This is Randi, how are you?” or, perhaps, he said “Hotel? Chips are fancy, chow for blue?” It was hard to tell, but it was GREAT to hear his voice!
But back to Phil Plait: I mentioned in my TAM talk that I have been amazed by the remarkable people willing to be my friend. Phil Plait is such a person. He is a wonderful combination of brilliant intellect, warm heart, and terrific writer and speaker. Phil is really one of my very favorite people.
Back when I started college at the University of Michigan (same as Phil) in 1976 (not the same as Phil), I was an astronomy major. I ultimately switched to political science, but I’ve always had a love of looking up. Phil has magnificently combined the wonder and joy of the sky above with a keen scientific insight. He also brings the deep passion of a sage and the gentle good humor of the wit. In this column, however, we get to see Phil’s passion turn to anger and frustration regarding the recent unseemly problems within NASA. This subject, global climate change, is near and dear to my own heart. My doctoral work was in the area of environmental security and politics, and I was honored to serve two summers (97 and 98) on the NSC staff, working directly on climate change issues. It definitely warms my heart to see Phil leap into this issue with both feet.
For those of you who may not know, Phil is a very important voice of reason in promoting science in general, and astronomy in particular. He runs a critically important web site, www.badastronomy.com, in which Phil takes on those silly people who claim we didn’t go to the moon, there is a Planet X inbound to our solar system, and such nonsense. He blogs wonderfully, with a rich understanding of human nature, and how regular folks like us can connect with astronomy. Please do read the bio section of his website, to learn much more about this remarkable fellow. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, has worked as a contractor funded by NASA, has taught, and is the only guy I know who can truthfully say “well, when I was taking pictures with the Hubble Space Telescope the other day…”
I know that Mr. Randi just loves the guy, and I do too. I’m delighted to bring to you this week’s guest commentary from one of the best guys you are ever going to meet, Dr. Phil Plait…
OK, duh. Science has been under attack as long as there’s been science. History is full of stories of superstition putting a jack-booted heel to the face of reality. 2500 years ago, Pythagoreans supposedly killed people who knew the square root of two was an irrational number. Things aren’t much better now. In fact, current efforts to deny science are decidedly more damaging, and they’re coming from many fronts.
The most obvious is the fundamentalist outrage that schools dare teach evolution to children. The articles about this are legion, so I need not go into detail here. And despite huge victories as in Dover Pennsylvania, where the conservative (and religious) Judge Jones used the phrase “breathtaking inanity” when referring to the way the school board there plotted to include Intelligent Design in the curriculum, the fight will continue to rage. Like a virus, such antiscientific assaults cannot be stopped-- they can only be mitigated. No state, no school district is safe from creationists.
Nor is any field of science safe. Of course, astronomy is an obvious target by fundamentalists, since we astronomers have the gall to use the evidence of the Universe itself to study its structure and (dare I say it?) evolution. We even go so far as to claim we have a pretty good grasp on how it started, and, needless to say, any resemblance between that event and anything written in Genesis is passing at best.
These attacks have already started. I predicted this on my blog (www.badastronomy.com/bablog/2005/06/12/the-fort-sumter-of-creationist-astronomy) not that this was too hard to see coming (Randi’s megabuck is safe from me). What I certainly didn’t foretell was that this rot might come from inside our very own space agency.
If you haven’t been living under some sort of rock (and really, it’s been millions of years since our ancestors did that) then you probably heard of one George Deutsch, Public Affairs Officer for NASA. He became suddenly and embarrassingly famous when he tried to squelch the findings of NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen, who is quite outspoken about anthropocentric global warming. Hansen claimed (and has evidence to back it up) that Deutsch denied him interviews with the media, and a lot of NASA scientists have come forward – again, with documentary evidence – corroborating Hansen’s story.
Deutsch also wanted another NASA scientist to make sure he put the word “theory” on a website everywhere the Big Bang was mentioned. Not because it is, after all, a scientific theory, but because the Big Bang is “not proven fact; it is opinion… 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.”
Yes, you read that correctly. Deutsch wanted the Big Bang to take a back seat to Intelligent Design. At NASA.
Speaking of intelligent, Deutsch resigned a few days after this news came out, when it came to light that he lied on his resume; he claimed he graduated from college when in fact he dropped out to take the NASA post.
So we have
telling NASA scientists what they can and cannot say about their scientific findings.
How could someone possibly get into a position of such authority with absolutely no qualifications whatsoever?
If you guessed “political appointee,” stick a gold star on your forehead.
Deutsch was given this position by the current Administration because he worked for the Bush/Cheney ticket in the 2004 campaign. That’s it. That’s his sole qualification for being put in a place where he could distort and suppress science.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be. This current Administration has a long and successful history of science bashing. Global warming, the Big Bang, evolution, alternative energy sources, the environment, stem cell research, contraceptive medicine, HIV/AIDS, and even the most basic platforms of science education have all been abused under Bush’s Administration. These attacks may be motivated by religion, ideology, or possibly as base a reason as money; but they are real, and getting worse.
Did this sort of thing happen under Democratic rule? You betcha, but not on anywhere near this scale. The big difference now is that the day-to-day science of the government is being manipulated politically, and purposely suppressed on a massive scale. Again, this is documented, and is a matter of such high importance that the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote a report about in February 2004 titled “Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: an Investigation into the Bush Administration’s Misuse of Science”, an eye-opening document with details and evidence of scientific tampering. Everything involving science is under political scrutiny, from the NOAA to NASA to NIH, and the science whitewashed if deemed contrary to Administration goals.
This is most resoundingly not an issue that is of concern only to liberals; conservatives should be even more outraged that their basic core values – personal freedoms, corporate responsibility, and a history of scientific support – have been perverted. This problem is pervasive, it is endemic, and it is of absolute critical importance if we are to maintain our status as the premier scientific nation on Earth. We are raising a generation of children ignorant of the most basic principles of science, and numbing a vast array of voters to the dangers.
It’s not just evolution under attack, and it’s not just in Kansas anymore. It’s everything, and it’s everywhere.
The first step to fighting it is to be aware of it. Commentaries like Randi’s are a great place to start. They promote critical thinking and skepticism. Blogs are another excellent source of information. Of course they may be biased, but by reading a broad range of blogs you are likely to get enough information to make an informed decision, or to spur an effort to obtain more data. If I may be so bold, blogs like mine, and others such as Pharyngula (scienceblogs.com/pharyngula), The Intersection (scienceblogs.com/intersection), Thoughts from Kansas (jgrr.blogspot.com), and Aetiology (scienceblogs.com/aetiology) promote scientific thinking, and engender a sense of the wonder and joy of science while simultaneously pointing out the attacks science is undergoing. The mainstream media is finally just now catching on to this as well (abcnews.go.com/Technology/wireStory?id=1595122, www.nytimes.com/2006/02/08/politics/08nasa.html, www.nytimes.com/2006/01/29/science/earth/29climate.html, www.nytimes.com/2006/02/04/science/04climate.html).
As Thomas Jefferson said, whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government. But the opposite is true as well: If we are ill-informed, we are at the mercy of those who are willing, motivated, and able to keep us that way.
Our friend Penn Jillette has his own daily radio show now, and you can listen live at penn.freefm.com from 2pm to 3pm Eastern every weekday. Randi and the JREF are mentioned often, as is the hit show "Bulls Hit."
Planning for The Amaz!ng Adventure is well underway, and we're awaiting word on who will be our special guest lecturers for the journey. We'll let you know here as soon as we can. In the meantime, remember that the 10% discount ends in a few weeks! Visit www.amazingmeeting.com for the latest on upcoming Amazing Meetings.