Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Politicizing Science

Tibor R. Machan

As many who read my columns would know, I am an avid reader of Science News, the magazine of the Society for Science and the Public located in Washington, D. C. It's now been a few decades that I have been kept abreast of developments in a great variety of sciences, natural and social, by reading this publication.

Recently the editors have made some changes, some of them quite desirable but others objectionable. For example, the size and format has changed. The magazine now is no longer a little thin "book" but is, like so many others, a formidable size and the writing is more developed than it has been in the past. Some new features have also been added but one of these is not a welcome one, at least not by anyone who would insist on keeping government and science separated other than where military readiness requires it. The feature I am referring to is called "Comment" wherein various luminaries opine about science and public affairs.

In the issue before me, for example, Steven Hyman, provost at Harvard University and former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, offers his opinion about how attitudes toward governmental support of science education fare in America versus elsewhere around the globe. Hyman is, of course, doing what all special interest advocates do, namely, asking for more money for what concerns them, in this case the growth of research, development, and science education. Like other special interest representatives, Hyman makes his wishes clear now that there is likely to be regime change in Washington: "[I]t is much to be hoped that the next president of the United States will recognize the benefits of a healthy scientific enterprise. Ideally the new administration will craft policies to produce steady growth in federal research budgets, more welcoming immigration policies for foreign scientists and respect for science...."

Actually, ideally, if that is not too fanciful a term to use in this context, the federal government--indeed, any government--of a free society ought to refrain from backing any science that does not directly bear on its job of securing the rights of its citizens. That is what government is for in free countries and any other kind of support for science is no different from supporting special groups of citizens rather than the public as a whole.

In a free society the support of the public as a whole consists of providing everyone with the liberty to pursue his or her own ends in voluntary cooperation with like-minded and willing fellow citizens. It is wrong--political malpractice--to take funds away from some and transfer it, without their consent, to others for however worthy a purpose. Whether other countries breach this principle of free government is irrelevant. Just as in the United States the freedom of the press and of religious worship is protected and a proper separation between government and these elements of society is legally upheld to a substantial degree, so there should be no involvement in the funding of science.

One example Hyman mentions of what he believes needs more support than it receives is stem cell research and it is a good one because it illustrates just how similar government funding of and involvement in science is to government funding of and involvement in religion. Many citizens believe it is wrong to do stem cell research, mostly on religious grounds. Whatever one may think of the merits of this belief, in a free country citizens have the right to live by their convictions provided they respect others' equal rights. But taking funds from some of them to support work they believe is immoral violates this principle. And stem cell research isn't the only kind that involves such a violation.

Now my ideas on this topic are, of course, radical and will not even get a fair hearing in the mainstream media (which, being so fond of the First Amendment, really ought to get on the same page with me here). Nonetheless the point needs to be made, especially when someone who is as prominent as Steven Hyman chimes in on the opposite side.

My more immediate concern, however, is that Science News is drifting away from its mission of giving good coverage to scientific work toward becoming a platform for what is clearly an insidious political agenda. I guess the temptation to steal from Peter to fund the work of Paul, if you like Paul's work a lot, is too powerful to resist.
Machan is the editor of Liberty and R&D (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2002).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Doubting One’s Mind

Tibor R. Machan

A central topic of philosophy throughout the ages has been whether human beings can trust their minds, including their sensory awareness and thinking. Skepticism about this has been a major challenge and many from Socrates to such recent and current thinkers as Ayn Rand and John Searle have responded with more or less elaborate arguments defending our capacity to get things right about the world.

Just now a new source of skepticism has surfaced, from within the field of neuroscience. In a recent review essay of several books on the topic, “How the Mind Works: Revelations,” published in The New York Review of Books (6/26/08), Israel Rosenfield and Edward Ziff write, “In fact ‘external reality’ is a construction of the brain.” Several of the authors they discuss argue this point. As the review notes, “In general, every recollection refers not only to the remembered event or person or object but to the person who is remembering,” meaning that memory is not about an objective reality but of some mishmash of subjective experience and external influence.

In essence, then, what one understands about the world and oneself is really not what actually exists but what is constructed by one’s mind with the use of other cognitive tools. The problem with this is that it makes no sense in the end because what the researchers are telling us would also be covered by their claim and so it is also just some mental construction, which then is also some further mental construction, ad infinitum and ad nauseum. But that cannot be. At some point the researchers would have to accept that what they are telling us about the human mind is actually so, not also just a construct or invention.

In any case, why would there be so much interest in discrediting the human mind, of writing elaborate tomes that argue that our understanding of the world and ourselves is fabrication, not objectively true?

Some folks say that to a question like that one needs to answer by following the money--that is to say, checking who is gaining from these so called findings. I am not such a cynic. As far as I can tell, some of these scientists and the reporters who seem to be so gleeful about what this work produces may well be sincere. Yet I also suspect there is something fishy afoot here and my suspicion is that there is a tendency on the part of many of these experts to come up with findings that assign to them a special role in the world. They are, in effect, the only people who have a clear handle on how things go with human beings. They are the only reliable source of facts--as Rosenfield and Zinn say, “In fact. ‘external reality’ is a construction of the brain.” You and I are not up to snuff about the matter, we are deluded and misguidedly think that when we see a red coffee cup on the kitchen table, there really is such a cup there. But Rosenfield and Ziff and the scientists they are reviewing will inform us that “there are no colors in the world, only electromagnetic waves of many frequencies.”

But if you just think for a moment, this is nonsense. It is like saying there is no furniture in my living room, only chairs and tables and sofas. Well, but it is those chairs, tables, and sofas that are the furniture. It is, then, the electromagnetic waves doing certain work that are the colors, so colors do indeed exist in the world. Thus telling someone that there is a red cup on the kitchen table is exactly right! It may not tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth about what is there but few people need to have that in order to cope quite well with the world around them.

The same problem faced some physicists who claimed that there is nothing that’s solid in the world because everything is composed of atoms and atoms, in turn, are mostly empty space with only very tiny bits of material substance swirling within them at enormous speeds. Ergo, solidity is an illusion. But this is to drop the context of discussions where the distinction between, say, solidity and liquidity comes up. It is misguided to make the leap from one context to another where the focus is quite different.

When we ordinary humans notice the world around us, learn to identify what it contains, begin to understand the forces at work in it, if we pay attention we can get it right for the purposes that we need this understanding. To try to undermine this confidence based on highly specialized research is misguided and perhaps ill conceived. It appears to assign to some people some special status even though, by their own accounts, no one ultimately can figure anything out.