Even less science

Two more items on the Less Science front. (See “Less Science” and “More on Less Science” for earlier items.)
  • Why are some conservatives hitching their wagon to Intelligent Design?
    American Spectator (subscriber only) has a cover article (Dan Peterson, “Three Little Engines”) with, as Jason Rosenhouse of EvolutionBlog puts it, “a rehashing of the standard ID talking points”. Offhand, I’d say that we are on the way to re-establishing the political alignments of the 20s and 30s, when many scientists, having been put off by the alliance of right-wing or fascist politics with anti-science, were, if not socialists or marxists, at least progressives.
  • Worse yet is what looks like an attempt at intimidation by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Ennis, TX) of some climate scientists.
    Barton, in his capacity as chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has sent out “letters requesting information regarding global warming studies” to several prominent researchers. By sheer coincidence, as it were, their work strongly suggests that the 20th century has witnessed unusual warming, which is therefore likely to have been brought about by human activity. As Kevin Vranes points out, Barton did not send similar letters to researchers whose work is supposed to cast doubt on global warming, even though their claims are “far more controversial and scientifically questioned than the Mann et al. papers” (whose reconstruction of temperature change in the Northern Hemisphere from 1400 to 1980 has recently been confirmed by Wahl & Ammann).
    Chris Mooney comments:
    There's a word for this: Harrassment. Indeed, it’s a deeply chilling attack on scientists who, faced with such onerous and menacing requests, may well be intimidated in the future from even conducting research in hot button areas like global warming. And even ignoring the intimidation factor, providing the information that Barton requests would surely take a massive amount of time that could be much more productively spent doing actual scientific research.
    Vranes, though he notes that requests of this sort are a legitimate instrument for Congress to use in overseeing federally-funded research, concludes that “the letters are primarily meant to embarrass and harass and the hearings [i.e. the hearings for which the request for information is a preliminary], if they ever happen, could be seen as an abuse of power”. Given the record of the Bush administration and its allies in suppressing science they regard as politically inconvenient (see “We interrupt…”), I think abuse is the right word.
Science—not just applied, but basic—has done well in the US because funding is generous and because the work of scientists has been relatively unimpeded by political or ideological constraints. These are contingent circumstances. There is no reason, if they are altered, to suppose that the US will remain in the forefront. Science is an international endeavor. If some of the best scientists from other countries come here and stay, they do so because they expect that their research will be supported and that their livelihood will depend only on the scientific quality of their work, not their politics. Should that change, we can expect that they will go elsewhere.
Real science
Scientists invest enormous time and labor in their research. Here’s an example, interesting in its own right. Cindy Lee Van Dover has been studying the fauna and flora in thermal vents at rift boundaries on the ocean floor since 1986 (see Zimmer, “Light”). Her first work consisted in showing that shrimp from the vents had photoreceptors, indicating the presence of light. She began wondering whether photosynthesis might be occurring—far below the depths that sunlight can reach. “When we came off the boat in 1988, I had a beer with a colleague of mine, and I said, ‘Hey, what if there’s enough light for photosynthesis?’ He just said, ‘What a stupid Idea.’ But that was the big hook for me. What if there were?”
She was encouraged in her quest by Euan Nisbet, a geologist at the University of London who was studying the early history of life (see Nisbet & Fowler 2004). Her efforts have now met with success. Van Dover and her co-workers have published a paper describing “the isolation and cultivation of a previously unknown green sulfur bacterial species from a deep-sea hydrothermal vent, where the only source of light is geothermal radiation that includes wavelengths absorbed by photosynthetic pigments of this organism” (see Beatty et al. 2005). Van Dover has, of course, done other things since 1986. But for almost twenty years—the better part of a career—she has been looking for photosynthetic organisms. The discovery has implications not only for our understanding of life on Earth but for the possibility of life elsewhere, on planets or moons where underground thermal activity may be the only source of light.
I doubt that Rep. Barton will ever write Van Dover a letter (even though she mentions evolution on no fewer than 66 pages of her book, without mentioning Intelligent Design even once!). But suppose you have, as she has, given over your working life to the study of living things, and suppose that some ideologue denigrates your work while exhibiting no understanding of the issues, or decides to waste your time with pointless requests for information. Suppose that you have, as someone like Van Dover does, the choice of doing your work in another state or another country where such things are much less likely to occur. Wouldn’t the thought of moving occur to you? It took German mathematics a long time to recover from the losses sustained in the 1930s (see Mac Lane 1995). I doubt that in 1900 or even 1920 anyone would have thought that Germany was not going to continue to be the world’s leader. The US is so big and so wealthy that it can handle large doses of folly and waste. But who knows what a really determined attempt to ruin this country could accomplish?
Beatty, J. Thomas, Jörg Overmann , Michael T. Lince , Ann K. Manske , Andrew S. Lang, Robert E. Blankenship , Cindy L. Van Dover, Tracey A. Martinson, and F. Gerald Plumley. 2005. “An obligately photosynthetic bacterial anaerobe from a deep-sea hydrothermal vent”. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sciences (US) 2005 (electronic version before print).
Mac Lane 1995. “Mathematics at Göttingen under the Nazis”. Notices of the Amer. Mathematical Soc. 42.10 (Oct 1995): 1134–1138. See also Jochen Brüning, review of Sanford L. Segal, Mathematicians under the Nazis, Notices AMS 52.4 (Apr 2005): 435–438. [Free registration required] On the situation in Italy, see Michele Benzi, “Autarchici teoremi. Aspects of Italian mathematics during the Fascist period”.
Nisbet, Euan G. and C. M. R. Fowler. 2004. “The early history of life”. In Treatise on Geochemistry (eds H.D. Holland and K.K. Turekian), v. 8, Biogeochemistry (ed. W.H. Schelsinger) (Oxford: Elsevier-Pergamon, 2004) pp. 1–39.
Rosenhouse, Jason. 2005. “The conservative assault on evolution continues”, EvolutionBlog 17 Jun 2005. See also Mark Trodden, “ Tell Joe Barton how you feel”, Orange Quark 27 Jun 2005, and Chris Mooney, “A GOP Abuse of Science—and of Power”.
Van Dover, Cindy Lee. 2000. The ecology of deep-sea hydrothermal vents (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000). · 0691049297
Vranes, Kevin. 2005. “The Barton letters”, No/Se/Nada 28 Jun 2005. Another version is at Prometheus 28 June 2005.
Wahl, Eugene R. & Caspar M. Ammann. 2005. “Robustness of the Mann, Bradley, Hughes reconstruction of surface temperatures: examination of criticisms based on the nature and processing of proxy climate evidence”. Under review for Climate change. The abstract is dated 10 May 2005.
Zimmer, Carl. 1996. “The light at the bottom of the sea—light-emitting hydrothermal vents”. Discover Nov 1996.
Zimmer, Carl. Date. “Light from dark”. The Loom 21 June 2005.

LinkJune 29, 2005 in Current Affairs · Science