What’s the matter with science? By that, do I mean, why don’t we turn away from corrupt politics and religion and follow the way of science? Or do I mean, why have we allowed science to so corrupt our politics and our culture? I mean, of course, both.
We don’t need an uneducated jackass telling people how to control a viral pandemic because he’s a president. At the same time, we don’t need corporate, for-profit, and ignorant media outlets using the arrogant science of computer models to predict the course of a pandemic in a manner at odds with what has already happened in the actual world with this pandemic, not to mention past ones.
We don’t need politicians bought and paid for by oil companies telling us that the earth’s climate is doing fine. But, of course, the oil companies bought and paid for scientists (and university departments) before they bought and paid for politicians. Scientists are telling the public that nuclear energy is the answer, that war is good for them, that relocating to another planet is possible, and that a scientific solution to climate change will be here soon, not to mention that blissfully destroying the earth with all sorts of machinery developed by scientists is simply not to be questioned.
The Governor of New York has no qualifications whatsoever to decide how people should behave to save lives during a plague. But mathematicians at RAND have absolutely no business telling politicians to base their foreign policy on nuclear deterrence, secrecy, and dishonesty.
So, is the answer science or not science? Can’t you just put it in a tweet, for godsake?
The answer is that public decisions need to be made on a basis of morality, independence from corruption, maximum information and education, and maximum democratic public control, and that one tool in acquiring information should be science — meaning not just anything with numbers or scientistic vocabulary or a scientistic source, but independently verifiable research into areas that have been selected on a basis of morality, independence from corruption, maximum information and education, and maximum democratic public control.
Clifford Conner’s new book, The Tragedy of American Science: From Truman to Trump, takes us on a tour of what’s the matter with science. He blames two chief evils: corporatization and militarization. He addresses them in that order, creating the possibility that at least a few people not previously ready to question militarism will be by the time they reach the middle of the book — a book packed with wonderful examples and insights into both new and familiar topics.
Conner takes us through numerous accounts of the corruption of science. Coca-Cola and other sugar profiteers backed science that led the U.S. government to drive people away from fat, but not away from sugar, and straight toward carbohydrates — which made the U.S. public fatter. The science wasn’t simply lies, but it was simply too simplistic to be a basis for guidance on the topic at hand.
Scientists developed new varieties of wheat, rice, and corn. And it’s not that they didn’t work. But they required huge amounts of fertilizer and pesticide, which poor people could not afford. This poisoned the earth while concentrating big agriculture. Even more farmers suffered when too much food was produced, which destroyed prices. And people continued to go hungry because the main problem had always been poverty, not the type of wheat being grown.
Scientists developed GMO crops to require less fertilizer and pesticide, and to withstand increased use of herbicides used on weeds, thereby creating new problems while solving problems of their own creation, and never addressing the primary problems in need of solution. Scientists have simultaneously been paid to claim that GMO crops are safe for human consumption and produce more food, without actually providing evidence of either claim. Meanwhile corporate-captive governments block the public from being able to know whether food in stores contains GMOs or not — a move that can only fuel suspicion.
Because science is a field of expertise that reaches a public that knows scientists have lied for a buck about cigarettes, diet, pollution, climate, racism, evolution, and so on, and because it reaches us through highly distrusted government agencies and corporate media outlets, and because there’s always been a huge market for baseless, magical, mystical, and optimistic claims anyway, distrust of science is prevalent. That distrust is often wrong and often right, but always partially to blame on the garbage people are presented with as science.
Tobacco is a story we think we all know already. But how many know the origins of big tobacco’s lies in the nuclear Manhattan Project? And how many know that 480,000 deaths a year in the United States are still caused by smoking, or that globally the figure is 8 million and rising, or that the tobacco industry still pays its scientific researchers 20 times what the American Cancer Society and American Lung Association combined spend on theirs? This is typical of many reasons to read The Tragedy of American Science.
My view, of course, is that once you make science American it’s doomed. It needs to be human to have a chance. American exceptionalism is not just part of basing pandemic predictions on computer models rather than on the other 96% of humanity. It’s also part of denying the possibility of success for universal health coverage or workplace rights or required sick leave or a reasonable distribution of wealth. As long as something has never worked in the United States, an American Science can deny its legitimacy, even if the rest of the world finds it successful.
Conner also finds for-profit pharmaceutical pain-profiteers to blame for the opioid crisis, not to mention for the failure to do the world of good that could have been done had research been directed elsewhere. One choice in science is what to research. Melanoma and cystic fibrosis and ovarian cancer get funding, while sickle-cell anemia doesn’t. The former mainly impact white people, the latter black. Similarly, deadly viruses that only impact other countries are not a top priority — until they threaten the people who matter.
Beyond big money deciding the priorities of big medicine, Conner chronicles an array of methods used to produce the desired science. These include seeding trials (phony trials intended simply to introduce a drug to doctors), medical ghostwriting, predatory journals, and disease mongering. Drug advertising is unique to the United States and New Zealand, and it’s part of the creation of diseases to fit drugs, as opposed to the development of drugs to fit diseases.
All such tails are only half the story. The other half is war-making. Conner traces the militarization of science from the Atoms for Peace pretense to today. Over half of U.S. government spending on scientific research over the past 50 years has been on war, including research into nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, biological weapons, “conventional” weapons, drones, torture techniques, and even imaginary weapons never scientifically found to work (such as “missile defense” or “brain washing”).
While New York City suffers through coronavirus, it’s worth recalling that in the name of science in 1966, the U.S. government released bacteria in the New York subways. The bacteria that was released is a frequent cause of food poisoning and can be deadly.
What do we need instead of the current state of affairs?
Conner proposes 100% public funding and control of all scientific research, with agencies like the EPA, FDA, and CDC free of corporate corruption. He also seems to favor open global sharing of research, which would be our best hope against coronavirus and much else.
He also puts a spin on Grover Norquist’s madness with this:
“I don’t want to abolish the military-industrial complex. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
I don’t know whether 100% public funding is possible. I don’t agree with Conner regurgitating accusations of chemical weapons use by Syria without providing any evidence. I’m not sure he’s right that stopping and reversing global warming would be a relatively simple step if we got science out of the hands of the military. And I have a serious question about his take on military spending.
But I highly recommend this book and consideration of what I take to be its main message: science could have worked wonders if properly used (and if a bit of military budgets were spent on something useful) and perhaps it still can.