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Cultural vandalism in America

Sep 07,2015 - Last updated at Sep 07,2015

Whenever I hear about Daesh militants bulldozing archaeological treasures and smashing sculptures and statues, I think about the assault on the scientific process being carried out by US politicians.

Our scientific infrastructure — the principal means by which we understand the world, identify and ward off threats and pursue a better future — is coming under attack by lawmakers who regard science as an obstacle to achieving their goals, and thus as a target that must be eliminated.

The comparison may seem over the top.

Interfering with ideas, one might argue, is not in the same category as destroying precious objects, and elected officials tinkering with legislation cannot be compared to militants whose other activities include hacking off the hands and heads of innocent people.

Anyone making such comparisons might seem to have fallen victim to the irrational political rhetoric that is already pervading America’s presidential election campaign.

But consider this: In 2010, the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission’s Science Panel, using advanced methods, estimated a sea-level rise that could threaten certain low-lying communities over the next century.

State legislators responded by passing a bill that prohibited policy makers from using the panel’s findings, thereby undermining officials’ ability to fulfil their fundamental duty to protect their state’s coastline, resources and citizens.

At the national level, the US House of Representatives recently passed the America COMPETES
Reauthorisation Act of 2015, which would forbid the use of Department of Energy-funded research in policy making.

The language, which appears in a section on energy, was apparently inserted to protect oil and gas interests from findings about their activities’ impact on climate change.

But if the bill is passed by the Senate and signed by the president, its implications would likely extend far beyond climate change, with officials unable to use any taxpayer-funded DOE research to protect US citizens.

Meanwhile, Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who sponsored the COMPETES Act, is continuing his two-year quest to use the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, which he chairs, to alter the peer-review and grant-making process at the National Science Foundation, effectively opening it up to congressional review.

These are not cases of politicians disagreeing about whether or how to address threats like sea-level rise and climate change; those would be political issues, and appropriate topics of discussion within a democratic system.

Instead, they are examples of politicians wilfully blocking critical information relating to serious threats, for entirely partisan, if not personal, reasons.

They have decided that policy should be based solely on what they have already chosen to believe, rather than empirical evidence obtained through the scientific process.

Herein lies the link between US politicians and Daesh: Both are engaging in ideologically motivated cultural destruction.

The difference is that the politicians will not admit their ideological impulses.

Instead, they justify their positions by sowing distrust in the scientific infrastructure that produced the findings they dislike and then offering thin arguments about “scientific uncertainty”.

Not only is this disingenuous; it also prevents constructive discussion of important issues and, worse, calls into question the scientific processes and institutions on which modern civilisation depends.

To put it another way, suppose that your own personal intuited notion of how to travel obliges you to embark on a long car journey without basic supplies like a jack and a tire iron or any kind of map or navigation system.

Before you leave, you delete the contact information for a roadside service provider from your cell phone, based on the unfounded belief that such providers are deceitful and self-interested.

Finally, you take several others along for the journey, without informing them about how well (or poorly) equipped you are.

According to US law, such actions would amount to “reckless endangerment” or “culpable negligence”.

Yet politicians are taking citizens on precisely such a ride — and facing very little pushback.

Fact-based arguments, such as those in a recent editorial in Science magazine, should be enough to compel US leaders to change their approach.

But facts cannot compete with ideology. Indeed, any opposition — even when backed by empirical evidence — is portrayed as an attack on politicians’ own (superior) ideology, whether it be libertarian or informed by religious fundamentalism.

Against this background, jarring — and potentially incendiary — comparisons, such as to Daesh, seem to be the only hope of exposing the scale of the damage these politicians are doing.

Perhaps at the next debate among presidential candidates, participants should have to distinguish — from a moral standpoint — politicians attacking the scientific process from Daesh militants destroying ancient artefacts. 

That should get the conversation moving.


The writer is professor of philosophy at Stony Brook University and co-editor-in-chief of Physics in Perspective, . ©Project Syndicate, 2015.

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