When scientists go mad

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From Dr. Frankenstein, through Captain Nemo, to Dr. Strangelove, the West has told and re-told a story about scientists gone mad.  The theme is simple:  you can be a genius in molecular structure or solar plasma flows, yet a dunce of the human heart.  Ignorance acts with the arrogance of great authority.  That’s the horror of the thing.  In the dark chasm between material knowledge and morality, monsters lie in wait, which when aroused will wreak bloodshed and chaos.

Mad scientists exist.  In real life, they have better hair than in Hollywood, and are likely to be ferocious bureaucratic warriors.  The monsters they let loose serve ideological imperatives rather than personal obsessions.

Trofim Lysenko was the most notorious member of Stalin’s scientific establishment.  He concocted biological theories that flattered the Marxist faith in the power of the environment over genetics.  Lysenko set back Russian biological research by a generation; sane scientists who disagreed with him ended in prison camps or worse.

Wernher von Braun was the original rocket scientist.  He invented the V-2 missile used by Nazi Germany to bomb Britain.  The V-2 was built by slave labor; nearly 20,000 died in the process.  Around 3,000, nearly all civilians, died in London during the missile attacks.  Yet, after the defeat of the Nazis, von Braun was brought to the U.S., where he became the scientific star of NASA’s journey to the moon.  He turned into an American hero, and the model for Stanley Kubrik’s Dr. Strangelove — who lumbers out of his wheelchair and exults to the American president, “Mein Fuehrer!  I can walk!”

Science lacks an intrinsic morality.  Even characterizing its method is problematic, because science is above all a matter of practice, a tradition of trial and error, not the implementation of a formula or an abstract principle.  In this regard, President Obama’s statement on stem cell research — that we should “make scientific decisions based on fact, not ideology” — is either naive or disingenuous.  It assumes that scientists tower morally over the human herd, being able to convert “facts” into right action in the search for knowledge by accessing esoteric “scientific” wisdom.

Scientists are just people in prestigious jobs.  Like all people, they can be prey to ambition.  Unlike most people, they know a lot about one thing, and are highly respected for that one thing; we shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, if they tend to be opinionated about everything.

Those who go mad may just dash past some tipping point of zealotry as true believers, or of ruthlessness as bureaucratic climbers, or of self-love as brilliant specialists, or some combination of these motives.  In all cases, the result is the same.  A hectoring, dogmatic tone is assumed.  The famous scientific modesty disappears.  Differences of opinion are treated like outbursts of moral depravity.  Dissenters must be silenced.  The moral and material facts on which the President places so much weight are thus invariably arranged to fit the mad scientist’s ruling orthodoxy.

I sometimes worry our scientific establishment may be developing an incipient case of madness.

The most obvious symptom is the attitude towards global warming, with many scientists conceiving of themselves as prophets of future reality and judges of what we must do about it.  Those who reject their vision become targets of outrage — for example, they are often called “deniers,” a moral parallel to those who reject the truth of the slaughter of Jews under the Nazi regime.  It’s difficult to believe any interpretation which challenges the climate science orthodoxy can get much of a hearing in such an ideologically-charged environment.

Then there’s the Union of Concerned Scientists’ claim that modern crop biotechnology should be abandoned because “No currently available transgenic varieties enhance the intrinsic yield of any crop.”  Farmers, in the U.S. and in developing countries, would of course argue otherwise — and they would have “facts” on their side.

a 2006 study found that biotech insect resistant cotton varieties boosted the yields for India’s cotton farmers by 45 to 63 percent. Amusingly, some anti-biotech activists counter that these are not really yield increases, merely the prevention of crop losses. Of course, another way to look at it is that these are increases in operational yields. Whether due to yield increase or crop loss prevention, in 2008 this success led to nearly 70 percent of India’s cotton fields being planted with biotech varieties.

The ideological rage against bioengineered crops, like the earlier panic against nuclear power, appears to be largely a matter of fashionable phobias affordable only to the rich.

Equally worrisome is the creep of missionary zeal in scientific publications.  A special issue of Discover was dedicated to “How science will heal the earth.”  The Scientific American, highly respected and once rather dry-and-musty, now feels the urge to publish scientifically soft but ideologically pointed pieces.  I offer a sampler from the May issue:

An article that asks whether food shortages will bring down civilization.  The author, Lester Brown, is described as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers.”  His last book is titled Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.  Brown, no scientist, seems stuck in the missionary position.  He believes civilization will be destroyed by “failed states” which can’t feed their people.  His solutions convey the impression that he has never heard of the marketplace.  He wants to cut carbon emission 80 percent in 10 years.  He expects to “stabilize” the world’s population at 8 billion, never mind how.  He plans to eradicate poverty and change the world’s diet (to save water).

Like the climate advocates, Brown is seized by the immensity and immediacy of a catastrophe only he can foresee:  “It is hard to overstate the urgency of our predicament,” he writes.  “Every day counts.”  In fact, the whole article shows how easy such overstatement can be, given the proper mix of ideology and zeal.

An article on “Taming the Urge to War,” by John Horgan, a science journalist who cites the findings of a conference led by renowned chimpanzee researcher Frans de Waal.  The news here is that war is everywhere, yet “much can be done to reduce lethal conflict in the world today.”  Here’s how.  First, “foster economic interdependence through alliances such as the European Union.”  Second, reduce the “imbalance of power between nations,” again never mind how.  Third, birth control.  Fourth, stop climate change, which has “also driven conflict.”

Horgan’s piece reads like a lost addendum to the EU Constitution.  That most of its proposals coincide with Brown’s is, in truth, no coincidence.  A rationalist ideology, ignorant of the markeplace and contemptuous of the messiness of human existence, fairly shouts its message of salvation from both articles.  Consider.  An “influential thinker” and a chimpanzee expert demand, in a science journal, the gutting of the world’s economy and a transformation of our moral standards:  here we touch the edge of madness.

An article by economist Jeffrey Sachs on how “Obama’s expansion of the government’s economic role is vital — and we will have to pay for it.”  Once again, Europe is the hero, by having its governments consume a larger chunk of GDP than we have dared to do, until the present golden moment.  I can dispute or agree:  but how is this science?

An article by “skeptic” Michael Shermer skewering creationism.  In effect, an attack on non-science by a non-scientist.  I really don’t like either side of the culture wars, and I find it depressing that the Scientific American has stooped to enter the fray.  It places the journal on a par with those screaming people who turn up on CNN and Fox.

Not one of these articles is about science.  All appear driven by the need to save the common rabble from itself.  While not an unworthy goal, it places the scientist in a false position relative to his fellow citizens.  He’s hardly a messianic figure — a savior.  He is really just them.  No more, no less.  As the scientist would consider it a sign of derangement if he heard his plumber or mechanic offer proposals to save the human race, so the rest of us worry when we read, in a science journal, calls to revolution and moral reformation from people who make a living studying chimpanzees or atomic particles.

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One Response to When scientists go mad

  1. […] and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Whereas some have considerable disdain for scientists and academics, who are sometimes revealed to be just as human as the rest of us, I’m more inclined to […]

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