The Republican leaders of the General Assembly have been collecting scientific scalps. They disciplined uppity scientists who predicted a politically unacceptable rise in sea levels and replaced a politically incorrect UNC president. Now they’re after bigger game. They’re demanding that UNC recruit more Republicans and create an alternative “environmental studies” department, a “collaboratory.” The aim is in the name; it is to pervert inquiry with politics.
It reminds me a bit of an encounter of mine with Al Gore. As chairman of a Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the integrity of environmental science, Gore hazed a Bush White House functionary one day for doing what comes naturally to Republicans: fudging inquiry to fit preconceptions. Something to do with global warming.
I wrote a sassy column in the Washington Post suggesting that he had resurrected an ancient cliche: the helplessness of science in the face of political tampering – this was years before the Supreme Court stole the presidency from him and amplified his natural humorlessness. Not 24 hours passed before Gore responded. His office called. The senator would like to invite me to lunch in the Senate dining room. I readily accepted – it seemed a wonderful opportunity for political gossip.
The senator approached the table grimly determined to correct what he read as my skepticism, carrying a clipboard, a yellow tablet and a felt-tip pen. Even before we reached the famous bean soup, he began diagramming in dark lines the menace of CO2 to the earth’s climate.
“Actually, Senator,” I said, “I read the news. I am familiar with environmental dangers. I am actually something of an environmentalist myself. Now, as for the political situation down in Tennessee.”
He said nothing about Tennessee and drew more menacing diagrams on his yellow tablet. (I thought of the surely fictitious but amusing tale of the eminent convert, Clare Boothe Luce, lecturing the pope on the faith and eliciting the protest, “But Mrs. Luce, I am a Catholic.”) Gore’s lecture dragged on for an hour; it did no good to protest that I had no quarrel with global warming. Gore drew more diagrams and left.
Politics (or religion) versus science are tempting stories, dating back at least to the Roman Inquisition’s harassment of Galileo for astronomical heresies. Galileo had a memorable response. As he left the room after the ordeal, admonished to get his astronomy right, he is said to have murmured, “I still think it (the Earth) moves.” Which is to say that no scientific advance has ever been permanently retarded by political or ecclesiastical meddling – not the heliocentric system, or DNA sequencing, or the unwelcome rise of the sea on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
As for my little journalistic tease, Al Gore had clearly missed my point, which had to do with styles of argument. Maybe I had put the point clumsily. Anyone who writes for publication is aware of the frequent discrepancy between what you say and what the busy reader thinks you said. All I meant to say was that politics and science make a treacherous mix and that the discussion of such clashes is often darkened by political preconceptions, enlightened and benighted both.
As I – no scientist, I hasten to say – understand the matter, science, properly speaking, works with propositions about the natural world generated by theory. Einstein’s relativity theory, for instance, generated propositions about the bending of light that were precisely confirmed during the observation of an eclipse. Darwin’s evolutionary theory generates propositions about the development of species that can be tested by the fossil record and animal forms. Scientific propositions can be tested by experiment or observation. The results may also be replicated. When alleged science flunks these crucial tests, it may point to a truth – poetic or theological – but not to truths about the natural world.
As for the complaint of the legislative Republicans about the political complexion of UNC professors, it is misplaced. Not only are academic procedures unaffected by party politics, notwithstanding the usual Republican superstition, there is no “Democratic” or “Republican” science, only good science and bad – as is the case with most respectable academic disciplines.
“Creationism,” one of the usual GOP favorites, is bad science. Why? Because it isn’t science. In its more ethereal forms, it may be passable theology or poetry. But not science. The Republican legislators need a lecture from Al Gore. Desperately.
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.