Monday 29 April 2013

'Scuse Me! Lamar Smith (R-TX) You've Got A Lot Of Damned Gall To Think You Know Anything About Science!

As Jeff Goldblum's character Ian Malcolm said in the sequel to Jurassic Park, "Hold on, this is going to be bad."

Representative Lamar Seeligson Smith (R-TX), pictured above, is Chair of the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Be very afraid of his lately proposed legislation---to direct the NSF on how to judge the merit of grant proposals. That news is NOT good for social science, of which, of course, in most intellectual environments, archaeology and palaeoanthropology are considered a part. [A tip o' the hat to Tom Wake, Margie Purser and 'Rissa Russell for bringing this to my attention via Facebook.]
ScienceInsider has obtained a copy of the legislation, labeled "Discussion Draft" and dated 18 April [2013], which has begun to circulate among members of Congress and science lobbyists. In effect, the proposed bill would force NSF to adopt three criteria in judging every grant. Specifically, the draft would require the NSF director to post on NSF's Web site, prior to any award, a declaration that certifies the research is:
1) "… in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;
2) "… the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and
3) "… not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies."
We've heard regressive politicians before, and we know that whole segments of the population decry the funding of projects that are characterized as other than applied science [AKA useless, fluffy]. So, Smith's sabre-rattling in the sitting U.S. Congress is nothing new. What's new is that there are too many regressive politicians in these days---even those calling themselves liberal may be of a mind to cave before the present onslaught on science in the U.S. [and, alas, to a lesser, but still troubling degree, in my home and native land, Canada, thanks to the cretins who elected a regressive political party and gave them a parliamentary majority].

I'll get back to Smith a little further down. But first I want to digress for a moment to argue that criticism of pure science [and social science] has a long history.

A screen grab of
Pandorean geography
Not only is the right's depiction of much social science and even pure physical-science research nothing new, it had its roots in the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. Jonathan Swift, in Gulliver's Travels, along with the country of Lilliput portrayed that of Laputa, which was an Avatar-like island that floated like a cloud over the earth. Laputa's society consisted of two sorts of people, mainly---scientists and servants. Gulliver describes the two sorts in these unforgettable words, he had
... never till then seen a race of mortals so singular in their shapes, habits, and countenances. Their heads were all reclined, either to the right, or the left; one of their eyes turned inward, and the other directly up to the zenith. Their outward garments were adorned with the figures of suns, moons, and stars; interwoven with those of fiddles, flutes, harps, trumpets, guitars, harpsichords, and many other instruments of music, unknown to us in Europe. I observed, here and there, many in the habit of servants, with a blown bladder, fastened like a flail to the end of a stick, which they carried in their hands. In each bladder was a small quantity of dried peas, or little pebbles, as I was afterwards informed. With these bladders, they now and then flapped the mouths and ears of those who stood near them, of which practice I could not then conceive the meaning. It seems the minds of these people are so taken up with intense speculations, that they neither can speak, nor attend to the discourses of others, without being roused by some external taction upon the organs of speech and hearing; for which reason, those persons who are able to afford it always keep a flapper (the original is climenole) in their family, as one of their domestics; nor ever walk abroad, or make visits, without him. And the business of this officer is, when two, three, or more persons are in company, gently to strike with his bladder the mouth of him who is to speak, and the right ear of him or them to whom the speaker addresses himself. This flapper is likewise employed diligently to attend his master in his walks, and upon occasion to give him a soft flap on his eyes; because he is always so wrapped up in cogitation, that he is in manifest danger of falling down every precipice, and bouncing his head against every post; and in the streets, of justling others, or being justled himself into the kennel.
Swift's account seems preternaturally prescient when Gulliver describes one of the Laputan scientists and his work.
The first man I saw was of a meagre aspect, with sooty hands and face, his hair and beard long, ragged, and singed in several places. His clothes, shirt, and skin, were all of the same colour. He has been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, which were to be put in phials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers. He told me, he did not doubt, that, in eight years more, he should be able to supply the governor’s gardens with sunshine, at a reasonable rate: but he complained that his stock was low, and entreated me “to give him something as an encouragement to ingenuity, especially since this had been a very dear season for cucumbers.” I made him a small present, for my lord had furnished me with money on purpose, because he knew their practice of begging from all who go to see them.
This is the perfectest description of an academic that I have ever seen! Most research in Swift's 18th century experience would have been self-funded, with, often, deleterious effect on the researcher's finances.* One can easily imagine that the well-placed Swift had at times been confronted by impoverished, yet eager inventors hoping for a handout. And so, throughout Gulliver's tour of Laputa Swift shows us his proper English gentleman treating the Laputan research projects with equanimity, leaving the reader no choice but to see it as well-crafted satire.  

And it is to well-crafted satire in the here and now to which I'll be resorting. Well, maybe not satire, really. More like irony, when it comes to our new foe, Lamar S. Smith.

Mary Baker Eddy, Founder and spiritual leader of the
Church of Christ, Scientist.
Wikipedia reports that Representative Smith's religion is the Church of Christ, Scientist, commonly known as Christian Science. Notwithstanding the great reporting job that the Christian Science Monitor has done over the years, the dictates of Christian Science are, I think, largely unknown to most non-CS people. A little information might enlighten you as to Rep. Smith's notion of what constitutes science. Christian Science, the sect, was the invention of one Mary Baker Eddy, who, in the early 20th century decided that Enlightenment science had done little or nothing to improve the plight of humanity, afflicted as they are with trouble, strife, illness, and death. She foresaw a return to what she termed "primitive science" was in order. To address the health and other concerns of good Christians she proposed  that they "commemorate the word and works of [Christ Jesus]" and "reinstate primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing."

Practitioners of CS are to study the Bible dutifully every day according to the patterns of readings that Ms. Baker Eddy decreed for her devoted followers. That was just to help keep them healthy by, in a sense, living with and in the way of Jesus. And when misfortune strikes, the answer is prayer. Solitary and communal. Everyone knows everyone else in a typical CS group. So, when one of them gets sick all members of the congregation help the individual through prayer---such is their belief that only in this way can people be healed.

With all due respect for others' beliefs, positive thinking is one thing---Christian Science is quite another. I should know. Although a life-long atheist I fell in love with a Christian Scientist a long time ago. I was smitten before I knew the degree to which this otherwise smart and worldly woman believed in the tenets of the sect. Push came to shove when we started to talk about marriage and kids, and she said to me "I would expect that when I or one of the kids fell ill you'd allow me to exhaust 'primitive healing' before you took them to a medical doctor." I truly loved her. But in the end I couldn't conscion her beliefs. It was heart-wrenching for me. I have no idea how our parting affected her, but I'm pretty sure I know how she dealt with her broken heart. To me the adherents of CS are guilty of, not depraved indifference, but of a sort of depraved devotion to a pipe-dream.

So, your take-home message today is to remember that the "science" in Christian Science is anything BUT science in the vernacular sense of the word. Lamar S. Smith (R-TX) is steeped in the principles laid down by Mary Baker Eddy in 1908. Ironic, don't you think, that CS was begun JUST as medical science was embarking on a century of truly extraordinary advances in the attainment and maintenance of health. Moreover, at a time when electricity, telephones and the horseless carriage were mere novelties, Mrs. Eddy couldn't have foresee the triumphs of the physical sciences in the 20th century---space travel, genetics, and microwave pizza. It seems to me that anyone like Smith, who can refer to "primitive healing" as a 'science' and to Jesus Christ as a 'scientist,' knows precious little about science---what it is, what it stands for, how it works, and what it can achieve.

So, my American fellow subversives. Make as much noise as you want in opposition to Rep. Smith's benighted legislation. And feel free to mention his core belief [superstition, really] about Jesus and healing.

I'm up for a fight. How about you? Grab your torch and pitchfork!


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