Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Politicization of Science

One would expect editorials in scientific journals to focus on what- scientific matters right? Wrong. At least where a particular editorial authored by Nigel Williams in Current Biology is concerned (“Call to Atheists,” Current Biology Volume 17, Issue 21, 6 November 2007, Pages R899-R900). "Call to Atheists"? The title is as strange as the contents. Imagine the uproar if the title had been "Call to Evangelical Christians" or "Call to Roman Catholics" and the content had urged those falling within such groups to devote their energies to advancing their values. Nigel might respond that such groups already do so and that a means of spearheading the interests of atheists must be found. But what are the interests of atheists? Except for their views about God do they share other common denominators?

Nigel Williams not only believes atheists share values that extend beyond the descriptive belief that defines them, he also believes the advancement of such beliefs is related to the well being of science. Williams depicts atheists as a downtrodden lot which strikes me as odd. Particularly so as it relates to science.

If you scratch the surface for reasons that motivate individuals like Nigel Williams you are best advised to look in two directions. First follow the money. Unfortunately government policies have an impact on funding research. This extends to the availability of funds themselves and the type of research that is most likely to be the beneficiary of such funding. As biotechnology advances so does the capability to use it in ways that were previously unimaginable. While those like Orwell could glimpse the general problem, the specific means by which science and technology could be employed to alter gene pools and change environmental conditions are now becoming evident in ways that are alarming.

If you think intelligent design is a motivator then you must be following news events relevant to it. Critics are more likely to depict ID as creation or a "stalking horse" for it. The conflation has a political appeal but betrays ignorance- willful or not.

The real drawback to editorials like that of Nigel Williams is a perceived loss of objectivity on the part of some scientists. The use of science and technology is the proper domain of the broader society. Value systems will inevitably clash. It should not be the role of scientists to become advocates for moral standards. This is especially so when choices impact where money flows and who benefits by it. There is too much at stake to allow scientists to become the gatekeepers for the values we hold- be they atheists or non-atheists.

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