- December 20, 2017
NAS President Peter Wood published a three-part essay, "Does Trump Threaten Science," at American Greatness. The three individual parts appeared on December 16, December 17, and December 19. The entire essay appears below.
The American Association of University Professors has issued a short thunderclap of a report accusing President Trump of undermining the natural sciences. By itself, this would be pretty bad, but according to the AAUP, Trump’s hatred for science extends by means of foreign policy to damaging intellectual inquiry, economic prosperity, and human health worldwide, and maybe also planetary survival. This sort of breathless denunciation may be the sort of thing one expects from soapbox speakers at Climate Change rallies, but the AAUP usually aims a little higher.
This is first of three essays in which I will examine the background, meaning, and import of what the AAUP has done in “National Security, the Assault on Science, and Academic Freedom.” In this part I present the historical context, namely the left’s attempt to brand conservatives in general as “anti-science.”
The AAUP’s route to this destination is the claim that science is at risk.
On this general point I and my organization, the National Association of Scholars (NAS), actually agree with the AAUP. We disagree, however, on a few details. Is the patient at risk of drowning or incineration? Should we assist the drowning man with a life preserver or a 200 pound anvil? Is the conflagration to be met with a fire extinguisher or a good soaking in kerosene?
I exaggerate perhaps a little. Science doesn’t really face mortal danger. No one is trying to kill it, and even if the Armies of Darkness were laying siege to all the shrines of science from Aristotle to Newton, and Francis Bacon to Stephen Hawking, science as an enterprise would continue. Darwin and Einstein wouldn’t vanish, and people would still attempt to plumb the mysteries of DNA, exo-planets, and superconductors. The thirst for knowledge cannot be drowned or burnt to cinders. Moreover, the NAS and the AAUP do agree substantially on a key point: one threat to the integrity of scientific inquiry is the politicization of science.
We just disagree over the location of the podium from which the politicizing proceeds. Stage right? Or stage left?
On December 7—a date presumably chosen because it is Pearl Harbor Day and thus resonates with general alarm—the AAUP issued its thirteen-page statement, “National Security, the Assault on Science, and Academic Freedom.” The statement attacks the Trump administration for politicizing science and thereby undermining progress, prosperity, and, somehow, national security. The AAUP more generally blames conservatives for undermining science. Trump is the local and immediate embodiment of what the AAUP sees as an old problem.
The NAS for its part has been warning of several quite different threats to science. These include several that have little to do with politics: the crisis of irreproducibility and the too-cozy relationship between government agencies and outside researchers. But also high on the list are also the close-mindedness that results from progressive groupthink, and the increasing willingness of universities to compromise academic standards in student admissions and faculty hiring in the sciences in order to advance racial and “gender” goals. As long ago as 1994, NAS held a national conference on the politicization of science, and we have continued to address this issue, including a new report soon to be released that focuses on the underlying causes of the irreproducibility crisis.
I mention all this to establish that I’m speaking from a long-standing interest in the topic built on the recognition that politics is not the only thing bedeviling the sciences. The occasion of this essay, however, is what the AAUP says in its new report. Because the AAUP is among the most prominent organizations representing American higher education, its mistakes can have far-reaching effects, not least of which is the diversion of attention from more serious problems.
The AAUP Weighs In
“National Security, the Assault on Science, and Academic Freedom” is the work of a five-member subcommittee that includes the celebrated climate scientistMichael Mann (he of the hockey stick graph) and radical feminist Joan Wallach Scott, who holds an appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study. The other members are California State University historian Henry Reichman, National Academy of Sciences biologist Mary Jane West-Eberhard, and Temple University physicist Xiaoxing Xi. Their report was endorsed by the AAUP’s “Committee A on Academic Freedom” and by the AAUP’s Council, which is to say it comes with the full force of the organization.
The AAUP report combines two complaints reflecting disparate concerns. It chastises the U.S. Government for leaning too heavily on Chinese and Chinese-American researchers accused of espionage, and it attacks “climate deniers” for undermining wholesome climate science. The report frames these as a recrimination against President Trump for his sabotage of academic freedom. Most of the content of the report, however, deals with matters that occurred before Trump was elected. The authors are not bothered by this inconsistency. For the AAUP, Trump appears to stand as the summation of all that is misguided in American attitudes and policies affecting the sciences.
To make sense of the AAUP’s rather strange pronouncement, we have to consider the context of the left’s long-standing claims that conservatives are “anti-science.”
The last time the Left raised this particular alarm was the “March for Science” on April 22, 2017, timed for Earth Day. Billed as “non-partisan,” the march drew crowds in Washington, D.C., New York, Boston, and other cities around the United States and the world. The organizers said they drew 100,000 people to the main event in Washington, and over a million world-wide. The non-partisan pretext, however, was as hollow as a bass drum. The “March for Science” was a straightforward anti-Trump rally based on the assertion that the Trump administration (then barely three months into it) was “anti-science.”
I watched the New York portion of the march for 90 minutes as it passed through Columbus Circle. There were surely some scientists among the marchers, but they were lost amid the flamboyant anti-global warming activists and women recycling their garb from the January 21 Women’s March. Science is based on disciplined inquiry, testable hypotheses, patient gathering of evidence, rigorous analysis, and reproducible results. Marching in mass? Not so much.
Warriors, Merchants, and Yahoos
The idea that conservatives are anti-science has flattered the vanity of the progressive left for generations. In 2005, the journalist Chris Mooney published a best-seller, The Republican War on Science. It gave birth to a small genre of polemics, perhaps the best known of which is Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, an elaborate effort to compare people who are skeptical of the “global warming consensus” to the tobacco companies that tried to downplay the risks of smoking. The grandfather of all these books is Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 study, Anti-intellectualism in American Life. Hofstadter was a man of the Left and he prosecuted the case that many of the ills of democracy—fervent irrationalism in religion, politics, and popular life—have roots on the right.
The culture war, of course, has many fronts. Americans can argue vigorously over the role of race in society, the differences between the sexes, the meaning of disparities in wealth, what role religion should play in public life, how much freedom of expression should be allowed, and a great many other things down to the level of which pronouns should or should not be used. There is no reason why “science” should be exempt from these pervasive disagreements. After all, science is conducted by ordinary human beings who are subject to the same passions as everyone else and are divisible into the same identitarian categories as everyone else.
The vulnerability of the sciences to ordinary human folly ought to be the cornerstone of any serious attempt to assess contemporary risks to the integrity of scientific inquiry. Somehow that vulnerability escapes the notice of the AAUP. We’ll see why in Part II.
On December 7—a date presumably chosen because it is Pearl Harbor Day and thus resonates with general alarm—the American Association of University Professors issued a thirteen-page statement, “National Security, the Assault on Science, and Academic Freedom.” The aim of the statement is to call out President Trump in particular and conservatives in general for their “anti-science” attitudes and policies. In Part I of this three-part essay, I gave the historical background to the popular leftist attack on conservatives for their “anti-science” positions. In Part II, I take a closer look at what “anti-science” really means.
Passions and Padlocks
In principle, science padlocks political passions in a cage from which they cannot escape to disrupt experiments or analysis. But that principle is often violated, and it also turns out not even to be all that good as a principle.
Sometimes those political passions protect science from running off the rails. Our rules that prevent involuntary human experimentation, for example, are grounded in respect for human life and dignity, not in science. Science pursued entirely as a quest for knowledge has no capacity to distinguish right from wrong. Curing a disease and creating a new disease are indistinguishable as far as the ends of science go. We rely on our human passions and non-scientific human reasoning to prevent science from going off in malign directions, and we rely on politics to give organization and force to those positive passions.
But once having granted the legitimacy of some non-scientific principles to govern the aims and uses of science, where do we stop? This is the deep question lurking behind most of the political contention over science.
Fracking. There is scant evidence that hydraulic fracturing is dangerous to humans or to the environment, yet politicians in some blue states, including New York, have banned it. Their position is “anti-science” plain and simple, though few would openly use that term. The opponents of fracking act on an irrational fear—though again, few would own up to its irrationality. Instead they would spin a web of “what ifs” and “maybes.” Is this this a case where an irrational fear should be given weight in light of a larger non-scientific principle? It is hard to say what that principle would be. Some prominent members of the movement avow their hostility to the extraction of any hydrocarbons from the earth on the grounds that growing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere pose a danger to health and safety. This indeed is a principle but one that stands on conjectures, hypotheses, and models that have not been treated kindly by the accumulating facts.
Nuclear energy. By a long margin, nuclear power is among the cleanest, safest, and most abundant sources of energy over which humans have control. Yet the United States has been paralyzed for nearly half a century in building new nuclear power plants. The problem is fear of radiation from accidents and spent radioactive materials. This fear is wildly disproportionate to the danger and therefore irrational. Opposition to nuclear energy is also “anti-science” plain and simple. Is there a valid non-scientific principle that should take precedence over exploiting nuclear energy? It is very difficult to find anyone who gets beyond repeating the fear that something could go wrong. The fear is justified: things can go wrong, and sometimes have gone very wrong indeed. But the fact remains that nuclear power is far safer than the alternatives that are either proposed or already in use.
Vaccination. Vaccines vary in the dangers they pose to recipients, but most vaccines pose some minor risk of serious side effects. Some parents hold wildly exaggerated ideas about the risks of childhood vaccinations; some hold fears plainly at odds with the facts; and still others object to vaccinations on religious grounds. But failure to vaccinate poses a danger to the whole community. Scientific reasoning would argue strongly that vaccination ought to be mandatory for all. Making exceptions is “anti-science.” Are there valid ground for letting irrational fear or religious freedom outweigh public health?
Creationism. This one is especially difficult to write about. Belief in evolution as a thoroughly established and adequate principle to explain biological diversity is plainly an article of faith for many Americans. So let me preface my comment by saying that I am an anthropologist who finds evolution an indispensable intellectual tool of immense explanatory value. And yet…
Every known religion has a narrative of how the world began. So does contemporary science. In fact, most religions have multiple stories about origins, some explaining the birth of the cosmos, others explaining human origins. Science likewise has multiple origin stories: the Big Bang theory and human evolution. The “science” in both cases is substantial but far from complete. The Big Bang theory offers a cogent picture of the beginning of space, time, and matter but it is a theory with many loose ends and as yet unanswerable questions. The theory of human evolution is also rich and compelling but it too is very far from complete. New scientific research is constantly modifying our understanding of it. Only in the last few years have we learned that non-African humans are partially descended from Neanderthals, and in some cases from another species as well, theDenisovans, whose ghostly genetic afterlife wasn’t discovered until 2010.
As it happens, one of the five-member committee that wrote the AAUP report, Mary Jane West-Eberhard, is well-known for her contributions to evolutionary biology that, as historian of science James Barham puts it, “turn mainstream Darwinism on its head.” He adds: “West-Eberhard’s work helps to upend that project [Darwinian elimination of purpose from evolution] by showing how purposiveness (or target-directedness) lies at the heart of any realistic explanatory framework in evolutionary biology. In other words, her contribution consists in demonstrating that, far from eliminating purpose from nature, evolution in fact presupposes it.”
The deeper questions of how we came to be fully human are thus still matters of conjecture and intense debate. Is it “anti-science” for some people to believe that the emergence of humans reflects the will of God? It is definitely “non-science,” but hardly anti-science. But there are parties on both sides of this debate who carry their positions to extremes that subvert scientific inquiry. The evolutionists include a faction who dogmatically pretend the theory is far more settled than it really is. In one generation we have moved from a theory of straight-line evolution, with one species of proto-humans supplanting another, to a theory of several (or perhaps many) species hybridizing over long periods. We are still without a convincing explanation of where human language came from. And we don’t really know how the resiliency of individuals (what West-Eberhard calls “phenotypical plasticity”) plays into human evolution.
Pretending to scientific knowledge we don’t yet have is as unscientific as invoking supernatural explanations. We should be careful in drawing the lines.
Other matters. This list of controversies could easily be extended. I’ve left aside abortion, fetal tissue research, human cloning, end-of-life decisions, and many other hotly debated matters. But just the four examples sketched above point to the danger of caricature and ideological extremism. Neither the political left nor the political right has valid authority to say of itself that it speaks for science and that the other side is anti-science. When it comes to fracking and nuclear power, it is the left that tends to be “anti-science.” When it comes to global warming, there is a Mexican stand-off. On creationism, the political right is more prone to fall into a doctrinaire anti-science position, but the left has a doctrinaire un-scientific position of its own that is in play.
We need a robust practice in the sciences of keeping ordinary political passions locked out, but nonetheless allowing principles from outside the sciences back in to give moral and intellectual direction to scientific inquiry. The balance is important but plainly difficult, since it requires judgment—based on what?—over the when, where, and how these interventions should take place. We have a political system that puts the power to do that in the hands of elected legislators and executives as well as jurists. And we have freedom of speech that allows the rest of us to voice our views. But that is just a way of acknowledging that scientific inquiry often has a rough road in our republic. It is surrounded by the cacti of prickly politics and acrimonious opinion.
On December 7, the American Association of University Professors issued a thirteen-page statement, “National Security, the Assault on Science, and Academic Freedom,” that attacked President Trump in particular and conservatives in general as “anti-science.” In Part I of this three-part essay, I gave the historical background to the popular leftist attack on conservatives for their “anti-science.” In Part II, I showed that both left and right sometimes act on non-scientific grounds to forestall valid research and scientifically sound applications. “Anti-science” sounds bad, but the term is just a polemical way of phrasing the recognition that science can’t always be left to itself to decide what to do. Other principles of a moral and intellectual nature must sometimes supervene, to prevent, for example, heedless forms of human experimentation. Bringing these principles to bear inevitably involves political action, and in that sense the politicization of science isn’t always bad. It depends on the principles—and the politics.
Nearly half of the AAUP’s report, “National Security, the Assault on Science, and Academic Freedom,” deals with the supposed threat to science posed by the U.S. Government’s efforts to protect national secrets from leaking to hostile foreign governments. At the center of this is U.S. concern about China, and Chinese researchers in America inappropriately sharing research with colleagues in China. One of the co-authors, Temple University physics professor Xiaoxing Xi, was arrested May 21, 2015 on charges that he had disclosed a device called a “pocket heater” to Chinese colleagues. The pocket heater is a patented technology for making “thin films of the superconductor magnesium diboride.” The charges were eventually dropped and Xi is now suing for “malicious prosecution.”
The report cites other researchers likewise charged with stealing secrets or otherwise passing inappropriate information to China, includingWen Ho Lee, Guoqing Cao, Shuyu Li, Xianfen Chen, Yudonng Zhu, and Allen Ho. The charges in most of the cases were dropped or ended in minimal findings. Anyone who has followed the cases closely, however, knows that charges get dropped in spy cases for lots of reasons. After the Justice Department dropped the case against Wen Ho Lee, FBI Director Louis Freeh told the Senate Judiciary and Select Intelligence Committees that “each and every one of the 59 counts in the indictment” could be proven, but a trial “posed serious obstacles to proving the facts without revealing nuclear secrets in open courts.”
The legal presumption of innocence, in other words, has to be taken with a grain of salt, at least in some of these cases. Prosecuting spies is extremely difficult. I’m not quite so ready as the AAUP to consider the U.S. counter-intelligence as comprised of bumbling xenophobic fools, haplessly undermining the legitimate international exchange of ideas.
The AAUP has been unfriendly to national security concerns for some time. In an earlier report, Academic Freedom and National Security in a Time of Crisis (2003), the AAUP observed, “secrecy, an inescapable element of classified research, is fundamentally incompatible with freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression.” That report was issued during the period in which the American Left was recovering from its temporary fit of patriotism in the wake of 9-11 and was finding its new path of anti-American rhetoric. “Still vivid memories of the McCarthy era” show up in the first paragraph, and soon comes the turn to “the premise that freedom of inquiry and the open exchange of ideas are crucial to the nation’s security.”
Most of us would think that a balance can be struck between keeping some matters secret and fostering the free exchange of ideas on everything else, but the AAUP in 2003 was skeptical. It said the Patriot Act shifted “the balance ominously between freedom and security,” and generally recommended that the “threat of terrorism” be met with a redoubled commitment to “the vital and durable values of academic freedom and free inquiry.” How exactly this would deter terrorists wasn’t clear. The AAUP was much more concerned with the any restrictions that might fall on the flow of foreign students and scholars into American universities.
The new (2017) AAUP report reprises the 2003 report while shifting the focus from Middle East terrorists to China. This is accompanied by the usual warnings that the U.S, is falling behind in expenditures on basic research and that science itself is now thoroughly an international enterprise. Obstacles to exchange inevitably mean that the U.S. loses ground.
In the opening sentence of the new report, the grim specter of Donald Trump is evoked, by way of his administration’s “hostility to science.” That hostility has “exacerbated already troubling threats,” and the report nominates “Chinese or Chinese American scientists [who] have been targeted” as one such threat, and “climate change deniers” as the other. “Vicious attempts to discredit [climate science’s] validity” have “intensified since Donald Trump took office.”
The report then “illustrates the nature of the attacks” with two anecdotes. One is Xiaoxing Xi’s arrest; the other is Michael Mann receiving an envelope of corn starch that could have been anthrax. Xi’s arrest in 2015 and Mann’s encounter with cornstarch in 2010 would seem a bit distant from the malign effects of Donald Trump’s election, but no matter. Trump apparently embodies both the spirit of aggressive law enforcement and malicious harassment. For sure, President Trump through his executive orders has sought to restrict certain kinds of immigration to the U.S., and his appointment of Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA has given a voice to those who are skeptical about some of the extreme versions of man-made catastrophic global warming. Pruitt has ended the system of circular review whereby the EPA called on the same people who advocated a proposal to review it. The dismissal of committee members engaged in this sort of thing has shocked the global warming community, which had grown pretty comfortable in finding all its biases routinely and uncritically endorsed by the supposed authorities.
But does any of this really threaten academic freedom or national security?
The AAUP report matches what Mann himself would say about global warming. Whether he drafted this section is unclear, but it comes complete with the sneers typical of Mann’s writing. A skeptic is characterized as a “climate change denier.” Major discrepancies in climate change reports are noted as “swiftly debunked.” And the larger picture is summarized as “The Trump administration is attempting to delegitimize science.” Mann’s presence on the AAUP committee is itself a strong signal that the report aims at something other than a robust defense of the sciences from the threat of ideological manipulation. He is a litigious figure known for stonewalling his critics and for having attracted much contemptuous dismissal from fellow scientists. Mark Steyn notably compiled a 300-page volume, “A Disgrace to the Profession,” consisting entirely of harsh criticisms of Mann’s work from scientists who have Ph.D.s.
Mann, like anyone else in public controversy, is entitled to his defenders, but it is odd to see the AAUP lend its credibility to his cause by appointing him to what amounts to his own jury.
The AAUP has constructed a box for itself in this report. On one hand, it would like to be a fearless champion of intellectual freedom. On the other hand, it would like to impose restrictions on what others can say. The AAUP’s attempted path out of this contradiction is to treat views that it dislikes as “threats.” Of course, no one condones actual threats under the rationale of intellectual freedom, but the idea of “threat” becomes elastic in the AAUP’s view of things:
“It is not only individuals who engage in such threatening activity. Well-funded and powerful interest groups have also sought to intimidate those conducting scientific research with which they disagree.”
The example the AAUP offers is the request by the attorney general of Virginia for the research records that support Michael Mann’s claim that he had discovered a rapid rise in global temperatures (the hockey stick) in the late decades of the twentieth century. His research is irreproducible in large part because other scientists don’t have access to a great deal of it. Secrecy in science is apparently a bad thing when pursued in the interests of national security, but a very good thing if pursued in the interest of keeping global warming data out of the hands of skeptics. The battle for this data and surrounding correspondence continues in courts, including an important case in Arizona involving Mann’s correspondence with two other climate scientists.
Those matters will eventually be settled under the law. But why are such disputes presented by the AAUP as examples of the sorts of “threats” that allow exceptions to intellectual freedom? The AAUP’s answer is that the attempts by others to get access to the material creates “the possibility of being faced with burdensome, harassing, and intrusive public records requests for internal research notes and emails, which could in turn discourage “open communication among researchers.”
Thus “academic freedom” in the hands of the AAUP’s Committee A has become a “heads I win, tails you lose” doctrine. Heads, I should be free to share my research with Chinese colleagues or anyone else, free of the nuisances of U.S. Government security concerns. Tails, the American public has no right to see the research that underlies hugely expensive and far-reaching regulations if I decide not to disclose it.
The “Assault” on Science
The AAUP’s new report announces itself as addressing “the assault on science.” Science has been under assault in some form or another as long as it has existed. The AAUP’s definite article, the assault on science, is thus an overreach. The AAUP in this instance isn’t worried by assaults on science coming from identitarian groups demanding equity in science hiring, journal publication, or ideology. It isn’t worried by assaults on science resulting from the deterioration of academic standards. And it isn’t worried about assaults on science coming from people who uphold a vox populi idea of “consensus” as the arbiter of scientific truth.
Instead it is worried that the U.S. Government has tried to stem the flood of America’s most advanced defense-related research to China and other unfriendly foreign powers, and it is worried that the government is less willing to rubber stamp “climate change” research and is instead demanding independent review of such work. These two things have nothing really to do with academic freedom. The phrase seems to be thrown into the report merely to give the AAUP the opportunity to indulge some anti-Trump rhetoric and to continue the false narrative that conservatives are somehow anti-science.
People of all political persuasions can be “anti-science” if science gets in the way of their political visions and interests. Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives, and even scientists themselves turn anti-science at moments. And some of those so-called anti-science moments are justified. Research has no conscience of its own. Science always needs ethical guidance. Dr. Frankenstein—or worse—is always waiting in the wings to perform unspeakable experiments. In that light, anti-science (or at least extra-science) is a corrective. It tells us what we ought not to do. When anti-science speaks, we have to weigh its arguments with care.
Science properly pursued sets rigorous, testable hypotheses. It regards all theories as open to question and revision. It worries about contradictions between otherwise well-tested theories, such as the famous incompatibility between relativity and quantum theory. Some scientists long for a “complete” science in which some version of universal determinism is upheld, but that wish is not itself scientific. Real science is open-ended.
In that light, accusing the other side of an argument as “anti-science” ought to be dismissed as cheap rhetoric. The academic left’s version of this, whether it is launched at conservatives in general or President Trump in particular, just lowers the level of intellectual debate. We can do better. And the AAUP in its eagerness to tag Trump as anti-science has just blundered rather badly.
Image Credit: Public Domain.