Why Politicized Science is Dangerous

From: janice matchett <janmatch@earthlink.net>
Date: Mon Sep 26 2005 - 13:24:16 EDT

Why Politicized Science is Dangerous - Michael Creichton
(Excerpted from State of Fear)

Imagine that there is a new scientific theory that warns of an impending
crisis, and points to a way out.

This theory quickly draws support from leading scientists, politicians and
celebrities around the world. Research is funded by distinguished
philanthropies, and carried out at prestigious universities. The crisis is
reported frequently in the media. The science is taught in college and high
school classrooms.

I don't mean global warming. I'm talking about another theory, which rose
to prominence a century ago.

Its supporters included Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Winston
Churchill. It was approved by Supreme Court justices Oliver Wendell Holmes
and Louis Brandeis, who ruled in its favor. The famous names who supported
it included Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone; activist
Margaret Sanger; botanist Luther Burbank; Leland Stanford, founder of
Stanford University; the novelist H. G. Wells; the playwright George
Bernard Shaw; and hundreds of others. Nobel Prize winners gave support.
Research was backed by the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations. The Cold
Springs Harbor Institute was built to carry out this research, but
important work was also done at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and
Johns Hopkins. Legislation to address the crisis was passed in state from
New York to California.

These efforts had the support of the National Academy of Sciences, the
American Medical Association, and the National Research Council. It was
said that if Jesus were alive, he would have supported this effort.

All in all, the research, legislation and molding of public opinion
surrounding the theory went on for almost half a century. Those who opposed
the theory were shouted down and called reactionary, blind to reality, or
just plain ignorant. But in hindsight, what is surprising is that so few
people objected.

Today, we know that this famous theory that gained so much support was
actually pseudoscience. The crisis it claimed was nonexistent. And the
actions taken in the name of theory were morally and criminally wrong.
Ultimately, they led to the deaths of millions of people.

The theory was eugenics, and its history is so dreadful --- and, to those
who were caught up in it, so embarrassing --- that it is now rarely
discussed. But it is a story that should be well know to every citizen, so
that its horrors are not repeated.

The theory of eugenics postulated a crisis of the gene pool leading to the
deterioration of the human race. The best human beings were not breeding as
rapidly as the inferior ones --- the foreigners, immigrants, Jews,
degenerates, the unfit, and the "feeble minded." Francis Galton, a
respected British scientist, first speculated about this area, but his
ideas were taken far beyond anything he intended. They were adopted by
science-minded American's, as well as those who had no interest in science
but who were worried about the immigration of inferior races early in the
twentieth century --- "dangerous human pests" who represented "the rising
tide of imbeciles" and who were polluting the best of the human race.

The eugenicists and the immigrationists joined forces to put a stop to
this. The plan was to identify individuals who were feeble-minded --- Jews
were agreed to be largely feeble-minded, but so were many foreigners, as
well as blacks --- and stop them from breeding by isolation in institutions
or by sterilization.

As Margaret Sanger said, "Fostering the good-for-nothing at the expense of
the good is an extreme cruelty there is not greater curse to posterity
than that of bequeathing them an increasing population of imbeciles." She
spoke of the burden of caring for "this dead weight of human waste."

Such views were widely shared. H.G. Wells spoke against "ill-trained swarms
of inferior citizens." Theodore Roosevelt said that "Society has no
business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind." Luther Burbank"
"Stop permitting criminals and weaklings to reproduce." George Bernard Shaw
said that only eugenics could save mankind.

There was overt racism in this movement, exemplified by texts such as "The
Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy" by American author
Lothrop Stoddard. But, at the time, racism was considered an unremarkable
aspect of the effort to attain a marvelous goal --- the improvement of
humankind in the future. It was this avant-garde notion that attracted the
most liberal and progressive minds of a generation. California was one of
twenty-nine American states to pass laws allowing sterilization, but it
proved the most-forward-looking and enthusiastic --- more sterilizations
were carried out in California than anywhere else in America.

Eugenics research was funded by the Carnegie Foundation, and later by the
Rockefeller Foundation. The latter was so enthusiastic that even after the
center of the eugenics effort moved to Germany, and involved the gassing of
individuals from mental institutions, the Rockefeller Foundation continued
to finance German researchers at a very high level. (The foundation was
quiet about it, but they were still funding research in 1939, only months
before the onset of World War II.)

Since the 1920s, American eugenicists had been jealous because the Germans
had taken leadership of the movement away from them. The Germans were
admirably progressive. They set up ordinary-looking houses where "mental
defectives" were brought and interviewed one at a time, before being led
into a back room, which was, in fact, a gas chamber. There, they were
gassed with carbon monoxide, and their bodies disposed of in a crematorium
located on the property.

Eventually, this program was expanded into a vast network of concentration
camps located near railroad lines, enabling the efficient transport and of
killing ten million undesirables.

After World War II, nobody was a eugenicist, and nobody had ever been a
eugenicist. Biographers of the celebrated and the powerful did not dwell on
the attractions of this philosophy to their subjects, and sometimes did not
mention it at all. Eugenics ceased to be a subject for college classrooms,
although some argue that its ideas continue to have currency in disguised

But in retrospect, three points stand out. First, despite the construction
of Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory, despite the efforts of universities and
the pleadings of lawyers, there was no scientific basis for eugenics. In
fact, nobody at that time knew what a gene really was. The movement was
able to proceed because it employed vague terms never rigorously defined.
"Feeble-mindedness" could mean anything from poverty to illiteracy to
epilepsy. Similarly, there was no clear definition of "degenerate" or "unfit."

Second, the eugenics movement was really a social program masquerading as a
scientific one. What drove it was concern about immigration and racism and
undesirable people moving into one's neighborhood or country. Once again,
vague terminology helped conceal what was really going on.

Third, and most distressing, the scientific establishment in both the
United States and Germany did not mount any sustained protest. Quite the
contrary. In Germany scientists quickly fell into line with the program.
Modern German researchers have gone back to review Nazi documents from the
1930s. They expected to find directives telling scientists what research
should be done. But none were necessary. In the words of Ute Deichman,
"Scientists, including those who were not members of the [Nazi] party,
helped to get funding for their work through their modified behavior and
direct cooperation with the state." Deichman speaks of the "active role of
scientists themselves in regard to Nazi race policy where [research] was
aimed at confirming the racial doctrine no external pressure can be
documented." German scientists adjusted their research interests to the new
policies. And those few who did not adjust disappeared.

A second example of politicized science is quite different in character,
but it exemplifies the hazard of government ideology controlling the work
of science, and of uncritical media promoting false concepts. Trofim
Denisovich Lysenko was a self-promoting peasant who, it was said, "solved
the problem of fertilizing the fields without fertilizers and minerals." In
1928 he claimed to have invented a procedure called vernalization, by which
seeds were moistened and chilled to enhance the later growth of crops.

Lysenko's methods never faced a rigorous test, but his claim that his
treated seeds passed on their characteristics to the next generation
represented a revival of Lamarckian ideas at a time when the rest of the
world was embracing Mendelian genetics. Josef Stalin was drawn to
Lamarckian ideas, which implied a future unbounded by hereditary
constraints; he also wanted improved agricultural production. Lysenko
promised both, and became the darling of a Soviet media that was on the
lookout for stories about clever peasants who had developed revolutionary

Lysenko was portrayed as a genius, and he milked his celebrity for all it
was worth. He was especially skillful at denouncing this opponents. He used
questionnaires from farmers to prove that vernalization increased crop
yields, and thus avoided any direct tests. Carried on a wave of
state-sponsored enthusiasm, his rise was rapid. By 1937, he was a member of
the Supreme Soviet.

By then, Lysenko and his theories dominated Russian biology. The result was
famines that killed millions, and purges that sent hundreds of dissenting
Soviet scientists to the gulags or the firing squads. Lysenko was
aggressive in attacking genetics, which was finally banned as "bourgeois
pseudoscience" in 1948. There was never any bias for Lysenko's ideas, yet
he controlled Soviet research for thirty years. Lysenkoism ended in the
1960s, but Russian biology still has not entirely recovered from that era.

Now we are engaged in a great new theory that once again has drawn the
support of politicians, scientists, and celebrities around the world. Once
again, the theory is promoted by major foundations. Once again, the
research is carried out at prestigious universities. Once again,
legislation is passed and social programs are urged in its name. Once
again, critics are few and harshly dealt with.

Once again, the measures being urged have little basis in fact or science.
Once again, groups with other agendas are hiding behind a movement that
appears high-minded. Once again, claims of moral superiority are used to
justify extreme actions. Once again, the fact that some people are hurt is
shrugged off because an abstract cause is said to be greater than any human
consequences. Once again, vague terms like sustainability and generational
justice --- terms that have no agreed definition --- are employed in the
service of a new crisis.

I am not arguing that global warming is the same as eugenics. But the
similarities are not superficial. And I do claim that open and frank
discussion of the data, and of the issues, is being suppressed. Leading
scientific journals have taken strong editorial positions of the side of
global warming, which, I argue, they have no business doing. Under the
circumstances, any scientist who has doubts understands clearly that they
will be wise to mute their expression.

One proof of this suppression is the fact that so many of the outspoken
critics of global warming are retired professors. These individuals are not
longer seeking grants, and no longer have to face colleagues whose grant
applications and career advancement may be jeopardized by their criticisms.

In science, the old men are usually wrong. But in politics, the old men are
wise, counsel caution, and in the end are often right.

The past history of human belief is a cautionary tale. We have killed
thousands of our fellow human beings because we believed they had signed a
contract with the devil, and had become witches. We still kill more than a
thousand people each year for witchcraft. In my view, there is only one
hope for humankind to emerge from what Carl Sagan called "the demon-haunted
world" of our past. That hope is science.

But as Alston Chase put it, "when the search for truth is confused with
political advocacy, the pursuit of knowledge is reduced to the quest for

That is the danger we now face. And this is why the intermixing of science
and politics is a bad combination, with a bad history. We must remember the
history, and be certain that what we present to the world as knowledge is
disinterested and honest.


Received on Mon Sep 26 13:30:31 2005

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