Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Fundamentals

Buried in the Guardian web site is an announcement about an upcoming speach by Lord May, President of the Royal Society, where he discusses the problems that society faces in the rise of fundamentalism... both religious fundamentalism and its secular twin, ideological fundamentalism.

In his address to the society, titled Threats to Tomorrow's World, Lord May will criticise groups for putting their own traditions, unsupported beliefs and dogmas above scientific evidence. "Fundamentalism doesn't necessarily derive from sacred texts. It's where a belief trumps a fact and refuses to confront the facts.

"All ideas should be open to questioning, and the merit of ideas should be assessed on the strength of evidence that supports them and not on the credentials or affiliations of the individuals proposing them. It is not a recipe for a comfortable life, but it is demonstrably a powerful engine for understanding how the world actually works and for applying this understanding," he will say.

Several instances of ideology triumphing science are singled out by Lord May, including Global Warming, the anti-nuclear power lobby, the Catholic Church stand on condom use, and of course, creationism. In all of these cases, powerful people would prefer to indulge their personal fantasies rather than deal with the cold hard scientific reality that surrounds them. That would be fine if this were just the tin-foil hat crowd, but these powerful people include world leaders, corporate CEOs, and religious figures with audiences in the millions. What hope does civilization have against the vested interests of an elite who refuse to deal with reality?

One feature of the post-war US that has always impressed me is their ability to set up institutions that were independant of the ideological and religious whims of the nations leaders. Institutions such as the FDA, the CDC, the NIH and NAS.... grounded in science and with a mandate to take the best scientific information available and use it to form policy, educate the populace, and steer research.

The past few decades (but particularly the last 5 years) have seen an erosion of these institutions. The FDA has been holding up approval of the Plan B emergency contraceptive not because its dangerous, but because of the personal religious beliefs of certain politicians. The CDC has had to water down information on its website dealing with contraception and sexually transmitted diseases because of pressure from a small but extreme religous minority. The President himself essentially hamstrung stem cell research in the US, and has consistantly ignored scientific consensus on Global Warming, while giving a boost to the supporters of Intelligent Design, a form of warmed over creationism cobbled together to sneak religion into the schools via the back door.

Its ironic that at a moment in history when we have never had so many scientific advances (and the fruits of those advances, whether in vaccines, antibiotics, drought tolerant crops, space travel, or the internet, to name a few) there are so many powerful people who have no tolerance for the scientific method and no grounding in reality. I hope this is just a passing moment in history, and not the beginning of the end of that intellectual experiment that sparked the enlightenment. With over 6 billion people on an environmentally shaky planet, this is not the time to have fantasists at the helm.