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The Power and Plight of Science

Tycho Brahe instrument – Public Domain

The Greeks used the word episteme for science. Episteme means knowledge, techne (craftsmanship), understanding, and experience. Episteme / science was primarily knowledge from the observation of nature and natural phenomena, which slowly eclipsed the role of the divine and superstition in the organization and understanding of life and the cosmos.

In the fifth century BCE, Hippokrates, father of  medicine, said there was nothing divine in the disease of epilepsy. Careful observations of the patient  and knowledge of the natural origins of diseases sufficed to explain the natural causes of epilepsy.

In the fourth century BCE, Aristotle invented biology-zoology. Science shone through his detailed and extraordinary work on the history, classification, anatomy, and behavior of animals. The Arabs called Aristotle The Philosopher. Charles Darwin praised Aristotle to heavens.

Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great who conquered the world, making Alexandria, Egypt, the capital of his empire. Thanks to Alexander, the science of Aristotle found a home in Alexandria, making it the first workshop and model of a university and advanced research center for the study of Greek culture and the world. Alexandria also had the world’s largest library.

Along with editing Homer and the classics, the scientists of the Alexandrian Era in the third century BCE and after made advances in astronomy, physics, mathematics, and especially geometry, geography, cartography, and engineering. One of those scientists, Eratosthenes, measured the circumference of the Earth.

Other scientists and engineers built a dazzling geared computer in the second century BCE. It had the astronomical fingertips of Aristarchos’ Heliocentric Theory and Hipparchos’ theory of the elliptical trajectory of the Moon around the Earth. Gears modeled these advanced theories on the computer.

Dark ages

However, the triumph of the Romans, the loss of Greek freedom, and the victory of Christianity in the fourth century in becoming the state religion of the Roman empire nearly wiped out the Greeks and their science and civilization.

Christianity could not stand the polytheism of the Greeks and their devotion to reason and science. It did not dare face the truth, though it plagiarized Platonic and Aristotelian ideas for its theology.

Medieval Christian monks passed on to modern Western Europe their technologies of dominating nature. This tradition watered down the Greek influence of the Renaissance in the West and made violence against nature part of doing business and culture. Westerners, and the rest of the world, compromised and abused science for personal profit and power.

Machine age

Second, the industrialization of Western Europe and America struck science with another almost fatal blow. Factory production of food and goods and the invention and use of giant weapons, including atomic and nuclear bombs, made science a collaborator of ecocide and genocide.

It was this nuclear weapons legacy that almost annihilated science as the strongest tradition of civilization from the Greeks. Companies for profit plunged into this abyss, shaping American and world culture.

Deception

For example, tobacco companies and their scientists perfected deception: they recorded the data of their own studies on two sets of books to cover up the truth and bamboozle the politicians on the “safety” of cigarettes.

Chemical companies put into practice the business model of tobacco corporations and bribed or intimidated politicians and  government regulators to ignore the deleterious effects and disease consequences of thousands of untested synthetic chemicals sold to Americans – and the world.

The most pernicious abuse of science has been in the use and regulation of pesticides: warfare chemicals ending in the food we eat and crippling and killing and forcing to extinction insects, birds and countless other species.

I came across this insulting and abhorrent misuse of science at the US Environmental Protection Agency where I worked for 25 years. Scientists representing the owners of pesticides and, sometimes EPA scientists, would underplay the toxicity of pesticides, sowing doubt about human danger and especially ecological harm.

This charade has been going on for decades, enough time for academic scientists, with their peer-reviewed studies, to object strenuously about this willful poisoning of life. However, with some exceptions, the vast number of scientists and scientific societies continue to ignore this abysmal misuse of science for corporate profit. In fact, just like in the case of the development of nuclear weapons, scientists have stayed out of the path of agribusiness and its deleterious sprays.

The fossil fuel companies have also been playing the dirty game of agribusiness. The result is climate change, the greatest existential threat facing the planet and all humans and wildlife. We are running out of time, experts say, threatening as we do, irreversible damage to life on Earth and the collapse of our societies.

My concern for climate change and writing about it led me to Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard, and author of one of the best books on global warming: Merchants of Doubt (2010). This is a searing critique of the fossil fuel industry and the scientists it funds. These scientists continue to obscure the truth.

Science and trust

Now Oreskes has another timely, insightful and thought-provoking book with the telling title: Why Trust Science? (Princeton University Press, 2019). The book includes the comments of five scholars, thus enriching the dialogue on the nature of science.

Putting trust and science next to each other (in the title of the book) would be normal in good times. But these are times of existential trouble, reminding one of the Black Death horrors of the fourteenth century.

In Oreskes’ book, written before the coronavirus plague, asking the question of trust about science is symptomatic of our malaise in this age of living with the real legacy and reality of climate change: a prospect of mass destruction and extinction.

Oreskes is well aware of the danger. She is a scientist and a historian of science. Among other stories she tells, she zeros in on climate change, she relates how those benefiting from the burning of petroleum, coal, and natural gas corrupt science. These people are risking not merely their children and grandchildren. They are risking the Earth. Is there a greater crime than that? And if world leaders valued civilization, would they have allowed such a colossal crime to go on for so long?

What is science?

No one owns science, not even scientists, much less giant organizations or governments. Science is not corrupt or bad or innocent. Since Aristotle, science remains the good and the beautiful, the dream of civilization. It is an idea and a method of revealing the truth about man, society, nature and the cosmos. It is knowledge and, therefore, power.

Science, Oreskes says, is socially constructed, by which she means the mission of science is serving the public good. She explains that scientists do not necessarily follow  the “magic formula” of the scientific method, which “does not stand up to historical scrutiny.” What works, however, is “a portrait of science as a communal activity of experts, who use diverse methods to gather empirical evidence, and critically vet claims deriving from it.”

The experts (scientists) are at the core of science. “If trust in experts were to come to a halt, society would come to a halt, too,” she says.

Yet with Trump heading America, who even rejects climate change, trust in experts and science is shaky. Big business and billionaires in particular are surrounding Trump and are funding the war on science. They don’t like science because they don’t like the truth about how they became billionaires. Besides, petroleum billionaires don’t want to be put out of business.

Commercial interests – big companies — and the military employ scientists not for philanthropic or philozoic purposes. One is logging the forest and the scientists are expected to certify that cutting down trees causes no damage to water, biodiversity, wildlife or intensifies climate change. The other is loading the upper atmosphere with spying satellites and the scientists are designing the satellites, keeping silent about the militarization of outer space. Or, just as bad, scientists take viruses from wildlife, increase their lethal disease contagion, making them potential plagues and biological weapons.

What science can we trust?

In the context of these overwhelming realities, Oreskes is trying to save science from becoming entirely a vehicle of private profit (as is the case in the fossil fuels and pesticides industries) and power (as is the case with the militaries of large countries).

She says as long as scientists and their studies go through the vetting of the peer review and scientific societies, we should trust the science of their research. And as is the case with studies on climate change, when the vast majority of climatologists say human activities are causing higher global temperatures, that consensus mirrors scientific truth.

Oreskes says:

“There is much we do not know, but that is no reason not to trust science on the things we do know. The argument for trust in science is not an argument for blind or blanket trust. It is an argument for warranted confidence against unwarranted skepticism in scientists’ findings in their domains of expertise.”

She is right. Trust in science by consensus is legitimate. We need to protect scientists and science. But how?

I wrecked my career and probably risked my life in speaking truth to power. Neither Congressmen nor senior EPA officials cared for the scientific evidence showing that pesticides are dangerous. A couple of my colleagues and I were silenced. No one came to our defense. Whistleblowing is dangerous.

Nevertheless, not everything is lost. Oreskes raises fundamental philosophical and political questions about science and its uneasy future. Even the broken down science of the Trump era separates us from barbarism.

Our universities must wake up from their comfortable but immoral sleep funded by corporations and the military. They need to broaden their view of what science is and support scientists to be involved and engaged with our fight to control climate change and, in general, nurture and protect the natural world and inspire their students to love this beautiful Earth.

Read this very important book. It’s well-written and it’s full of wisdom. Science deserves better.

More articles by:

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.

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