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Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means: Science at War With Itself

After centuries, learning the value of humility.

by Carl Pope

In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humankind. This makes him a hero to scientists who pride themselves on their ability to transform and "conquer" nature, and who consider the natural world the rightful laboratory for their experiments. The apotheosis of Promethean science was the atomic bomb, which once again stole the gods' fire for mortal use.

But science has a powerful, competing tradition. In medieval times the scientific enterprise was rescued from stagnation in alchemy by measurement, not conquest. Advances in optics and navigational instruments helped launch the age of discovery and helped astronomers understand and explain the universe, particularly the movement of heavenly bodies. Copernicus, who established that Earth revolves around the sun, is the archetype for this approach to science.

The Copernican tradition seeks to explain and understand, not necessarily change, the world. Through observation, Copernicans are continually reminded how complex the world is, and how little of it they comprehend. Consequently, there is a certain humility in their enterprise—although that quality, is not, of course, exclusive to any group. (The great Prometheans who unleashed the atomic bomb were—with the notable exception of Edward Teller—profoundly humbled by the experience.)

Four years ago in this column I criticized the Promethean wing's dominance in the scientific establishment. I am happy to report that times have changed.

Evidence of this shift is found in the pages of Science magazine, the house organ of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Traditionally, its editorial page has been ruled by old-school Prometheans like former editor Daniel Koshland, who proclaimed that "it is the nature of scientists to advocate change more than most people do," while regularly belittling environmental concerns.

Last July, however, Science's new editors boldly showcased a break with this ethos. A special edition on human-dominated ecosystems featured an editorial by former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland strongly urging that environmental protection policy be built on a combination of scientific evidence, global equity, and fairness to future generations. Articles—all marked by a becoming humility—focused on the decline of fisheries, the fate of coral reefs, and the potential of conservation biology in restoring ecosystems.

Events in the political world over the past four years have helped change how scientists view the natural world. One such transformative event was the ascendancy of House Speaker Newt Gingrich's team in Washington. Gingrich may be a science buff, but his House leadership included throwbacks to the antiscience attitudes of the Scopes trial. House Whip Tom DeLay (Texas), for example, denounced Nobel laureates as radical ideologues, the hole in the ozone layer as a liberal plot, and global warming as "junk science." Finally, when far-right congressional budget slicers mounted an assault on public support for basic research and invited the antiscience wing of the religious right into their inner councils, many American scientists recognized a new danger to the integrity of their enterprise.

Another development that threatens the status of science is the increasing boldness with which industry funds researchers to parrot its views on topics like global warming and clean air. These Promethean contrarians offer the promise of profligate energy use and industrial expansion with no negative consequences, but rarely publish in peer-reviewed scientific literature, and sometimes show a cavalier disregard for basic scientific norms. The Promethean view on global warming, for example, is not laid out in scientific journals, but in the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal.

Copernican scientists are fighting back. Two examples are Sierra Club Vice President Anne Ehrlich and her husband, Paul, both fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Their most recent book, The Betrayal of Science and Reason, documents the shoddy science behind anti-environmental "fables," and strongly defends the scientific method. The Ehrlichs' arguments are made more compelling by the enormous recent advances in the powers of observation and measurement on which Copernican science depends. In centuries past, technological change was explosively fueled (sometimes literally so) by the discovery of new chemical and physical reactions. Science was much better at effecting changes in the world than at understanding what those changes meant for the world.

But in recent decades, technological innovation has largely shifted to the fields of electronics and genetics. While these advances have given the Prometheans vast and potentially destructive new powers, they may ultimately prove more useful to the watchful Copernicans. Computer technology, modern optics, and advances in cellular biology have dramatically increased scientists' ability to monitor the global atmosphere, map genetic differences among closely related species, and detect the buildup of dangerous hormone-mimicking chemicals in human tissues, to name a few. As a result of their new powers of observation, many scientists are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with what their instruments are telling them, and increasingly worried about what the Prometheans have wrought.

There are real consequences to stealing the wealth of the gods, the extent of which we are only beginning to learn.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at carl.pope@sierraclub.org.


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