Thursday, November 22, 2012

Everything You Know is (Probably) Wrong

Science is politicized because knowledge has always been power. The myth of the immaculate perception of the scientist, unblinkered by religious or political prejudices, is often used as proof that whatever scientists agree upon must be the truth so far as the best available evidence can reveal the truth; but this is far from true. It is especially untrue when politics and science work together.

(True scientists might stick to the facts as they are established, but what use is that when society embraces the fallacies so that the ranks of science are invaded by young turks who have been miseducated by politically correct high school teachers?)

Where the criterion for truth is practical results (more a matter of technology than science) then science cannot be fudged. Where truth is more controversial, then a rush to consensus can and often is possible.


Add to this the dissemination of scientific ideas in the popular culture, and the influence of politics on the establishment and statement of scientific truth becomes even more painfully obvious. What is scientifically established or establishable is shaped by what is acceptable to the group think of the academy as well as the pundit class that writes newspaper editorials and appears on television and radio.


All of this is a birds-eye view of the social situation under which arise the following specific cases of what might be classified as “Everything You Know is Wrong.”


Take the case of the famous polar bear looking forlorn on a chunk of ice and surrounded by water. Environmentalists love this photo because it inspires in the unformed intellects of children a feeling of empathetic distress. The bear appears to be lost, never to touch land again. (Okay, the bear pictured here is not isolated on a piece of ice, but use your imagination.)


The reality, however, has nothing to do with these suppositions or the feelings they encourage. The polar bear, in actuality, happens to be a great swimmer. If we want to anthropomorphize the picture for the benefit of children, what would be more accurate than the tragic tale of the stranded polar bear? How about the bear simply plunging into the water, swimming fifty miles and arriving home in time for dinner. If bears could talk and Mrs. Polar Bear asked him about his day, then instead of saying, “It was awful. I was nearly stranded on a chunk of ice,” Mr. Polar Bear would be more likely to say, “Oh, same old same old. Went for a long swim. Sad to say, though, didn’t catch any fish.”


Why is the more tragic interpretation so popular? (From the bear’s perspective, of course, not finding any fish or other creature to eat would be a tragedy of sorts, and, indeed, is the kind of thing that usually threatens the population of any species.) It is because environmentalism has seeped into our educational system bringing with it prejudices that do not suffer contradiction by any facts. The ideology of environmentalism trumps science in more and more curricula around our country and around the world.


That leads to a larger discussion, but since we are taking an overview of the pervasiveness of politicized science, lets consider another example.


Everyone, by now, knows that Thomas Jefferson fathered some five or six children by his slave Sally Hemings. The only problem with this story is that this “fact” is not known by anyone who has taken the evidence seriously. In the modern rehearsal of this controversy, the two arms of argument are 1) a 1998 DNA test comparing descendants of two of Sally Hemings' children with descendants of Thomas Jefferson's uncle, Field Jefferson; and 2) speculation by historians.

The DNA evidence is far from conclusive with regard to Jefferson himself. Only one of the two descendant lines from Hemings showed any genetic similarity to the Jefferson line. This was the line descended from Eston, Hemings' youngest child. The other descendant line, that of Thomas Woodson, presumably Hemings’ first child, proved to be unrelated to the Jeffersons. Furthermore, the DNA from Field Jefferson’s descendants can only show whether or not someone descended from Thomas Jefferson’s GRANDFATHER might have procreated with Sally Hemings or someone else in her direct line. There were twenty-six such people alive at the time that Sally Hemings bore her children. Ten of them, including Thomas Jefferson, seem to be likely candidates because of their access to Miss Hemings. A more likely candidate than Thomas Jefferson, it has been suggested, is his younger brother, Randolph. In any case, the genetic evidence cannot narrow down the number of candidates further than someone descended from Jefferson’s father’s father.


In the face of this ambivalence of the evidence, however, the standard approach among historians and popularizers has been to assume that Thomas Jefferson did, indeed, father Hemings’ children, and not just one but all or most of them. This, however, appears upon sober reflection to be nothing more than the result of academic groupthink as well as the more easily achieved popular groupthink. The “reasoning” seems to run like this: “He could have, and we want him to have; therefore, he did.” Like the polar bear myth, this is all tied up with the political ideology popular among academics as well as the mass media. Environmentalism and theories of class and race exploitation color every discipline's conclusions whether that discipline's scope includes these things or not. A good deal of idealism leads to unexamined assumptions.


Unfortunately, this kind of thinking has always interfered with science, and while we like to believe that our civilization has overcome the intrusion of wishful thinking into what is supposed to be reasoned inquiry, both our society and even (or especially?) our scholars are still influenced by the whims and fads of political ideologies and utopian schemas.