Friday, June 19, 2015

Science, Politics and the Death of Free Speech

The Hapless Tim Hunt
Last week we saw the extraordinary sight of Nobel-winning scientist, Tim Hunt, being hounded out of his job because he made a bad-taste joke about women in the science laboratory. Not only was he forced to resign from his job at University College London but he also lost his positions with the Royal Society and the European Research Council.

At the same time it has been revealed that the scientists of the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration have been deliberately manipulating data to make global temperature records fit the political narrative around global warming, and we have seen the pronouncements from the head of the Roman Catholic church on the subject being heralded in the mainstream media.

It seems we are entering (or returning to) an era when science no longer stands alone from politics and religion but rather is considered to be just another cultural artefact. Here in New Zealand we have had educationalists promoting the teaching of 'Maori science', presumably in the belief that while Newton's or Einstein's theories apply on Proxima Centauri and planets in the Vega system, they do not amongst the people of partial Polynesian descent who happen to live in New Zealand in the 21st Century.

Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College and adjunct professor at Harvard University, has written about the 'death of expertise'. He posits that we no longer value professional knowledge and that the views of a Playboy model who did not complete high school are just as valid as those of a immunologist when it comes to assessing the efficacy and risks of vaccination. Perhaps this is unsurprising when the scientific community is so willing to sell-out their knowledge and methods for political favouritism.

But, as Tim Hunt discovered, it is not true to say that any opinion is valued. It is only those that fit with the template of totalitarian views of Western so-called liberals that are allowed to be heard (and I don't think it is extreme to call these views totalitarian because they certainly meet the dictionary definition of 'exercising control over the freedom, will, or thought of others'). In today's world you can believe anything so long as it is consistent with the acceptable groupthink. Thus it is perfectly acceptable for scientists to manipulate data for political ends but not acceptable for scientists to make slightly inappropriate jokes about female colleagues.

It seems we have finally arrived at the time envisaged by George Orwell in his novel 1984, where truth is lies, the use of any language that might describe any undesirable concepts is banned, and even thoughts are crimes.

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