Thursday, August 31, 2006

Science Under Attack: The Big Bang

I have a theory.

Well okay, it's not really a theory in the scientific sense of the word. I certainly haven't met that standard of having assembled an overwhelming body of physical data and supporting experimental results to the point that there is no reasonable doubt of its validity.

I'm talking about a theory in the simple every-day layman's sense of the word. As in, "I have a theory as to why the water isn't draining from my toilet; it must be due to that large plastic dinosaur my four-year-old was teaching to swim yesterday."

My theory is that somehow, the Republican Party has run into a serious problem that they fail to even recognize. Their decision to seize political control of a broad range of agencies who depend on informed scientific and technical support has required that they replace many people who have the actual technical knowledge to perform their duties, but are unfortunately encumbered by "subversive" political views with appointees who can toe the party line, but just don't have the knowledge, training, or experience necessary to make incredibly important decisions.

The problem's that have arisen from this unfortunate position are now too numerous to list in a simple blog post while still preserving time for my day job. They range from politically motivated funding decisions which are effectively shutting down critical programs (EPA and Global Warming, NSF and Stem Cells, NASA and its entire Earth Environment mission complement) to redirection of funding from FEMA programs intended to protecting the country from extreme natural disasters towards provably less likely and less damaging terrorism defense to the direct detriment of everyone near the Louisiana and Mississippi coast line. Talk about an example of worrying about the wrong thing. Just look at the statistics on deaths, damages, insurance claims, and refugees; there is simply no comparison of scale, yet the misdirected flow of dollars persists.

Other more alarming direct evidence in Iraq is similarly ignored. Recall the retired Generals who called for more troops, and the administrations longstanding insistence that no further troop deployments were necessary? I would say the recent diminution in Bagdad violence by more than half within one week of bolstered deployments puts the lie to the administration's original strategy. Imagine if we could have had the additional strength there from the beginning. Again, the politics had won over the physical evidence until there was just no possible way to further deny reality. But things had to get pretty damn bad before the undeniable realization set in. What do we do when our country's technological and economic future begins to follow a similar path? I believe we have already set foot on that road to disaster and desperately need to find another way.

Fortunately, I believe that while much of the damage will take some time and concerted effort to rectify, these poor choices can be remedied rather directly when a new administration comes into office. But I believe there is some longer lasting damage that may result from a change in "the political game" that this administration pioneered. More so than any other administration in history, the Bush administration placed decided in favor of politically, morally, and religiously motivated policies and against what that national science community had determined were the prevalent theories of how the world was actually changing. They have repeatedly chosen to make decisions based on their faith in how the world should be, rather than how physical evidence and theories showed the world to most likely be. But worse than the immediate damage of this short-sighted job and money shuffling, they have set a precedent that it is okay to place religiously or politically oriented directors to "manage" what and how science and technology is published and presented, or even accessible to decision makers and the public. This places the entire technological foundation which elevated the US above Europe, Asia, and the Middle East at risk, not just from this administration, but other later administrations as well that follow suit and employ similar tactics to forward their respective political agendas.

Part of my theory rest on the fact that I don't think most politicians, political appointees (or perhaps the general public) even understand the definition of the word "theory" in the scientific sense, and therefore misapply the layman's usage. When a scientist tries to explain the theory of evolution to a proponent of creationism or Intelligent Design (someone who typically has little or no scientific or technical education whatsoever) the listener mistakenly hears the softer "theory" and can be easily mislead to a belief that there is some controversy or doubt, when there really is no doubt whatsoever.

A rather amusing/disturbing event which highlighted this very issue showed that even the scientifically inclined could fall into the trap of misused "theory" definitions. Most of you are probably aware of the incident in which the NASA climatologist James Hansen's research in global warming and greenhouse gas emissions was censored by the Presidential Appointee. The New York Times article that broke the story created a mild sensation and ultimately resulted in a retraction and new censorship policy announcements. Until last weekend, I had read many of the ancillary news reports, but never the originating article itself.

When I finally picked it up and read behind the fold, I came across this gem from the very same 24 year-old former Bush campaign intern that tried to censor Hansen: (Note my added emphasis did not exist in the original.)

In October, for example, George Deutsch, a presidential appointee in NASA headquarters, told a Web designer working for the agency to add the word “theory” after every mention of the Big Bang, according to an e-mail message from Mr. Deutsch that another NASA employee forwarded to The Times.

The Big Bang memo came from Mr. Deutsch, a 24-year-old presidential appointee in the press office at NASA headquarters whose résumé says he was an intern in the “war room” of the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. A 2003 journalism graduate of Texas A&M, he was also the public-affairs officer who sought more control over Dr. Hansen’s public statements.

In October 2005, Mr. Deutsch sent an e-mail message to Flint Wild, a NASA contractor working on a set of Web presentations about Einstein for middle-school students. The message said the word “theory” needed to be added after every mention of the Big Bang.

The Big Bang is “not proven fact; it is opinion,” Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, “It is not NASA’s place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator.”

It continued: “This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA. That would mean we had failed to properly educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most.”

The fact that this additional censorship caused outrage in the scientific community can certainly be attributed to the religious censorship aspects of the declarations, but the to-do over the specific insertion of the word "theory" was particularly interesting to me. Nobody in the community would deny that the Big Bang is a theory. But it is a theory in the scientific sense in that it has been vetted by an overwhelming body of evidence.

Ironically, Deutsch, the Bush appointee, was trying to degrade and discredit the Big Bang theory by applying the plebian usage, which when written, still complied with how scientists would talk about it themselves. But the scientists knew what he meant to do. "It's not what you said; it's how you said it!"

Unfortunately for Deutsch, the evidence for the Big Bang is, quite literally, directly visible before our eyes. All anyone has to do is look up at night. Okay, they have to look carefully with the right telescopes and whatnot. But the fact that due to the finite speed of light, we can effectively and directly see backwards in time more than 14 billion years (by looking farther and farther away) all the way to a point about one minute after the enormous explosion that heralded the beginning of our universe as we know it, is one of the most profound and well-established scientific truths. It is an excellent theory in the strongest sense of the word.

Now all we have to do is properly educate the general public on the correct usage and definition of "theory" as we are using it scientifically to describe Evolution and The Big Bang and whatnot, and hope that people stop trying to cram political and religious agendas into gaps they mistakenly perceive in theories that are really beyond question.

We've managed to get most people to agree with the theories that the Earth isn't the center of the solar system, or the Milky Way Galaxy, or even the Universe. And we're now pretty unanimous on the theory that the Earth is not flat. Evolution and the Big Bang are in the same territory. All we need is a little more education to make that clear to more people.

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