STAFF NEWS & ANALYSIS
Scientific Illiteracy All the Rage Among the Glitterati
By - December 29, 2008

When it comes to science, Barack Obama is no better than many of us. Today he joins the list of shame of those in public life who made scientifically unsupportable statements in 2008. … Hollywood did not escape the critical analysis of the scientific reviewers, who lambasted Tom Cruise, for his comments on psychiatry being a crime against humanity, and Julianne Moore, who warned against using products full of unnatural chemicals. "The real crime against humanity continues to be the enduring misery caused by the major mental illnesses across the globe, and the continuing lack of resources devoted to supporting those afflicted," said the psychiatrist Professor Simon Wessely. – UK Independent

Dominant Social Theme: We know better.

Free-Market Analysis: While this Independent article, excerpted above, may have good points to make about the knowledge, or lack thereof, of various celebrities, it unwittingly reveals what might be considered some missing gaps of its own: some questionable economic/governmental viewpoints. In the article, we also find the following: Sarah Palin, Mr McCain's running mate, waded into the mire with her dismissal of some government research projects. "Sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not," Ms Palin said. But the geneticist Ellen Solomon takes Ms Palin to task for not understanding the importance of studies into fruit flies, which share roughly half their genes with humans. "They have been used for more than a century to understand how genes work, which has implications in, for example, understanding the ageing process," she said.

In our opinion, Sarah Palin was seemingly referring to the modern day problem of the ever-expanding definition of "public good." In America currently, the public good seems to include whatever Congress can be pressured to vote for. Palin's larger point is thus well taken, by us anyway: The more government involves itself in science, and the funding thereof, the more dismal the results of that science usually turn out to be.

Examples? The American space program NASA spends billions and has little to show for it in the last few decades. The science of global warming, so beloved of the United Nations and the Nobel Prize judges, is coming at least partially unglued in the face of increasing evidence of a possible upcoming spell of global cooling. And in both Europe and Washington DC, political types continue to pressure the auto industry for "green" cars even though the price of a gallon of gas has fallen precipitously and may not even turn back up until 2009 or beyond.

The article above, also quotes a professor as stating, The real crime against humanity continues to be the enduring misery caused by the major mental illnesses across the globe, and the continuing lack of resources devoted to supporting those afflicted. Now we can't prove it, but we bet the professor would be happy if the "lack of resources" were filled not by private research dollars but government money. Yet scientists – as human as anyone else – who are funded by the public purse will likely blow with the prevailing political wind. Such dithering makes for bad science today and bad precedent tomorrow.

After Thoughts

Breakthrough science has never lacked for funding. Newton discovered gravity by sitting under an apple tree. Franklin discovered electricity by flying a kite. Two California kids invented portable computing in a garage and later built a multi-billion corporation called Apple. It is only the mainstream media and its bureaucratic abettors that constantly lament the lack of funding that supposedly retards important projects. We would make the opposite argument: Massive amounts of government administered funding only blocks real science by creating a formidable barrier to entry. Indeed, it would seem easily provable that money tends to bloat the establishment. Soon one has to go to the right schools, study at the right research facilities and apply for the right grants. And any other way of doing science becomes suspect.

History shows us that so many of science's greatest breakthroughs were made by mavericks, outliers with little mainstream exposure. This is as it should be. Government likely can no more create scientific breakthroughs by throwing money at approved scientists and certified research facilities than practitioners of government econometrics can predict the future of the economy or stock markets. Nature is unknowable and the future remains unpredictable.

One can make certain generalizations of course – we do so in these pages – by detecting patterns and extrapolating their continuance within the widest possible circumference. But exactitude? Or scientific breakthroughs deponent to a strict ratio of funding? No, we think not. One might even venture to say on the strength of this article and others that economic illiteracy is as prevalent among mainstream reporters and scientists as scientific illiteracy is supposedly prevalent amongst the glitterati.

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