Science and Healthy Democracy

Reflections and Prologue

What follows is a transcript of my speech delivered at the March for Science – Greensboro on Saturday April 22, 2017.  This may be one of the best speeches I have ever given but unfortunately few people heard it.  In some sense, we the Organizing Committee must take responsibility for that, particularly the mistaken decision to hold the march portion of the march/rally before all speakers had been heard by the crowd. At the beginning of the program there were in excess of 900 people present, after the march this number rapidly dwindled, so that by the end there were less than 100 people present. This organization of the march also had the unfortunate side effect of reinforcing racial stereotypes concerning who actually is engaged in the science.  The beginning of the line-up included individuals primarily from UNC Greensboro.  The fact that these speakers were primarily women eroded one stereotype (all scientists are male), but only one person of African descent (Imani Sharpe, NCATSU graduate student) was seen by the full crowd.  The two most accomplished African American scientists, Dr. Mary Smith, chair of Biology, NCATSU and myself did not speak until after the crowd was almost all gone.

There is an audio version that is available this can be found in a video taken by Amanda Skicism (posted on Facebook). This piece is as close to spoken word as possible.

As this is a written version of the speech I will place footnotes at various places providing the reader with additional information supporting the claims I made and providing references to material used.

Scientific Inquiry and Healthy Democracy

     It has been said that those who do not remember their history are doomed to repeat it1.  Despots of all shapes and varieties have had an uneasy relationship with science.  I give the following two examples to make this point. When deciding on whether a man of East Indian descent could be become a citizen, Justice Southerland said:

“It may be true that the blond Scandinavian and the brown Hindu have a common ancestor in the dim reaches of antiquity, but the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable and profound differences between them today2…”

What Southerland meant by this passage was that despite what the science of the day said, that East Indians were “Caucasians” that Bhagat Singh Thind was not Caucasian enough to earn US citizenship. Adolph Hitler also decided to abuse scientific facts for his own purposes:

“I know perfectly well just as well as all those tremendously clever intellectuals that in a scientific sense there is no such thing as race.  But you, as a farmer and cattle breeder cannot get your breeding successfully achieved without the conception of race and I as a politician need a conception which enables the order which has hitherto existed on historic bases to be abolished and entirely new and anti-historic order enforced and given an intellectual basis…with the conception of race National Socialism will carry its revolution and recast the world3.”

In this passage Adolph Hitler explained how he was about to use a concept that he himself understood was unscientific to galvanize the German citizenry for his planned extermination of the Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and other undesirable races of Europe. In both these cases, the United States in 1923 and Nazi Germany in 1940 an unscientific belief (the existence of biological races in the human species) was deployed to serve the political goals of evil men (and I do mean men)4.

Now I know that some of you believe that the world has advanced to the point where these kinds of things are no longer possible.  But yet, the current President of the United States, Donald Trump, had absolutely no hesitation to appoint to his transition team and government individuals whose beliefs and actions are scarcely indistinguishable from those of the racists who lead the world to the brink of Armageddon in the 1940’s!

Thus despots have always had an uneasy relationship with science.  The current one in the White House has no problem calling on the scientific community to utilize the tools of modern science to discover new coal, oil, and natural gas deposits; while at the same time rejects the results of that science that explains the ever increasing dangers to humanity that accrue from continuing to burn fossil fuels.

At the same time that this administration wishes to unshackle corporate greed to plunder the earth, they are also attempting to destroy the organizations and individuals capable of preparing us to meet the new dangers.  The attacks on climate science and the EPA are not coincidental.  In the spirit of Alfred E. Newman “what me worry?” they would on one hand destroy our ability to predict and monitor the damage while simultaneously gutting the regulations (Clean Air, Water Acts) and eliminate the agency (EPA) designed to protect the American public from toxic pollution.

Unfortunately this sad state of affairs has also existed in previous administrations, all though admittedly this one has adopted new levels of callous disregard for the welfare of the American people, especially those that they consider unworthy (people of color, immigrants, women, and the LGBT community).

More than at any time in the past, our species relies on modern science. Our activities now threaten global ecological balance, weather patterns, and are creating emerging diseases for which we have no cures.  The ship of humanity seems rapidly heading towards the rocks.

How then are we to right the ship? 

What can the average citizen do to address this calamity?

Today’s marches for science are a start.  With 600 across the world we have sent a powerful message.  However, I would be lying to you if I told you that I thought those who currently hold political power in this nation and around the world are really invested in making the world a better place for its people.  They are wed to an economic system that by its very nature cannot help but create the calamities I have discussed above5.

If future generations of humanity are to survive, we need a different type of politics6.  One that places scientific research in the service of human needs, as opposed to corporate greed.  We must ask the question who is served by inventing non-biodegradable plastics resulting in human hormone disruption and 7 million tons of plastic waste deposited in the oceans every year7?  Who is served by inventing precision medicines that will cost more than the average insured person can afford? Who is served by spending 596 billion dollars annually on supporting engines of mass destruction?

When we answer these questions we will realize that we need to start organizing today to build new political structures that represent the needs of the 90% majority and the not the top 10% who own 76% of this nation’s wealth.

If there are future generations, (and I do mean if) they will look back and ask questions about what type of people we were (even though most of y’all are gone).  Will they from their dystopian misery, ask as Rev. King asked “who were these good people who stood by and did nothing8”, or will they from their utopian futures ask: who were these heroic people who made a stand for justice?  Will they ask, who were the scientists whose folly and greed birthed the ecological disasters that culled the human species, or will they ask who were the scientists who deployed their genius to heal the earth and to build sustainable society?

Today we make a choice that leads to one of those futures, it is my fervent hope that it is the latter rather than the former.

To these ends:

  1. We must demand science education that meets national standards9.
  2. Demand funding for science research that meets human needs and not corporate greed.
  3. When you vote, demand that candidates make clear their stance around issues of science. Withhold your support from candidates that will not engage in evidence-based decision making.
  4. I must disagree with the previous speaker. The enterprise of science had always been political10. Unfortunately scientists have almost always served the interests of the status quo, of the ruling class, and of the socially dominant. That means if we want the kind of science that can heal the earth, that can cure disease, that can feed people, that can help to build socially just institutions, we must begin to build a new political party. This means that I say that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have the capacity to do the work that can make science work for people. We must begin to think about how we can develop a new democratic process that empowers working and poor people so that we can commit science to work for all people.

Footnotes

  1. This is paraphrasing a statement from the philosopher George Santayana (b. 1863—d 1952).
  2. Source: United States Bhagat Singh Thind, Certificate from The Circuit Court Of Appeals For The Ninth Circuit. No. 202. Argued January 11, 12, 1923.
  3. Adolph Hitler to Hermann Rauschning 1940, recounted by Herman Rauschning in his book entitled: The Voice of Destruction, (New York: Putnam), 1940. Another important Hitler quote the reader should know is: “What good fortune for those in power that people do not think.” Cited in Ashley Montagu, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, 6th (Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press), 1997.
  4. This statement refers to the patriarchal nature of modern societies and the fact that warfare has been in the main, a male-initiated and dominated enterprise.
  5. The world’s current economic system is monopoly capitalism. There are a number of excellent historical and modern analyses demonstrating that its core principle (private ownership of the basic means of production) will always lead to exploitation of the majority of the world’s people and the destruction of its resources (e.g. Mandel, E., Late Capitalism, Verso Press, 1985; Stiglitz, J., The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, Norton, 2013; and Piketty, T., Capital in the 21st Century, Belknap Press, 2014). I purposefully did not use this term in the speech because in my experience when you make this statement, many people stop listening to what you have to say.  I felt it more important to make the argument and let listeners determine its validity.
  6. I refer the reader to the concluding chapter of my book: Graves, J.L. The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America (New York: Dutton Books), 2005 in which I outline many of my ideas concerning how we can get this new type of politics initiated.
  7. Chiras, D., Environmental Science 7th Edition, (Boston: Jones & Bartlett Publishers), 2006. I am currently funded to conduct a study of the microbiome associated with microplastics recovered from deep ocean cores via the National Science Foundation STC: Biocomputational Evolution in Action (BEACON).
  8. King asked this question in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” discussion of the white moderate.
  9. The Next Generation Science Standards can be viewed here: https://www.nextgenscience.org/ . There has been a constant battle particularly in the south to utilize principles of “state’s rights” to tailor science standards to the ideology of anti-science forces.  Amongst topics typically under assault are organic evolution, climate science, and age of the earth geology.
  10. The enterprise of science is distinguished here from the scientific method. The latter is a method designed to provide objective knowledge about nature.  When practiced at its highest standards it is clearly the best method for producing useful knowledge about the universe.  However, the process or enterprise of science is conducted by human beings who are always engaged in the social contradictions of their cultures.  All human beings are subject to bigotry and bias (conscious and unconscious) and vary in their moral character.  There is no correlation between scientific ability and moral character.  Throughout history, the vast majority of scientists have served the interests of their ruling classes, from the time of Aristotle (who coined the idea of the “natural slave”) to the present day.  Let us not forget that in addition to all the good things shown on the signs displayed at the Marches for Science all over the world; scientists brought us gunpowder, dynamite, nuclear weapons, biological and chemical warfare, eugenics, psychometry (IQ testing), non-biodegradable plastics, DDT, napalm, and a host of modern pharmaceuticals with toxic side effects more numerous than I can list here! Some of these scientists did this because they just wanted to solve a neat problem, others for personal financial gain, others because they agreed with the dominant ideologies of their society (e.g. the Nazi race scientist, Eugen Fisher, or the American race scientist: Carleton Putnam), and some because they wanted to make the world a better place. The idea that scientists are simply noble seekers of truth is a pernicious lie. The character of scientists is just like that of the rest of the human species, varying from the purely evil to the saint-like, with most of them residing somewhere in between.

 

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