Friday, March 10, 2006

[geek][politics] The Cathedral and the Laboratory, part 1

This morning, Atrios links to the newly-shrill (yet curiously unapologetic - but more about that another time) Andrew Sullivan's blurb about Michael Specter's article in the latest issue of The New Yorker, "The White House vs. the laboratory". The article itself is not online, but Sullivan quotes from it thusly:
Religious conservatives are unapologetic; not only do they believe that mass use of an HPV [(Human Papilloma Virus, a sexually-transmitted disease that appears to cause or otherwise precipitate cervical cancer)] vaccine or the availability of emergency contraception will encourage adolescents to engage in unacceptable sexual behavior; some have even stated that they would feel similarly about an H.I.V. vaccine, if one became available. "We would have to look at that closely," Reginald Finger, an evangelical Christian and a former medical adviser to the conservative political organization Focus on the Family, said. "With any vaccine for H.I.V., disinhibition" - a medical term for the absence of fear - "would certainly be a factor, and it is something we will have to pay attention to with a great deal of care." Finger sits on the Centers for Disease Control's Immunization Committee, which makes those recommendations.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the Bush Administration's efforts to politicize Federally-funded science. That our homegrown Taliban should prefer death over the remote possibility of someone fucking without their stamp of approval shouldn't exactly be a shock, either. What was a shock to me, though, was the degree to which the Specter was willing to apologize for and minimize the effect of the Bush Administration's assault on scientific integrity. I haven't read the article itself, obviously, but the tone Specter strikes in the Q&A about the article is strikingly different from that conveyed by Sullivan's excerpt:
What are the costs of an anti-science Administration like this one, in both the short term and the long term? Is it possible that we’re witnessing the beginning of a major shift away from Enlightenment thinking, or is that too alarmist a reading of the effect of one Administration’s policies? That’s a little alarmist, I hope. We are in an age when almost anything is technically possible in science. We can break humans down to the smallest component parts. We can mix parts and grow new ones (or soon will). We can manipulate nature and, soon enough, we will even be able to choose the genetic components of our children. None of this is easy to take, and a reaction is understandable. The job of the Administration, and of educators, is to convince people that these powerful new tools can help immensely and not just cause harm. In the short term, that is not happening and we are probably losing some good young people who might otherwise enter science. But a few years from now—maybe 2008, to take a random date—the situation could improve markedly.
It is not alarmist. The positions staked out by this Administration on almost every level fly directly in the face of the ideals of the Enlightenment. Specter also apologizes for the Administration making sure that people placed on scientific advisory boards adhere to philosophies that will appeal to the American Taliban by waving his hands and suggesting that 'every Administration has done it'. But you see - they haven't done it to this degree. The Bush Administration has done this to an unprecedented degree - they have placed their flunkies throughout the civil service, from the uppermost and most publicized positions down to the mid- to upper-management levels. The topmost positions will more than likely be reassigned with a change of Administration, but those embedded managers will continue to wreak havoc on the system for years to come. They have also required loyalty tests when screening people for the advisory board positions: What are your opinions on abortion? On drugs? Did you vote for the President? If your answers are not acceptable to the Christianist cabal in power, you are rejected. These questions are being asked of scientists across the board: oncology, cardiology, nephrology... What does abortion or the "War on Drugs" have to do with someone's scientific qualifications? What does how one votes have to do with their scientific ability?

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