Humanist Perspectives: issue 151: Science and George Bush

Science & George Bush
by Shirley Goldberg

snapshot apologies submitted by the American public
to following Bush’s re-election Nov 2004

snapshot apologies submitted by the American public to following Bush’s re-election Nov 2004

This year’s lofty Nobel Prize in Physics was won by an elegant, totally speculative theory about pentaquarks. Its beauty exists in explaining phenomena that were previously unexplainable and in moving us perhaps one step closer to the grand dream of a theory that explains everything — that holy grail of qusantum physics, the Unified Field Theory.

Meanwhile, down in the marketplace of public perception, junk science generates a miasma of confusion. In fact the crisis has become so extreme that last February 60 elite US scientists, including many Nobel laureates, issued a statement calling for the restoration of scientific integrity in federal policymaking. Pointing out that objectivity and freedom of inquiry are necessary ingredients of the scientific process, they charge that the current Bush Administration “has obstructed that freedom and distorted that objectivity in ways that were unheard of in any previous administration.”

In The Junk Science of George W Bush, published in The Nation (March 8, 1994), Robert F Kennedy Jr stakes out the abuses in alarming detail — the suppression of information that is unfriendly to corporate interests, the actual distortion of scientific analysis, the stacking of regulatory panels with industry employees, the firing of whistle-blowers, and the total demoralization of the scientific community.

Furthermore, since corporate control is global, this problem is not limited to the US. George Monbiot, writing for The Guardian (February 24, 2004) about some questionable research on autism by an employee of the Legal Aid Board, concludes that the “scientific establishment is rotten from top to bottom, riddled with conflicts… Such is the state of science today that if, for example, there has been a genuine rise in the incidence of autism, and if that rise is linked to an environmental pollutant or side-effects of a valuable drug, it’s hard to see how we would ever find out.” Junk science contamination has befogged every issue from drugs to diet, species survival, stem cell research, the cause of AIDS, and global climate change. No wonder we’re awash in conspiracy theories.

If corporate interests and political ideology are toxic to science, so is literal-minded fundamentalist religion. Take the case of parents who have been so offended by their children’s accidental exposure to evolutionary theory at places like the Grand Canyon, Disney World and dinosaur parks throughout the continent that a special Christian dinosaur theme park has been developed in Pensacola, Florida. Supplementing that need are Christian Dinosaur Digs in South Dakota, and creationist books in the Grand Canyon gift shops.

At Dinosaur Adventure Land children are encouraged to “find out the truth about dinosaurs with games that roll science and religion into one big funfest.” The prevailing message is that Genesis, not science, tells the real story: dinosaurs — actually, big lizards — were created on the Sixth Day 6,000 years ago (along with all other creatures), and they went extinct at the time of the flood. Well, almost extinct. Noah did rescue some small, baby dinosaurs, which grew up and reproduced to become the dragons that the medieval knights killed off. Likewise, at the Christian Dinosaur Digs young and old go searching for evidence of the great die-off during the flood. Those who have looked a little too deeply and been a bit fazed by the blatant contradictions of the fossil evidence have settled for an alternative theory: God has deliberately created this puzzling set of clues to test man’s faith. Unfortunately, with a gormless Born-Again president and a latent strand of anti-intellectualism in American culture, these two anti-scientific forces, corporate and Christian, are not unrelated.

The problem is that science, in its root meaning of knowledge, does matter. This casual disregard — and in some cases, open contempt — for genuine science is a serious sign of cultural meltdown, if not the fall of empires.

But the world is far more complex now. The recent Vancouver International Film Festival, managing as usual to surf the waves of the current zeitgeist, offered some fascinating cinematic meditations on the crucial role of science in our lives. The creative non-fiction film continues to evolve and gain popularity as it attempts to fill a cultural vacuum by exploring ideas that our commercial entertainment finds too challenging and our institutions, such as education, find too controversial.

Two of the films that deserve attention deal with the relationship of science to art; and the other two, of science to technology. Both science and art are modes of investigation. In ancient Greece the word for art was techne (from which we get technology), and the nine muses — the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory) — presided over both the arts and sciences.

Through the ages the fusion of art and science has been a recurring dream. In the densely textured film Proteus, both the text and the highly experimental style deal with such a fusion. Director David Lebrun’s subject is the 19th century biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel who was torn between these two passions until he discovered the 500 million year old radiolarian, a tiny, one-celled undersea creature that exists in an inexhaustible variety of exquisite forms. Studying them he intuited the evolution of life from inorganic material, postulated the biogenetic law of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, and foresaw all the future possibilities of organic and created forms. In fact, he spent the rest of his life studying radiolaria, cataloguing 4,000 different species, and capturing the intricate and stunning beauty of each in his drawings.

with a gormless Born-Again president and a latent strand of anti-intellectualism in American culture, these two anti-scientific forces, corporate and Christian, are not unrelated.

Lebrun combines Haeckel’s story with that of Goethe’s Faust who also sought a unitary vision of art and science and Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner who learned “to love all creatures great and small.” In the process he shows how Haeckel’s work has influenced Surrealism, Art Nouveau, Sigmund Freud, D H Lawrence, Vladimir Lenin and Thomas Edison. All of this content is set to music and layered into a visually gorgeous film, 22 years in the making, that uses cutting edge techniques of animation and computer technology to make Haeckel’s delicate lithographs dance and spin.

Far more conventional but equally celebratory and equally able to make us see the world in a fresh new way was Dutch Light from the Netherlands. Dutch Light delves deeply into both art and science as it explores the question of whether there really was something unique about the light in Holland, a special radiance caught by the old Dutch Masters like Vermeer and Rembrandt, and a quality that has since been lost with the draining of the Zuider Zee and the consequent reduction of reflective surfaces and glistening water vapour in the air.

While these two films play with the intrinsic interrelationship and offer an idealized — almost joyful — vision of art and science, the fusion of science and technology has much darker implications. These were explored in one of the most unlikely film concepts I’ve ever seen. If David Barison and Daniel Ross, the two Australian co-directors with no previous track record, had needed a producer they would never have proceeded beyond the pitch. However, such is the freedom of digital technology — they were able to buy a camera and two tickets to Europe, rent a van and make The Ister independently. This three hour plus, very low budget, very high brow, road movie is actually a wasserstrasse (water-road) movie. As they travel up the Danube River (which the Greeks called the Ister) from its outlet in Romania on the Black Sea to its disputed source in the Black Forest of Germany, they engage us in a mythological and historic journey from ancient Greece to the Third Reich through the mind of Martin Heidegger, Europe’s leading philosopher of the 20th century. The text is based on a series of lectures he wrote in a cabin in the Black Forest in the summer of 1942 as his world fell into chaos. Formally the lectures focus on the poet Friedrich Holderin — and particularly his poem The Danube. But actually they range over every aspect of European civilization with special emphasis upon the development of technology from the mythological moment when Epimetheus, Prometheus’ hapless brother, gave away all the ‘qualities’ to the other animals forcing humankind to create their own prostheses, or machines. What becomes a climactic and highly controversial point is a later statement by Heidegger that the joining of technology and science made possible mechanized agriculture, the gas chambers and the Berlin blockade.

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this heady three-hour romp through the precursor of critical theory was the sell-out crowds for every showing and the line-up of people hoping to buy rush tickets. Is there something special about Vancouver, or are people everywhere hungering for intellectual stimulation?

When Heidegger spoke of mechanized agriculture, the concept didn’t have the negative connotations it has picked up since — especially now with the development of genetic engineering. The best and most inclusive film I’ve seen on the subject is from Germany. Life Running Out of Control had its North American premiere at the festival. In all the rush to patent every type of DNA and to develop transgenic plants and animals, very little research is being done to study the effects of these new life forms on the environment and on human health. One scientist who is doing such research, Terje Traavic working out of an Institute in Trondheim, Norway, sees the almost total corporate control of genetic technology as an alarming scientific problem. Only five percent of scientists working in this field are genuinely independent — and they are seriously under-funded.

Unknowingly and unwillingly we are all subjects of a giant unsupervised, uncontrolled science experiment, dedicated to corporate profits, with a clueless government in charge. The needed objectivity that many scientists have demanded is missing in action. So is the freedom of inquiry. Awards and honours are still conferred upon those who probe the mysteries of the pentaquarks and radiolaria, but the everyday science that affects our lives is seriously ailing.

Shirley Goldberg is a free-lance writer, film critic and film programmer. She is retired from teaching English and Film Studies.