Forum at UC Berkeley
“The Attack on Scientific Thinking and Why We Must Defend Science”
UC Berkeley--On April 13, over 160 people, mainly professors of science, graduate and undergraduate students in the sciences, attended a forum and discussion, hosted by the Berkeley Student Chapter of Defend Science, titled “The Attack on Scientific Thinking and Why We Must Defend Science.” At a time when even such a basic scientific fact as evolutionary theory is under attack, this forum is a welcome development.
The leaflet announcing the event quoted from a statement by scientists to “Defend Science”: “In the United States today science, as science, is under attack as never before. The attacks are coming at an accelerating pace, and include frequent interventions by powerful forces, in and out of the Bush Administration, who seem all too willing to deny scientific truths, disrupt scientific investigations, block scientific progress, undermine scientific education, and sacrifice the very integrity of the scientific process itself. We must refuse to accept a situation where scientific inquiry is blocked or its findings ruled out of order unless they conform to the goals of the government, to corporate interests and to the ideology of religious fundamentalists; where dogma enforced by governmental and religious authority takes the place of science; where the scientific approach of seeking natural explanations for natural phenomena is suppressed.” (The full statement with signatories is available at defendscience.org).
The forum was moderated and introduced by Dr. Michael G. Hadfield, Professor of Zoology and Director of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory at the University of Hawaii. A number of prominent scientists spoke at the event.
Dr. Dennis Baldocchi, Professor of Biometeorology, Berkeley Atmospheric Science Center at UC Berkeley, gave an overview of the overwhelming evidence for global warming, showing how human beings, by their consumption of fossil fuels over the last 100 years, have changed the global climate, in ways which are having, and will continue to have, profound effects on the future of the planet. And he outlined some of the political attacks that have been launched against prominent climate scientists.
Dr. Stephen Palumbi, Professor of Biological Sciences and Senior Fellow at the Stanford Institute for the Environment, and author of The Evolution Explosion, spoke on “Why evolutionary science in indispensable.” Dr. Palumbi explained how evolution by natural selection is easily observed in many ways, in medicine, agriculture, and technology. He brought out how the development of antibiotics to treat infection, medicine to combat the HIV/AIDS virus, and measures against the spread of the avian flu, all depend on an understanding of the fact of evolution.
Dr. Kevin Padian, Professor of Integrative Biology, Curator of the Museum of Paleontology at UC Berkeley and President of the National Center for Science Education, spoke of the extent of the attacks coming down on science by the Bush administration, from promoting false information on sexual abstinence in preventing AIDs, to demanding appointees to scientific panels answer questions about whether they voted for Bush. Dr. Padian was a major witness in the recent Dover, Pennsylvania case on teaching evolution, which resulted in a setback for the teaching of the unscientific and religious doctrine of “intelligent design” in public schools.
In the last question of the night a student asked, “What sacrifices will we have to make in this period to defend science?” Addressing this question, Dr. Padian said, “You’re going to have to do things that you don’t like doing. That’s why they call it a sacrifice. You may have to give up a scientific paper or two, or maybe one or two a year. You may have to give up your free time, if you had any to begin with.” The panelists went on to talk about the challenge of stepping outside of their research and outside the academy to speak to school boards, city councils, and people generally to defend science and the scientific method.
Dr. Michael G. Hadfield, Professor of Zoology and Director of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory at the University of Hawaii:
If you’ve read the Defend Science Statement (available at defendscience.org) you’ll understand that right across the many disciplines that make up modern science, scientists have been forced into a defensive position as right wing political and religious groups seek to undermine the factual scientific basis for understanding nature and the very process of scientific inquiry.
Never, certainly in my own lifetime, has anything gone on like what we have witnessed in the last six years. We see this attack on science and scientific thinking in our schools and universities, our government agencies, and in U.S. policies worldwide. One of the things that impacted me most over the last four months is reading Esther Kaplan’s book, With God On Their Side, about George W. Bush and the religious right. As I said to my wife, ‘I couldn’t finish it without reading a murder mystery before going to sleep, because of the realization of how infiltrated the scientific establishment in the U.S. is now with people from religious and non-scientific backgrounds and how this had changed the very tenor and the reason for awarding grants or supporting efforts of the United Nations, and how these things are echoing out into things like increased AIDS in Africa, because of the withholding of things as simple as condoms.
I want to emphasize that the goal of the defend science project is to launch a movement and to issue an urgent call to the American people.
Why Evolutionary Science Is Indispensable: Evolution and the Bacterial Arms Race
Dr. Stephen Palumbi, Professor of Biological Sciences and Senior Fellow at the Stanford Institute for the Environment, Author of “The Evolution Explosion”:
Natural selection is a provable biological proposition; you can see it happen, and evolution by natural selection is something you can observe in medicine, in agriculture, in biotechnology…. A really fabulous example of evolution by natural selection has to do with antibiotics, which burst upon the industrial scene in 1943 when penicillin first became commercially available. This saved millions of lives. It also caused an incredible burst of evolutionary change in those very bugs--those very bacteria--that penicillin was generated to combat. The examples are everywhere. I could name dozens of very well documented examples of evolutionary change that happened in bacterial populations because of antibiotics. This is a list for just one such bug, staphylococcus--the bacteria that causes staph infections. It was wonderfully susceptible to penicillin in 1943. By 1947, the first resistance to penicillin was reported. We switched to methicillan in 1960, because, by that time, methicillan was much more effective in treating staph infections. In 1961 the first resistance to methicillan was discovered in a hospital in Cairo. Methicillan resistance begins to build up in the 1980s and by the mid-1990s 35% of the staph infections you might get in a hospital were methicillan resistant and had to be treated with another drug, called vancomycin. Vancomycin at the time was known as the drug of last resort, a really bad name for a drug if you’re on it, but there was nothing else. Then, in 1996, the first vancomycin-resistant staphylococcus was discovered in Tokyo. So the FDA rushed into approval of another drug called linezolid, which was approved in 2000, and in 2002 resistance to that drug was discovered. Get the pattern? Find a drug. Use it massively. That creates natural selection on these organisms. They evolve resistance to these drugs over and over again. This is not a theory. We can even predict it. It’s an arms race between the development of a new antibiotic and the evolution of resistance. And the resistance causes us to invent and deploy new antibiotics. You can say that’s fine, we’re very clever and we can keep on inventing new antibiotics. And so far we have been able to. But just barely, because the rate of development of new antibiotics is slowing while the rate of evolution of bacteria is not slowing. Along the way you run into escalation. The organisms become more deadly and the cost of drugs goes up.
… I think we need to ask: who will be served by denying to our children information about evolution, the technology of evolutionary science, and the ability to create health solutions, agricultural solutions and other natural solutions in our world? I think the people who will be served are the people who would rather that people not ask questions, try to get their own answers and make up their own mind. The scientific process that evolution actually includes is to get the facts. It is to make up your mind based on those facts and reach conclusions that are consistent with those facts. And to question those facts when other facts come on board and move your own understanding from one point to another. I have children and I desperately want my children to have that ability – to move from one point of view to another because they got the facts and they made up their own mind. Denying them that by telling them that evolution can’t work because it isn’t a science – and by the way that will eventually apply to climate change, astronomy and everything – is like denying them the ability to walk up the stairs, or to learn a foreign language or to play a musical instrument. This is a fundamental thing that my children need. So when I think about this problem of teaching evolution and what it means in our society, I see it as an attempt to limit my children’s ability to deal with the world and create a better world in the future than what we have now.
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