Scientists feel threatened by something they consider more insidious than funding cuts. It's a rising tide of anti-science sentiment that they believe could erode public trust in their work and submerge their status in society.
University scientists are finding that some liberal arts colleagues now argue that science has no more validity than other "ways of knowing" - unverified personal intuitions or such hoary humbugs as astrology, parapsychology, and spiritualism. In this view, mysticism and magic would have equal rank with knowledge gained by observations and experiments that can be repeated and independently verified.
What's new is that scientists who have tried to ignore what they consider nonsense now may be ready to fight back. A few weeks ago, a couple hundred of them met for three days at the New York Academy of Sciences to assess the situation. It is too soon to know whether this will result in a significant counterattack. But the discussions did drive home the point that scientists have to face up to the insidious nature of the anti-science threat.
Harvard University science historian Gerald Holton, who took part in the conference, has been trying to sound this alarm for several years. In his book Science and Anti-science (Harvard University Press, 1993), he explains that scientists are not just confronted by relatively harmless delusions such as mental telepathy. They also face a hard core of people who hold strongly to alternative world views that devalue objective, impersonal science and who are committed politically to imposing their views on society.
The persistent drive of religious fundamentalists to have "creation science" taught as an alternative to evolution in public school science courses is a contemporary case in point. But the dark side of a marriage of anti-science to political power is better illustrated by Nazi "scientific" racial theories used to justify the Holocaust or the Stalinist "science" of the former Soviet Union.
It was politically dangerous in Stalin's Russia to promote Einstein's relativity theories or certain aspects of quantum physics. And it was downright suicidal to espouse genetic science. Stalin bought the fallacious theory of botanist Trofim D. Lysenko that characteristics a plant or animal develops during its lifetime - such as increased stature due to better nutrition - can be inherited by its offspring. In other words, acquired characteristics instead of genes determine heredity. Brutal enforcement of this pseudo-science resulted in persecution of many biologists. It killed genetic research and set back Soviet agricultural development for several decades.
In his book, Dr. Holton warned that so-called alternative sciences "may be harmless enough" by themselves. But, he added, "when they are incorporated into political movements they can become a time bomb waiting to explode." At the New York meeting, he told fellow scientists it is urgent that they "act in self-protection" to counter such anti-science movements before they gain political power.
Holton is right. But there is a caveat. Scientists also need to act with wisdom. If they lash out in anger, this can raise public sympathy for pseudo-science. That's what happened when the late Immanuel Velikovsky published his notion that ancient stories of floods and plagues record Earth's close encounters with comets and a wandering planet Venus. Efforts by some outraged astronomers to suppress Velikovsky's book in the early 1950s only enhanced its influence.
Countering anti-science is a never-ending challenge. Scientists should take up that challenge as part of their lifelong professional obligation. If they are themselves secure in their commitment to the value of the scientific approach to knowledge, they can communicate that value to the larger public. Continuing to rage about anti-science privately while remaining silent publicly is a cop-out they no longer can afford.
In this anti-science view, mysticism and magic would have equal rank with knowledge gained by observations and verifiable experiments.