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Elections, Politics, and Science

In 2010 the White House issued a memorandum entitled, “Scientific Integrity: Fueling Innovation, Building Public Trust.” In this memorandum John Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, described minimum standards for government agencies crafting rules for scientific integrity, “…including a clear prohibition on political interference in scientific processes and expanded assurances of transparency.”  (see:


In and of itself, this memorandum is nothing new. The idea that science should be independent of politics goes back many years. For example, Karl Popper argued, in his classic work The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), that “critical rationalism” – an openness to rational questioning – would be the defining characteristic of an open, modern society, one that would encourage real social and political progress, not to mention the growth of the sciences in all their dimensions. Popper tore into totalitarian cultures such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany as examples of societies that fettered free and clear thought, including scientific thought, and thereby created social structures that crushed the development and advancement of our intellectual development, including our sciences and our arts.

This hardly seems worth mentioning, let alone worth debate. Who would ever argue that state-run science, or (for that matter) state-sanctioned art, is superior to ideas that are tested by the buffeting of a marketplace of ideas, competing theories, and critical thinking?

But, dear reader, please consider this.  “Totalitarianism” – once understood to be the province of a government or overarching state – may be seen as a corporate entity. What if a scientist works in a world dominated by his or her employer?  Is this a form of “totalitarianism” – one similar in concept to that envisioned by Popper at the state level? The size of 21st century organizations, their inter-digitation, and their capacity to control the behavior of their employees, all drive this analogy.

This is not Orwell’s 1984 – a totalitarian state run by fear.  It is more Huxley’s Brave New World – a system run by efficiency and incentives. Henry Ford, inventor of the assembly line, is the god of Brave New World. But the totalitarianism of Brave New World is as bad and terrifying as anything envisioned by Orwell.

Just because the masses choose Bread and Circuses doesn’t mean that they’ve chosen rightly. Results count. The wisdom of the body politic is not absolute. Remember the lesson of history: Rome collapsed under the weight of its people’s appetites.

In this election cycle, let us think about the future, the world for our children, and for our grandchildren. May our choices grasp their consequences.

May true values triumph.   

As quoted in The First Days of August, Winston Schmidt said it best:  

“True Values Value Truth Over Values.”

Go in peace and truth, dear Reader. Be free. And be free to think.

Read 1052 times Last modified on Monday, 28 March 2016 19:56
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