»  National Review Online

October 7, 2008

  Will Obama Kill Science?

The science news this past few weeks has concentrated on the Large Hadron Collider, which officially began operations on September 10. So far not much of anything has actually been collided, but the physicists whose eight billion dollar toy this is are working their way up in baby steps to the big, glamorous experiments.

Still, anyone of a gambling inclination who wanted to bet on what the really sensational science headlines of the next few years will be, would not be looking to the LHC. As I commented in National Review three years ago:

[W]e are passing from the Age of Physics to the Age of Biology. It is not quite the case that nothing is happening in physics, but certainly there is nothing like the excitement of the early 20th century. Physics seems, in fact, to have got itself into a cul-de-sac, obsessing over theories so mathematically abstruse that nobody even knows how to test them.

The life sciences, by contrast, are blooming, with major new results coming in all the time from genetics, zoology, demography, biochemistry, neuroscience, psychometrics, and other "hot" disciplines. The physics building may be hushed and dark while its inhabitants mentally wrestle with 26-dimensional manifolds, but over at biology the joint is jumpin'.

Whether it will go on jumpin' may depend on the result of November's election. There is a widespread feeling in the human sciences — particularly in genetics, population genetics, evolutionary biology, and neurophysiology — that the next five to ten years will see some sensational discoveries. Unfortunately those discoveries will have metaphysical implications more disturbing than were those of quantum mechanics. Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Pauli, and Dirac may have seriously upset our ideas about matter and energy, but at least they left our psyches and our political principles intact.

Those items may not remain intact much longer. The conceptual revolution among human-sciences researchers has in fact already taken place. This is not widely understood because (a) news outlets are very reluctant to report it, (b) powerful political forces have an interest in suppressing it, and (c) researchers prefer getting on quietly with their work to having their windows broken by mobs of angry protestors.

Most people still think of human-science controversies in terms of nature/nurture. As a matter of real scientific dispute, that is all long gone. Nature/nurture arguments were at the heart of the sociobiology wars that roiled the human sciences through the last third of the 20th century. (The 2000 book Defenders of Truth, by the Finnish sociologist of science Ullica Segerstråle gives a full — and so far as I can judge, very fair — account.) The dust of battle has pretty much settled now, in science departments if not in the popular press, and nature is the clear victor. Name any universal characteristic of human nature, including cognitive and personality characteristics. Of all the observed variation in that characteristic, about half is caused by genetic differences. You may say that is only a half victory; but it is a complete shattering of the nurturist absolutism that ruled in the human sciences forty years ago, and that is still the approved dogma in polite society, including polite political society, today.

While those sociobiology wars were going on — while E.O. Wilson was having a jug of ice water dumped over his head at an AAAS symposium by people shouting "Racist Wilson you can't hide, we charge you with genocide!" (1978); while Art Jensen looked set fair to be kicked out of the AAAS altogether following agitation by Margaret Mead et al. because of his 1969 paper on group differences in IQ; while Stephen Jay Gould was assuring his readers that "Human equality is a contingent fact of history" (1985) and Richard Lewontin was celebrating "the funeral of reductionism" (1983); while Charles Murray was being profiled in the New York Times Magazine as "America's most dangerous conservative" (1994) — while all that was happening, research results were steadily trickling in, building up the water pressure behind the nurturist dam.

That dam now has more cracks than the surface of Europa and water is spraying out all over. The only thing that could stop a complete collapse would be the power of government …

… Which might be forthcoming in the event of an Obama victory. The younger generation of human-sciences enthusiasts trend conservative/libertarian, and Obama has them worried. For a glimpse of the kind of discussions that their fears generate, read through the recent thread on Gene Expression here. Samples:

[Sarah] Palin is the most libertarian candidate to run since the Reagan administration … we're fighting to hold territory, not to take it. We just need to hold off the left till genomics can come through. We're going to be knocking off sacred cow after sacred cow in the next decade or so …

The Democrats do not want the genetic discoveries to lead to widespread knowledge about the truth about human differences. The Democrats are really more anti-Darwinian than the fundamentalist Christians who deny the origin of species …

We need to step very carefully as we as going up against the official state religion, namely PC, and until we reach critical mass we'll be convicted in the media and go straight to the gulag rather than be afforded the benefit of a [S]copes trial. [J]ust think of how many fedguv bureaucrats and NGOs owe their livelihoods to the axiom of equality … an Obama administration will passionately go after the heretics.

The Left's restraints on science do not get publicized. Where's the big research for IQ genes? Where's the funding for that? Where's the big research program for psychometrics? The Left strangled that very thoroughly.

About 45 percent of the way down that thread are two gems. First, population geneticist Henry Harpending posts a creepy invitation he got from the National Human Genome Research Institute (yes, that's a ".gov" you see there in their web address …), who are "planning a workshop to explore the ethical, legal, and social issues (ELSI) raised by research on natural selection in humans." The impetus for this meeting, they say, is "a growing need for more thoughtful deliberation by genomic researchers, ELSI researchers, science writers and science editors regarding the societal issues raised by natural selection research." Get the picture? The blogger Godless Capitalist notes:

The fact is that it is incredibly difficult even today to do this research. Genomics has been an area of "regulatory oversight" in that the Hapmap and related high throughput SNP research started getting published so quickly that the bureaucrats haven't had time to crack down on the area.

They are now beginning to do so. I cannot disclose more but I am familiar with many of the principals and Harpending's post is the tip of the iceberg.

(Godless is a researcher in genomics.**  In fact he is the one who paid me a visit here.)

A couple of items further on, science blogger Jason Malloy posts the transcript of an NPR discussion about The Bell Curve from October 1994, featuring "civil rights lawyer and writer" Barack Obama, who "lives in Chicago." What did our young civil rights lawyer and writer (?) think of Herrnstein and Murray's pop-psychometrics masterpiece? He no like.

Mr. Murray isn't interested in prevention. He's interested in pushing a very particular policy agenda, specifically, the elimination of affirmative action and welfare programs aimed at the poor. With one finger out to the political wind, Mr. Murray has apparently decided that white America is ready for a return to good old-fashioned racism so long as it's artfully packaged …

Some of us, mulling over these things, have found consolation in the thought that even if the U.S. authorities shut down human-sciences research, it will go on in other countries where these issues are less fraught, and the results will come out anyway. As someone notes on that thread, though, this may not happen, or it may happen very, very slowly. The U.S.A. is a giant in all kinds of research, and the rest of the world trails far behind. An acquaintance of mine at Cold Spring Harbor lab, a Chinese citizen, grumbled to me about the political and cultural obstacles to investigating human nature. Well, I suggested, why not go back to China to do the research? The Chinese have none of the hang-ups about human differences that we have here. "True," he sighed, "but there's no money for research over there." For all China's economic success in recent years, it remains a poor country (GDP per capita $5,300 versus $45,800 for the U.S.A.) with only the beginnings of a pure-science research infrastructure. Cold Spring Harbor Lab opened in 1890, when the last Chinese Imperial dynasty still had 21 years to run.

Thus if human-sciences research is shut down in the U.S.A., our understanding will cease to advance, or will advance much more slowly. A mass exodus of researchers to some more hospitable nation, in the manner of Jewish scientists fleeing the Nazis, is not likely. U.S. academic life is very cozy, and nobody is threatened with concentration camps. Researchers are just being told, in the soft-totalitarian tones of that memo Henry Harpending displays, that there are project areas towards which the federal government takes a stance of strong disapproval, with effects including, but not limited to, zero funding.

Barack Obama was raised in an atmosphere of "cultural Marxism." His mind was set that way, and he retained the essential precepts of the creed into adult life, as his close association with somewhat-more-than-cultural Marxist Bill Ayers illustrates (as of course do Obama's remarks quoted above). Obama would fill his administration with cultural Marxists like himself, whose attitude to human-sciences research is the one spelled out by Edward O. Wilson in his book On Human Nature.

Marxism is sociobiology without biology. The strongest opposition to the scientific study of human nature has come from a small number of Marxist biologists and anthropologists who are committed to the view that human behavior arises from a very few unstructured drives. They believe that nothing exists in the untrained human mind that cannot be readily channeled to the purposes of the revolutionary socialist state. When faced with the evidence of greater structure, their response has been to declare human nature off limits to further scientific investigation. A few otherwise very able scholars have gone so far as to suggest that merely to talk about the subject is dangerous.

And in case you think it should be difficult to stifle open enquiry in a free country, check out this report from Canada.

Academics fear speaking freely in Canada
    Political scientists worried about 'legal jeopardy'

A group of U. S. professors launched a campaign this week protesting plans by a prominent political science organization to hold its annual conference in Toronto next year, claiming that Canada's restrictions on certain forms of speech puts controversial academics at risk of being prosecuted … Bradley Watson, professor of American and Western political thought at Pennsylvania's St. Vincent College, said he will present a petition calling for the American Political Science Association (APSA) to re-evaluate its selection of Toronto for its 2009 conference at this year's annual meeting … His protest has garnered support from dozens of professors across the United States, including prominent scholars such as Princeton University legal philosopher Robert P. George and Harvard University's Harvey Mansfield … [P]rofessors signing the petition are concerned that recent human rights commission investigations into Maclean's and Western Standard magazines over articles concerning Islam, and the conviction of pastor Stephen Boisson, who was ordered by Alberta's human rights tribunal in May to cease publicizing criticisms of homosexuality, suggest that professors risk being chilled from discussing important academic subjects, or ending up in legal trouble …

We are about to find out whether our traditional devotion to free speech and free enquiry can survive real, incontrovertible results from the human sciences; and in particular, in the event of an Obama victory, whether that devotion can survive under a left-liberal administration headed by a cultural Marxist — an administration much more interested in shoring up the soft totalitarianism of "diversity" and "multiculturalism" than in permitting the discovery of true facts about human nature.

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** When Godless was helping me get up to speed on this stuff, I asked him at one point:  "What's the difference between a geneticist and a genomicist?" He gave a very cute answer: "Geneticists are female, genomicists are male." Asked to elaborate, he offered this: "Imagine you are walking down a corridor in a research institute, looking in through the glass panels in doors. In one lab you see a young woman of nontrivial attractiveness carefully adding drops to a Petri dish from a pipette. That's a geneticist. A couple of doors along you look into another lab and there are two young guys arguing about some long string of numbers displayed on a computer screen. Those are genomicists …"