Monday, November 14, 2005

Science Is Killing The Goose

The scientific community loves to be poor and miserable. I am convinced of this. They are the modern equivalent of medieval monks who flagellate themselves while contemplating the arcane and ethereal. Instead of monasteries and abbeys, you have the modern office and laboratory. Probing the intricacies of the phenomena of the observable world has replaced contemplation about the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. The flagellation? Why, it's the grant writing process of course. It's not "or", but publish and perish, bit by bit, with each submission and revision cycle.

What evidence do I have for this? Why, it is because the scientific community is killing, as we speak, a goose which has been laid before it, dropping one golden egg after another. Instead of embracing and treasuring this miracle, they ignore it, dismiss it. This goose represents an amazing windfall for the American Scientific community, but they are killing it. The scientific community could in one stroke energize research in multiple fields, radically transform its public image and gain access to completely new sources of funding and sponsorship in a single stroke. Instead the community spurns its would-be benefactor. Intelligent Design can give a greater boost to the American scientific community than Sputnik and the Manhattan Project put together, but the community has chosen to ignore its potential just because of a few minor details.

So the ID proponents are pushing an argument from ignorance. We all know it's jumping to a conclusion in the absence of any empirical evidence, but cut them some slack. I'm sure it's just a placeholder until they can cook up something better. The whole ID thing is still pretty new, and they're getting the kinks out of it. You've got to admit that the Big Bang theory looked kinda goofy until they got enough evidence to get some decent buy-in. To be honest, I think that they're doing a pretty good job, picking away at the fossil record, arguing about different kinds of complexity and such to keep people busy while they work on this...at least I think they're working on it...

So they don't have any experimental results. Experimental results are great, but the scientific community knows that sometimes getting experiments done are tough. Look at what happened to the Superconducting Supercollider. And we're talking about biology here. Not only are the equipment and reagents expensive, but when you try to find a site for a lab you've got zoning and waste disposal issues. Besides, you ever smell E. Coli while it's being cultured? Frankly, I think it's a brilliant strategy. Nothing drives the media away faster than waiting for experimental results and grinding through the peer review process. By focusing their efforts on fighting it out in the forum of public opinion and in legislative battles, not only do they save themselves tons of money and avoid all those technical hassles, but they can leverage all kinds of legal and political resources, and get lots of media coverage to boot.

What's so great about ID? The funding possibilities. An army of conservative and religious groups have lined up behind ID. Even the Catholic Church has weighed in on this one. That's over a billion followers, many from some of the richest countries on the planet. Then of course there is all the lobbying and petitioning over school science standards. They’re going after the next generation. They’re in for the long haul in a way that you’ll never find in government sponsors. As one can see from how the Bush administration has turned on climate change research, funding prospects can change completely with a single change of administration. By contrast, Pope John Paul II was installed as pope in 1978, and his papacy lasted 27 years. And though people gripe about the pace of legislation, the Catholic Church hung onto Ptolemy’s view of the universe for over fifteen hundred years. Religious institutions make the federal government look like a pack of spastic fleas with Attention Deficit Disorder.

So, how to go about patching things up with the ID folks? The answer is simple: let them win. Get a panel of really riled-up scientists together (picking from young faculty with grant proposals in review might be a good source of candidates) and get them to go toe-to-toe with all the issues that come up in evolution criticism: the thermodynamics arguments, complexity limits, the fossil record, you name it. Put together a war room, put the some of the more photogenic scientists out in the sun for a bit to give them a little color and hold some press conferences. Have them respond for a while to whatever comes out in the way of evolution criticism, state school board science standards, whatever. The more the better, so long as you keep the buzz going.

Let that run its course for a while, and when people begin to get bored with it, put out a couple of press leaks hinting that one or two scientists want to work on Intelligent Design. Of course, for the official line use classic stonewalling: firm denial, no comment, all the rest. Then quietly start helping out the ID folks. Work with them to put together some experiment designs, see if there's some way to put together a theoretical framework that at least provides the appearance of predictive power.


The thing to keep in mind here is that whatever the results turn out to be, it's a win-win situation for all concerned. The controversy will raise the profile of the scientific community. Working on Intelligent Design will burnish the community's image and win fans in religious communities. Imagine the buzz one can get going by talking about reconciliation between science and religion, regardless of whether there's any real opposition or not. Then, finally, start setting up funding channels with the various religions.

All it takes to get the ball rolling is one or two high-profile projects with one-off grants. Then the real fun begins. Universities need to launch interdisciplinary research efforts between divinity schools and scientific departments. Start cutting deals with religious organizations: a chapel, synagogue or mosque and launching a divinity department in exchange for scientific funding. Of course, biology need not have all the fun. Parlay the complexity and thermodynamics arguments into physics research grants. Of course, you'll need to consult with the mathematics department for some of the theoretical work, and so on. Finally, universities and other organizations could then cut deals to have a fraction of the revenue generated goes toward research grant sponsorship.

In all modesty, I propose that the scientific community cannot afford to ignore what is being offered here. In fact, a vast revenue source is only the beginning. When caught between the secrecy of corporate sponsorship and the competition and unreliability of government funding, why not cultivate a new source? The best part of all is that faith-based science sponsorship could vastly streamline the grant process. Why deal with the volume and complexity of the scientific literature when one need only cite a few religious texts? Better yet, by cultivating the right relationships, a little lobbying in high places, and a few religious observances, one might even be able to do away with grant writing, and maybe even avoid experimentation and peer review. With the status quo, you have a vast and intransigent bureaucracy, and expensive, complicated experiments. Intelligent Design points the way to an alternative. The best part of embracing Intelligent Design is that if it’s done right, it doesn’t matter whether it’s science or not. By following the example of the Intelligent Design movement one can revolutionize science in America. By shifting the focus from experimental results and focusing on getting media attention and influencing opinion and decision makers, one can create revenue opportunities and a much leaner, more streamlined institution. After that, where one can go from there is anyone’s guess.

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