Science isn’t self-correcting, it’s self-destructing. To save the enterprise, scientists must come out of the lab and into the real world.
Science, pride of modernity, our one source of objective knowledge, is in deep trouble. Stoked by fifty years of growing public investments, scientists are more productive than ever, pouring out millions of articles in thousands of journals covering an ever-expanding array of fields and phenomena. But much of this supposed knowledge is turning out to be contestable, unreliable, unusable, or flat-out wrong. From metastatic cancer to climate change to growth economics to dietary standards, science that is supposed to yield clarity and solutions is in many instances leading instead to contradiction, controversy, and confusion. Along the way it is also undermining the four-hundred-year-old idea that wise human action can be built on a foundation of independently verifiable truths. Science is trapped in a self-destructive vortex; to escape, it will have to abdicate its protected political status and embrace both its limits and its accountability to the rest of society.
The story of how things got to this state is difficult to unravel, in no small part because the scientific enterprise is so well-defended by walls of hype, myth, and denial. But much of the problem can be traced back to a bald-faced but beautiful lie upon which rests the political and cultural power of science. This lie received its most compelling articulation just as America was about to embark on an extended period of extraordinary scientific, technological, and economic growth. It goes like this:
Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown.
So deeply embedded in our cultural psyche that it seems like an echo of common sense, this powerful vision of science comes from Vannevar Bush, the M.I.T. engineer who had been the architect of the nation’s World War II research enterprise, which delivered the atomic bomb and helped to advance microwave radar, mass production of antibiotics, and other technologies crucial to the Allied victory. He became justly famous in the process. Featured on the cover of Time magazine, he was dubbed the “General of Physics.” As the war drew to a close, Bush envisioned transitioning American science to a new era of peace, where top academic scientists would continue to receive the robust government funding they had grown accustomed to since Pearl Harbor but would no longer be shackled to the narrow dictates of military need and application, not to mention discipline and secrecy. Instead, as he put it in his July 1945 report Science, The Endless Frontier, by pursuing “research in the purest realms of science” scientists would build the foundation for “new products and new processes” to deliver health, full employment, and military security to the nation.
From this perspective, the lie as Bush told it was perhaps less a conscious effort to deceive than a seductive manipulation, for political aims, of widely held beliefs about the purity of science. Indeed, Bush’s efforts to establish the conditions for generous and long-term investments in science were extraordinarily successful, with U.S. federal funding for “basic research” rising from $265 million in 1953 to $38 billion in 2012, a twentyfold increase when adjusted for inflation. More impressive still was the increase for basic research at universities and colleges, which rose from $82 million to $24 billion, a more than fortyfold increase when adjusted for inflation. By contrast, government spending on more “applied research” at universities was much less generous, rising to just under $10 billion. The power of the lie was palpable: “the free play of free intellects” would provide the knowledge that the nation needed to confront the challenges of the future.
To go along with all that money, the beautiful lie provided a politically brilliant rationale for public spending with little public accountability. Politicians delivered taxpayer funding to scientists, but only scientists could evaluate the research they were doing. Outside efforts to guide the course of science would only interfere with its free and unpredictable advance.
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