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Friday, November 13, 2020

Science dies in an age of censorship v.2

The latest editorial in Science looks more like a Maoist forced confession than a political statement

P olitics is on everyone's front burner this month. Everyone's worried about what the next president, whoever he is, will do. Will he declare war on Brazil, disband the US military, or both? Will he raise the capital gains tax and thereby crash the stock market and send all the retirees out into the streets? Who knows?

Politicians aren't decapitating each other or slamming iron masks on each other anymore, but they are still a problem. The problem for us is that the issues change so rapidly that much of the time what people are saying makes no sense. So I almost fell off my chair when I saw this in Science magazine:

“Racism, climate denial, and coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) are the major crises standing in the way of a prosperous future for the United States, and resolution of all three could be enabled by science that is persistently ignored.”

Nature has gone to the dogs, editorially speaking, but this is just . . . strange. But suppose I said I disagreed with it. Who is right? There is no way to know. What's happening is that people are mixing up values with facts. They see values they disagree with, so they try to censor and suppress them as if they were misinformation. Science deals with things that are empirically demonstrable. Politics deals in half-truths and value-laden statements like the one above.

Getting sucked into deciding whether to agree with something that someone says or not—that is the trap. Everything you do from then on merely entangles you deeper in the muck.

This is not the way of science. In the non-science world, facts have become slipperier than ever. Calling people “Climate denialists,” by which the writers presumably mean people who are skeptical about the doom-prophesy­ing climate models, is an example of a scientific issue that has morphed into a value system and thus become a matter of unprovable opinion. Truth is nowhere to be found in politics (or in the press), and if science follows that path it too will cease to be science and become a matter of opinion. There will be many sciences, each equally valid and all mutually contradictory. The truth will become undecidable and the only way to obtain agreement will be by force.

The writers continue:

“Will people of color in the United States have to endure yet more violence from white supremacists before the next inflection toward racial justice?”

Here's my second point: in an era when Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post can openly threaten political opponents by saying “We have a list,” it's impossible to believe anything anyone says. The majority of humans value their financial survival more highly than their ability to speak the truth. When speaking your opinion gets you fired and your name on a ‘list’, some people will inevitably cave.

As happened in the Soviet Union and in Mao's China, such professions of adherence to the oppressors' dogma sound stilted and predictable. They're full of slogans and outdated accusations that make little logical sense. The tortured writing is the writer's version of the POW who blinks his eyes in Morse code to let us know he's been tortured and his confession is being coerced, even if he does not realize it.

In fact, it doesn't matter whether the editors were sincere or not: the mere existence of this editorial, and others like it, means they are now becoming part of the news media and thus losing their credibility.

Science editors, we got your message. Just give us a sign: arrange your commas and hyphens in Morse code. Or put a steganographic message in your photo. We'll send a squad of postdocs to rescue you.

Update, Nov. 14 2020: If I sound like a broken record with all these articles about politicization of science, it's because it's such a serious threat. Already large groups of people are convinced that hydroxy­chloro­quine cures COVID-19 and that the news media were willing to let people die simply to get back at President Trump for praising it. We even saw people retracting their own paper, not because it was flawed, but because someone they disagreed with politically cited them.

Calling global warming skeptics deniers, calling those who question masks or vaccines conspiracy theorists, or censoring those who have different opinions as sources of misinformation merely makes them more determined to resist you. As tempting as it may be to do it, every time an author or editor squeezes a bit of their politics into a scientific article, belief in science as a dispassionate source of truth goes down a little more. We are already well on the way to having two different contradictory sciences, each in possession of their own set of facts and each convinced the other side is simply lying.

nov 13 2020, 4:43 pm. original version here

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