On objectivity

This country makes too much of the appearance of objectivity.

There are times when “objectivity” must be the goal. Scientific experiments are one example. There is no need for interpretation, and the quantitative results speak for themselves. The analysis takes place after the data is in, and then a peer group can step in to take a second look at data and analyze the interpreted results.

But that’s where the unbiased scientific inquiry should end, and a courageous defense of the scientific process, by the people who know it best, should begin.

That’s why it’s so puzzling when works of fiction, like “Mercury in Perspective” by U.S. Reps Jim Gibbons and Richard Pombo (see “Mercury rising,” Jan. 19), are allowed to enter into the public discourse. Fiction masquerading as science isn’t a different-but-equal opinion, and “teaching the controversy” only falsely gives bovine excrement equal standing with science. Sort of like another superstition-based “scientific” philosophy that’s gained a dangerous foothold in American classrooms as of late.

The problem is, unless there is a deafening roar from the intellectual community when misleading lies are presented as facts, the lies make it into the mainstream consciousness. The consequences of misinformation can be serious. For example, on Dec. 4, 1997, the Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Science Has Spoken/Global Warming Is a Myth.” It didn’t come close to representing the consensus of scientific opinion, but it’s now referenced on at least 445 Web pages.

This concept isn’t new in the United States. Often, when government or business has reason to deny the results of scientific inquiry, there’s no weighted, peer-reviewed countering science; there’s simply government or business denying scientific results. Thalidomide is safe. Fallout is good for you. That’s a lovely canal. Naw, there’s no problem with those nuke-u-lar storage casks, there, ma’am—have a glass of this Amargosa Valley milk.

The Bush administration’s treatment of global warming has had all the intellectual integrity of a 4-year-old with his hands over his ears yelling, “La, la, la, la, la, la” at the top of his lungs. Much like its views on torture and Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, the policy is made, and then the “intelligence” is massaged to support the policy.

It’s apparent that Jim Gibbons thinks he has learned how to manipulate public opinion in much the same way. Or at least he is willing to put his name on an article that attempts to do that, and, indeed, seems to be succeeding. (See “Eat your mercury, page 11.)

That the scientific community and the so-called “cultural elite” sit silently when the time for action comes is simply intellectual cowardice.

Where are this country’s intellectual leaders? Where are those educated members of the “cultural elite” who should have taken the torch from people like Noam Chomsky or Simone De Beauvoir and made their own light? Hiding under their desks, keeping their personal opinions to themselves out of fear they will be outed as opinionated, liberal, conservative or even thoughtful.

In the marketplace of ideas, propaganda that hurts the general welfare must sometimes be shouted down. And great ideas deserve to be hollered in the streets and from lecterns in classrooms.

But cowards can’t do either.