President Obama echoed an often-heard lament when he complained recently that, among Americans, "facts and science and argument do not seem to be winning the day." According to distressed cultural observers, public ignorance about science is evidenced by failure to accept global warming, "animal rights," euthanasia and Darwinian evolution.
The assumption is that doubting scientists' claims means you have divorced yourself from reality. Yet steadily accumulating stories from the scientific community itself suggest grounds for doubting that scientists all pursue truth without fear or favor. Last year's "Climategate" email leak from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit is the best-known case, but hardly the only one.
If there's any question on which science has spoken definitively, it's supposed to be the theory that an unguided material process of natural selection accounts for life's long development. A consensus of biologists appears to agree on this. Yet to what extent is that uniformity coerced -- specifically, by employment pressure?
For years I've collected accounts of scientists who voiced doubts about Darwin and ended up paying a high price. In February, the University of Kentucky will defend itself in court in a discrimination case brought by astronomer Martin Gaskell, now at the University of Texas. He argues convincingly that he was turned down to direct Kentucky's observatory because of remarks on his personal website noting reservations about Darwinian theory and an openness to intelligent design.
Gaskell's attorneys present records of email traffic among the faculty search committee. Professors falsely tarred Gaskell as a "creationist" while a lone astrophysicist on the committee protested that Gaskell stood to be rejected "despite his qualifications that stand far above those of any other applicant."
The case resembles another at Iowa State University. Astrophysicist Guillermo Gonzalez was refused tenure, despite a spectacular research publication record, because of a book he co-authored arguing that earthly life is no cosmic accident. Again, email traffic told the tale. The department chairman had instructed faculty that intelligent design was a litmus test for tenure, "disqualify[ing] him from serving as a science educator."
At the Smithsonian Institution, supervisors harshly penalized evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg for editing a pro-intelligent design essay in a peer-reviewed technical biology journal. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel investigated the 2005 case, finding that Smithsonian colleagues created a "hostile work environment" aimed at "forcing [him] out."
Similar incidents have occurred at the University of Idaho, George Mason University and Baylor University.
This year, a top-level computer specialist on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Cassini mission to Saturn, David Coppedge, sued JPL for discrimination after being demoted for circulating among colleagues a couple of DVDs favoring intelligent design.
There is, in fact, a growing underground of Darwin-doubting biologists and other scientists, who believe that evidence from cell biology, cosmology and paleontology tells an increasingly complicated and contradictory story about life's origin and evolution. They'll talk to me because the Discovery Institute, where I work and with which many are now openly associated, supports the critique of Darwinism.
I know one biologist, for example, who could do lab work in a visiting role at a university where he had a colleague in this underground only by resorting to a disguise. Known for his Darwin-doubting views, he dyed his hair, shaved his beard, and changed his eyeglasses to avoid getting his friend in trouble.
Well, scientists are no less vulnerable to fear and disapproval than anyone else. It's very human to shape your outlook, even unconsciously, to stay safe.
The brittleness of the "consensus" on certain scientific issues may explain a recent observation by a pair of scholars at the American Enterprise Institute. Tabulating news sources, they showed the increasingly common use of authoritarian phrases like "science tells us we should," "science requires," and "science dictates." The phrases typically introduce an insistence on our compliant belief in catastrophic global warming, assorted dietary or health practices, and so on.
Maybe in casting a skeptical eye on such verities, the public senses that science is a business like many others, albeit a largely nationalized one, where workers are expected to toe a company line. With the government's $7 billion National Science Foundation and $31 billion National Institutes of Health heavily supporting research, localized pressures easily take on the form of a more universal compulsion to conform. Darwin himself was genteelly unemployed, but the days of the Victorian independent scientist are long gone.
If only we laymen could simply trust our scientists, without thinking critically for ourselves, as we once trusted priests and rabbis. Alas, those days are gone too. Recognizing such things does not make you ignorant. It makes you a realist.