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Europe Drops Chief Science Adviser. Don't Like the Facts? Kill the Messenger.
Facing several controversies involving scientific complexity, the European government created a Chief Science Adviser to provide independent objective expertise and input into policy making. when some groups didn't like what the science said about genetically modified food, they objected to the whole idea of independent science advice to government. The EU government has caved to public pressure and abandoned the Chief Science Adviser function. We should ALL be scared by a move away from evidence-based policy making, toward a solely values-based approach.
In the movie version of Frankenstein, the terrified mob rushes out of the town square in a torch-lit frenzy screaming “Kill the Monster. Kill the Monster.” The monster, of course, had been misperceived as a threat, but no matter. In their passion, there was no reasoning with the mob. What they saw as a threat WAS a threat, and had to die. The townsfolk surround the windmill and, with the monster trapped inside, burn it to the ground.
Fast forward to a frightening day yesterday in the real world, in Europe. As the eyes of all of Europe’s science journalists were on the European Space Agency’s Philae lander touching down on comet Rosetta, a phenomenal science success, the EU government quietly scrapped the position of Chief Science Advisor, a resounding science embarrassment, and a precedent that should scare people everywhere.
The Chief Science Advisor (CSA) position had been created some years ago in the face of controversial issues like climate change, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and the testing of industrial chemicals, issues that involved scientific details beyond the expertise of the politicians charged with sorting them out and making the best choices for society. The CSA was like that geek friend who you ask to read those complicated science reports and studies and tell you what they say….only for the EU government.
The office was not involved in policy making, just in giving the policy makers a read on what the science said. But of course what the science says on climate change or GMOs points toward some obvious policy conclusions; climate change is real and we’d better do something…thousands of studies on GMOS have found no harm to human health (and only a few questionable studies have hinted otherwise) so there is no need for a blanket Precautionary Principle ban on all applications of agricultural biotechnology. The problem is, those conclusions threatened the values of GMO opponents. Their answer? “Kill the Monster!”
Not the monster of the evidence, of course. Kill the messenger, the CSA. Environmental groups, noting specific concern about the GMO issue, called on the EU government to abandon the entire idea of an independent science adviser, after the CSA reported what every independent national science advisory board in the world has found; the science is about as clear on GMOs as it is on climate change…there is no reliable evidence that GMOS harm human health.
The GMO opponents tried to couch their complaint in broader terms, arguing that a Chief Science Adviser concentrated too much power in one office. But let’s be honest. They just didn’t like what the facts said. So Kill The Monster, misunderstood as a threat but really only an independent objective voice for the evidence.
The EU, run by politicians after all, has responded by taking the torch to the CSA, and essentially letting the frightened mob rule. At least so far. New European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker says he believes in science advice, but just wants to figure out a new way to get it. But the GMO opponents who set this fire have made it clear that the only advice they want the government to get is from them and other public advocacy groups. And how independent is that?
Not at all, of course. Every advocacy group, on every issue, sees the facts through the prisms of their own values and perspectives. To which they are entitled, of course, as they are entitled to voice those views in democratic debate. But the whole idea of the CSA was to provide science information to policy makers FREE of those values-based distortions, so that in addition to all the public input that has always had a voice, and should, policy makers could have a bit more objective a view of what the facts themselves actually are.
So with the ashes of the windmill still smoldering, let’s consider what this means. We all fight over issues by invoking our interpretation of the ‘science’. Advocates on all sides of the GMO issue, and the climate change issue, and nuclear power and industrial chemicals and guns and abortion and a host of other issues, all invoke ‘the facts’ to make their values-based case.
We ALL see the facts through the lenses of how we FEEL about those facts. Me too. We can’t help it. It’s how human cognition works. But do we want policy made based solely on the battle over whose values win, or would we also hope that in addition to that part of democracy, that policy makers look objectively at the evidence for guidance about what will do society the most good? The latter, of course.
But with the abandonment of the CSA, which did not replace public input but just added more objective information to what policy makers had to work with, the European government – at least so far – is deferring to the bright torch lights and angry voices of the passionate-but-less-than-objective public.
And to understand just how scary that is, consider that along with the anti-GMO groups cheering the European decision to abandon (for now) independent science advice, are those who deny climate change who also didn’t like what the science said on that issue. See the problem here?
Our values must have a voice at the policy-making table. But the powerfully emotional and instinctive way human cognition works produces perceptions that sometimes fly dramatically in the face of the facts. As right as our feelings feel, and as important as they are for our sense of safety, we need to honestly accept that in addition to our passions, policy making must also be informed by a more objective voice. That was the idea of the CSA. For the moment, in Europe, that common sense idea lies in ashes.
For two other thoughtful perspectives on this, see the Guardian's Juncker Axes Europe’s Chief Scientific Adviser and this blog commentary from Mark Lynas: EU Scraps Science Advisor Role. Now are your happy Greenpeace?
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.