Sunday, November 09, 2008

Announcements and a Eulogy

Upcoming events announcement from the secretary of the LSA of Haldimand,

The following two events will take place at the Garfield Disher Room in the Dunnville branch of the Haldimand Public Library:

Tuesday Nov 11th at 8:00pm the Birth of Baha'u'llah will be celebrated with a viewing of the recently released documentary video on the life of Baha'u'llah.

Wednesday November 19th also at the Library at 8:00pm the November fireside will feature a presentation of slides and stories of the Neville's recent pioneering experience in Fiji.

Michael Creighton and Science, RIP

By John Taylor; 2008 Nov 08, 05 Qudrat 165 BE

Michael Creighton was by far the most widely read science fiction writer of his generation. His passing saddened me, for he has given me endless hours sitting on the edge of my seat. I am grateful to him for that. I wrote at length about one of Creighton's books on Feb 27, 2007, in an essay called "Reboots and Bans; Educational Reboots and Research Bans," at:

Truly he was a master not only of the scientific imagination but also of suspense. Strangely, in his plots the main tool for moving the action forward with (to use an oxymoron) unbelievable verisimilitude, was, of all things, the footnote. Who would have imagined that the driest of academic dusters, the half-submerged expert commentary to a text, could make the most preposterous of events -- such as time travel, the revival of fossil DNA or, in Congo, the discovery of violent, super-intelligent apes -- seem as believable as the headlines in this morning's paper.

I have often been inspired by how this author takes a scientific development and shows what some of its implications might be. I learned a so much from each book; he was perhaps the only living novelist whose every new book gave me a thrill. I avidly looked forward to its release and bugged the librarians to let me know when it was available. Here is an example of how he inspired me. In an essay called "Mashiyyat, Or, Education in the Fear Factor" written September 27, 2005, I wrote:

"The ideal is a society where every will is so educated and in such total common agreement with all other wills that there is no need even to imagine opposition or disagreement. Nobody would have to be forced to obey the law because acceptance of law would be the highest desire of each and all. There are tremendous advantages to such a state of affairs. Think of the prodigious expense that friction and disagreement cause in our free but divergent will-obsessed world. Michael Creighton makes an interesting observation in his latest novel about environmental conflicts.

"He points out that if you calculate the billions of dollars wasted in court challenges and counter-challenges over whether to exploit a natural resource, even one of the more minor disputes burns up enough money to pay for an end to poverty among the poorest thirty or forty nations of the world. Truly, harmony and agreement without squabbling would be of infinite value, worth not only the trillions of dollars saved annually, but also priceless psychologically, because of the reduction in stress caused by billions of people being threatened by imminent homelessness, disease and starvation."

Creighton's death has dredged up some negative comment about his novel, State of Fear, where he denied at great length that there was sufficient evidence for climate change. In the story he even went so far as having an obnoxious believer in human-generated climate change cannibalized alive. So much for objectivity. Just after he wrote that, the flow of evidence for this phenomenon broke from a trickle into a torrent. Nobody can doubt that by furnishing credibility to climate deniers for so long, it stained an otherwise bright legacy.

But, ironically, from a scientific point of view State of Fear was also Creighton's most perceptive book. In it, and other recent books, especially Next, Creighton makes a convincing (and depressing) point that science has become too corrupt for its own good. Scientific work has just become another cog in the machine of the huge public relations industry. Most scientists today are no longer hired to seek truth or advance knowledge, they are hired to prove a point, to bolster the arguments of some interested lobby. This degradation Plato called eristic, arguing a point instead of dredging up reality. Eristic kills the search for truth instantly.

Just around the time of his death an accidental but telling discovery was made: test tubes made of polypropylene are leaking unknown chemicals into whatever you put into them. Since these test tubes are ubiquitous, we can throw out most if not all work done inside biology laboratories for the past decade. This is not so much corruption as gross sloppiness, but it is telling nonetheless. Glass test tubes have been used for thousands of years and they are known to be inert. Somebody wants to save a few pennies and substitute plastic ones. Why not, we are in an age of change, why not change that too?

The same blithe negligence, backed by corporate corruptors, allowed just about everything around us to be built out of plastic, without a peep from the supposed guardians of society. Go into a hardware store and try to find a kettle that is not made of Biphenyl A leaching plastic. Kettles! I remember five or six years ago a science fair high school student won first prize for finding the long list of carcinogens and hormone mimicking chemicals that are released by putting plastic wrap on food in the microwave. The professionals could not be bothered looking into it, an amateur had to do it. Did it ring any alarm bells? Not on your life. My wife regards me as a total whack job for buying an old metal kettle, and keeping plastic away from my food. Why should she believe me? The experts are all either employed by or otherwise corrupted or stifled by corporations who find it convenient to make everything out of oestrogen-imitating chemicals.

It is to Michael Creighton's credit that he brought the corruption of science to the attention of the public, though as yet nothing is being done to respond to his challenge. Again, State of Fear is a flashpoint. One blog quoted Creighton as saying in that novel, "In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results." ( To me, that statement sums up the problem, as well as the solution. It is true -- in some but not all branches of science -- that reproducible results are what matters for deciding what is certain. But that is a purely internal matter; as far as society is concerned, the consensus of expert opinion is all-important. But of course expert opinion is far broader than scientific research. Research serves expert opinion, the practice of tradespersons and professionals, and their expert opinion in turn consults with democracy and governance. That is what drives society forward. Creighton, in this statement, confuses and conflates this process.

As Creighton points out in several of his epilogues, industry must be prevented from funding research directly. This putrefies the entire scientific process. Somebody should write a scientist's bill of rights stipulating that if that worker signs a non-disclosure agreement or any results of her research are kept secret or proprietary, that worker no longer has the right to call herself a scientist. The word "technical lackey" springs to mind.

I recently read a report on the forest industry in Finland that describes something like what Creighton suggested be done to purify science. This tiny country has pulled ahead of Canada in forestry, in spite of our huge acreage of trees, by specializing in strategic industries, by investing heavily in education and research, and doing many other of the strategies Abdu'l-Baha suggested in Secret of Divine Civilization.

"Perhaps it's only in this small, homogeneous nation, where Finns apply their collectivist values to create a particular brand of capitalism, that all of this can come together to produce a virtuous circle of co-operation, innovation and wealth creation." ("It ain't Pretty," Konrad Yabuski, Globe and Mail Report on Business, December, 2007, p. 68)

The Finnish government, though, is judicious about how it distributes research and development (R&D) money to companies. Grants come with important strings attached,

"About 70% of R&D spending is financed by companies themselves, compared to less than half in Canada. To qualify for the government grants that cover the remaining 30%, companies must do R&D jointly with other members of the forest cluster. Accordingly, new innovations are readily available to all companies -- big and small -- in the sector."

The reporter quotes a Finn as saying,

"In Canada and the United States, most government subsidies for R&D are given in the form of tax credits and the companies that get them do research independently. But here, if you want to get R&D subsidies, you must participate in the cluster technology programs... My American colleagues don't like that approach. But in a small country like Finland, this approach is better because you can demand that firms collaborate. But it presupposes a certain trust between people."

This indicates what must be done on a much broader scale in order to purify science.

First, a bill of rights and obligations for scientists

Second, all money for science, private and public, must be given conditional on strict assurance that all the ideals of science, including research being done only for the public good, are lived up to at every stage of the research process.

Third, "separation of powers." Scientific research (experimental method) serves experts, while experts (consensus of opinion) serve society; public policy is derived directly from experts, and only indirectly from science.

John Taylor



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