Tag Archives: Science

The Political Project Continues, Even if the Case is Dismissed

Earlier this week, the EPA filed its Brief in Opposition to the Motion to Alter or Amend Judgment in Marquette County Road Commission v. EPA, requesting that Judge Robert Holmes Bell stick with his dismissal of the case. Just a day later, State Senator Tom Casperson, chief political architect of the MCRC lawsuit, was defeated by Jack Bergman in his primary bid to run against Lon Johnson for Dan Benishek’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Prospects for the haul road are dimmer than ever, reduced to a fine point of administrative law — namely, whether EPA’s objections constitute “final agency action” or are merely “an interlocutory step” that continues the administrative process. (If the latter, the case remains dismissed.) In the likely event of the lawsuit’s failure, Stand UP, the dark money organization funding it, might fold or it might try to convert itself to other political purposes. As a 501(c)(4) it can legally do that, as long as it continues to satisfy the vague requirements of a “social welfare” organization.

Casperson still has two years left to serve as a Michigan State Senator; and while he was unable to translate gripes about federal overreach into victory on a bigger political stage (to hear him tell it, people below the Mackinac Bridge just don’t get it), Bergman, the Republican candidate, seems just as hostile to effective environmental regulation. He is, for instance, an advocate of the REINS Act (S. 226 and H.R. 427), a cynically designed piece of polluter-friendly legislation that aims to undermine rules like the Clean Water Act and allow politicians and lobbyists to second-guess science. So it’s important to remember that the Road Commission’s lawsuit over the haul road has always been bound up with a larger, coordinated political project, and that project will continue well after the judge considers the last brief in this case.

New Life and a Dying Ocean

The big news out of the J. Craig Venter Institute last week may have been eclipsed by coverage of the ongoing environmental crisis in the Gulf, where the Deepwater Horizon wreck continues to spew somewhere between 5,000 and 95,000 barrels (who can say?) of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico, and BP continues to dump tons of toxic Corexit (which, despite its clever name, hasn’t really corrected or set anything right again). But both stories are big science and technology news, and in the past few days I have been thinking about how they are connected – or how they might be versions of the same story.

On the face of it, one is a story about “life” (I put that word in quotation marks for a reason, which I’ll get to in a minute) and the other about death. The ongoing environmental catastrophe in the Gulf – not merely an “accident,” as Rand Paul or BP and its apologists prefer to say; “crime” might be closer to the mark; but let “catastrophe” stand for now – is the story of a dying ocean.

Last week’s announcement from the Venter Institute, on the other hand, was pretty widely heralded as a story of progress, a scientific breakthrough: A Synthetic Cell.

[A] scientific team headed by Drs. Craig Venter, Hamilton Smith and Clyde Hutchison have achieved the final step in their quest to create the first synthetic bacterial cell. In a publication in Science magazine, Daniel Gibson, Ph.D. and a team of 23 additional researchers outline the steps to synthesize a 1.08 million base pair Mycoplasma mycoides genome, constructed from four bottles of chemicals that make up DNA. This synthetic genome has been “booted up” in a cell to create the first cell controlled completely by a synthetic genome.

The press release from the J. Craig Venter Institute goes on to summon the image of the scientist as Master Programmer: “the ability to routinely write the software of life will usher in a new era in science.” The Wall Street Journal said that Venter had given humanity “a new power over life.” We were asked to anticipate “new products and applications such as advanced biofuels, clean water technology, and new vaccines and medicines.” Hope for humanity, or at least, in the short run, for industrial bacteria, sponsored by Exxon Mobil – one of the big corporate underwriters of the J. Craig Venter Institute.

Of course we have been treated to the usual concerns from “ethicists,” and some news reports fretted that the Catholic Church took a dim view of this scientific advance; but these concerns are already part of the scientific process. Indeed, the Venter Institute took pains to make it clear that “throughout the course of this work, the team contemplated, discussed, and engaged in outside review of the ethical and societal implications of their work”. The sages at the Venter Institute admit that the new science of synthetic cells will have an “impact…as long as this powerful new area of science is used wisely. Continued and intensive review and dialogue with all areas of society, from Congress to bioethicists to laypeople, is necessary for this field to prosper.”

I can’t be the only member of the laity who would like to participate in this dialogue with the high priests of this new science. Unfortunately, the J. Craig Venter Institute does not indicate where the layperson should apply or where or on what dates the dialogue will be held. Where is the plane tree in whose shade we will all recline and discuss the question whether the creation of synthetic cells and the exercise of this new power over life is a wise course for humanity to take?

This much seems clear. Venter himself is eager to call this “‘a philosophical advance as much as a technical advance,’ suggesting that the ‘synthetic cell’ raised new questions about the nature of life.” But in my layperson’s view this new scientific success comes about as close to philosophical failure as I can imagine — the moral imagination in full retreat. Then again, I suppose Venter and I have different ideas about philosophy, just as we have different ideas about the meaning of “life”– the word and the world, the creation it describes.

For example, I’m pretty much unable or unwilling to allow that anything synthetic could ever be called living, except figuratively speaking, just as I’m unwilling to allow that intelligence can be artificial. In this view, Venter and his associates may have invented an organism, but it’s a question whether they’ve created “life.” James Collins of Boston University came close to making this same point: “I don’t think it represents the creation of an artificial life form…. I view this as an organism with a synthetic genome, not as a synthetic organism. It is tough to draw where the line is.”

Tough, unless we are careful about how we use language or decide that “life” and language are ours to guard or lose. It’s clearly an abuse of language to speak in terms of “the software of life,” as if computer technology is the ultimate referent of all creation. Life is not something that is or can ever be created in a scientific eureka moment. That’s the way science works in science fiction. But that view overlooks or deliberately ignores what seems to me the starting point of thinking about life: the very basic understanding of life as the becoming of all creation, together. “Life,” in this older and, if you ask me, fuller sense of the word, implies relationship, reciprocity, an ever-changing balance. When we speak of the “life” of a specific place, a farm, a forest, a stream or an ocean, we grasp this simple truth; we do the same when we talk about our lives, which are lives lived in relation to things and people and places. My dog has such a life; so does the peony growing in the front yard. So do we all.

I realize with growing sadness that old philosophy cannot really contend with the scientific narrative of conquest and new frontiers. It is the latter to which we now owe our cultural allegiance and on which all the money is riding. And Venter is a great master of that conquest narrative – or at least he has some very good PR people. The scientific narrative is about limitless possibility; what I’m calling the moral imagination – which belongs to a tradition of thinking about humanity and the creation — recognizes human ignorance and prescribes limits, counsels restraint and reminds us that we are more likely to produce unintended consequences than great triumphs over life and human destiny.

Which, of course, brings me back to the disaster, the crime still unfolding in the Gulf, and the dying ocean. I am not suggesting some catastrophic synthetic cell or grey goo spill is in the cards; I understand that that, too, may only be a science fiction story. But I am suggesting that the narrative of scientific conquest and new frontiers, to which we entrust our lives and on which we have staked our futures, sometimes helps us forget how ignorant we really are of how creation works, or what life is, and how we ought to keep it.

Al Gore Believes in Evolution

The emails hacked from East Anglia University don’t add up to a climate change conspiracy. But now the scientists who were building – or, as one wag at the Wall Street Journal put it, forging – the climate change consensus have lost control of their story. And only two weeks out from the climate conference in Copenhagen. This cannot end well.

This may not be “the worst scientific scandal of our generation,” as Christopher Booker put it in the Daily Telegraph, and Copenhagen may not be “mankind’s last chance…to save civilization on the planet,” contrary to what an Australian newspaper says. But the email scandal gives deniers and demagogues the opportunity they’ve been seeking; and the Copenhagen conference may simply end in confusion.

Self-proclaimed “skeptics,” many of whom are know-nothings with a political or business agenda to advance, will now press their case that climate change is just a big scare, or, as Nick Griffin would have it, an “elite scam.” This is the worst kind of nonsense, and Mr. Griffin himself is, of course, an elite scam artist of the highest order — a Cambridge University graduate, Holocaust denier, former member of the National Front, now Chair of the right wing British National Party — a man who trades on fear, hatred and feelings of disenfranchisement to gain power for himself. That he has been awarded a place on the EU delegation to the Copenhagen conference does not exactly inspire confidence. Look forward to a circus.

One of the more positive things that could come out of this whole imbroglio would be some new awareness of the role that science plays in society, some attention to the authority science has in shaping policy, and some fresh critical thinking about science as a discipline and a discourse — a public discourse, and, even, an ideology. I am aware that this is probably wishful thinking on my part. I’m also aware that scientists like to think that they have no influence on public policy, or not enough; but to my mind they only think that because they haven’t really looked into the matter. Ultimately their concerns are a form of special pleading, and less interesting than concerns about the philosophical deficit on the other side.

Apart from charges of elitism, or scary stories about great wizards behind curtains and the brave new world they are foisting on us — either the world is going to end in a huge polar tidal wave or Al Gore is going to usher in one world government, who can say which? — apart from all this, what language do we have for talking with one another about science? How are we to debate its findings, decide its limits, its proper application or real world consequences, both intended and unintended?

Gore himself seems enthralled to science and scientific thinking. Think about An Inconvenient Truth, or consider the article he published with David Blood just last week in the Financial Times. Here, Gore and Blood discover the causes of the 2008 financial crisis in how “our brains are hard-wired to think short term because evolution has rewarded serial short-term successes such as avoiding predators and other dangers that faced our ancestors.” A good day trader may have all the instincts of Australopithecus; but one wonders why Gore and Blood have to reach so far back into the past, millions of years back, to a dangerous era of hunting and gathering, to make their case. They could just as easily follow Weber back five hundred years to the moral basis of capitalism in the Protestant ethic, or or look at structural changes in the financial markets in the era of Morgan, or review the more recent history of deregulation beginning with Ronald Reagan and continuing right through the Clinton and George W. Bush years. A careful reading of recent history might suggest we are not so hard-wired after all.

Be that as it may, where the authority of science goes unquestioned, one might well ask (with Mark Steyn), who is guarding the guardians? And the answer today is, no one, really. It seems fair to say that philosophy, our philosophy, the kind we use every day to orient ourselves in the world, is not up to the task.

There are many reasons for this – some having to do with the fact that we understand science to be an amoral enterprise, neither good nor bad in and of itself; some having to do with the macroscopic and microscopic scales on which science is conducted, beyond the reach of ordinary human means. And as a society we haven’t cultivated the discipline and habits of mind, or created the institutions, to deal with science’s encroachment on our lives. It’s commonplace to say that over the past century or so, science has delivered enormous social benefits; but scientific advances and the technologies they muster and require have also exacted a social cost that we have yet to calculate. This is a failure, not of science, but of the unscientific community.