Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Just the Facts, Ma’am

By Peter Bowditch

Legislators continue to either refute or ignore science when it clashes with their ideology.

One of the nice things about science is that scientific facts are true whether you believe them or not. (I know there are no “facts” in science, just hypotheses that are strongly supported by all the evidence so far available, but “scientific facts” is a convenient shorthand way of saying this.) This has not stopped legislators in various parts of the world trying to pass laws that either refute science or simply ignore it.

There was the infamous Bill #246 that came before the Indiana General Assembly in 1846. This is often erroneously said to be an attempt to legislate the value of pi, but in fact it was an attempt to legislate that a circle and a square could be drawn with exactly equal areas using only a ruler and compass (“squaring the circle”). The bill didn’t mention pi, but would have had the effect of requiring pi to be exactly equal to 3.2. The bill was defeated by ridicule, and was never actually put to the vote.

Possibly the best example of legislatures trying to pass laws against science is the campaign in various places to prevent the teaching of evolution. This is a clear case of a belief system being substituted for real science, and even inventing such expressions as “creation science” and “intelligent design” can’t hide the fact that religion is being used to deny the theories and facts of real science. (Saying that “evolution is only a theory” shows either ignorance of what the word “theory” means in science or is an attempt to exploit the ignorance of the listener.)

An example with devastating consequences was the rejection of the science of genetics in the Soviet Union on the orders of Stalin and under the administration of Trofim Lysenko.

What is possibly more insidious is when governments decide to either ignore or deny scientific evidence that is in conflict with ideology, or that they feel might cause public opinion to have an effect on the way people vote in the next election.

I live in one of the few areas in Australia without fluoridation, and the local council is asking for public opinion about whether it should provide this public health benefit to local residents. A story about this in the local paper included the words: “Further, council agreed that qualified people among the opponents to fluoridation brief council and senior staff on the evidence against the fluoridation of Oberon’s water supply”. Just who these qualified people could be is a mystery, but at a recent public meeting on the matter several dentists as well as representatives of the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Dental Association and the NSW Department of Health had their arguments countered by “experts” who had left their tinfoil hats at home for the occasion.

On the day that I sat down to write this I read that a senior scientist had resigned from his position on an environment protection committee because the NSW government had rejected scientific advice on the control of feral horses in Kosciusko National Park.

A recent article in Nature Climate Change looked at the relationships in 25 countries between conservative politics and the denial of climate change. (Unfortunately, Nature kept using the word “skeptic” instead of the more accurate “denier”.) Not very surprisingly they found that this phenomenon was strongest in the USA, but Australia wasn’t far behind. We only have to look at the way the federal government changed position on climate change and emissions control after a change to a more conservative Prime Minister and the angst currently being expressed in government circles about a major energy producer planning to close an obsolete coal-fired power station and replace its output using solar and wind techniques.

One of the most skeptical people I’ve ever known was a climate change denier based solely on his membership of a particular political party. How he compartmentalised his acceptance of science in all other matters away from his rejection of the majority of scientists in this instance was a mystery. He would have laughed at you if you had suggested that vaccination and evolution might be flawed because there were dissenters and mavericks, but this is precisely the position of climate change deniers everywhere.

When looking for details about the Indiana bill I discovered that Ayn Rand, darling and revered icon of the political right, once declared that pi must be a rational number. Apparently this was because everything in nature was subject to reason. The fact that she didn’t understand the difference between “rational” meaning “subject to laws of reason and logic” and “rational” meaning “capable of being expressed as a ratio of two integers” is redolent of the misuse of the word “theory” when talking about science. As those other philosophers Plant and Page once reminded us, “sometimes words have two meanings”.

Peter Bowditch is a former President of Australian Skeptics Inc. (