Lamar Smith’s dreadful plan to religion up your science.

Let’s all let Sarah Palin decide what is scientifically valid and what is not, shall we? Sound like a bad idea to you?

Well, it sounds like a grand idea to House of Representatives Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas. According to Science Insider, the Texas Rep has drafted a bill requiring all National Science Foundation grants to pass a rigorous political review to determine if the research is “in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science.” Smith is also one of the principal “architects” for the House version of SOPA. So… there’s that.

In whose interest and by what standard do we measure “the interests” of the United States? Would studying something like or somehow related to evolution be ok? Or should our nation’s scientists delve into the abyss of creationism? Does every grant in the National Science Foundation’s queue need to get rewritten every time there is a new majority in the House? The Senate? A new party in the White House?

The route to this wonderworld of science-as-policy is as drearily predictable as it is fundamentally flawed. The vehicle, of course, is money:

Two weeks ago, Republicans on the science committee took to task both John Holdren, the president’s science adviser, and Cora Marrett, the acting NSF director, during hearings on President Barack Obama’s proposed 2014 science budget. They read the titles of several grants, questioned the value of the research, and asked both administration officials to defend NSF’s decision to fund the work.

On Thursday, Smith sent a letter to Marrett asking for more information on five recent NSF grants. In particular, he requested copies of the comments from each reviewer, as well as the notes of the NSF program officer managing the awards.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell my audience that simply reading the titles of science grants is not at all adequate to assessing the scientific – to say nothing of societal or national – interest of a research grant. But this is AM radio propaganda made manifest: let the bumpkins puzzle over the silly names of grants and determine whether those grants have value, based solely on their own relatively limited set of interests.

Don’t get me wrong: I have very little interest in chicken sperm, as a rule. I might perhaps not find it interesting enough to spend money on. But my limited set of interests aren’t what matter. The multitude interests of a wider community of scientists who may just make the next great discovery in some far-flung field are what have the most intrinsic value. They are the great strength of the scientific community and the engine of new technologies that will indeed have direct value for our society.

I’ve discussed this at length many times before, but the truth of science is that you can’t necessarily know where the next great discovery will come from. Or what tangential sciences may aid another in finding it. If a cancer researcher needs more information about the diet and life of commercial chickens, it may just be the guy studying rooster jizz that has the answers he’s looking for. And – I cannot stress this enough – the peer-reviewed research to positively document the answer.

If on the other hand, we allow politicians to control the NSF, not only might we lose the key to finding a cure for a certain type of cancer, but we might lose the credibility of the peer review process that provides all sciences a common link. If the idea of religious extremists setting scientific agenda doesn’t scare you, consider this: would you as a cancer patient be willing to trust the research approved and funded by Sarah Palin? Dennis Kucinich? God help us all, Randy Savage?

There is a petition going around asking our representatives to resist this new attack. I highly encourage my audience to read sign and pass it on.


God is head? If religion is hardwired, why don’t we all have our own gods?

An interesting article out of the Department of Psychology in Yale University made itself known to me, via the outstanding Why Evolution is True. The question being discussed is: do our religious beliefs stem from an intrinsic desire on the part of human beings to explain the world religiously? Or do they come from our cultural backgrounds? In other words, are our spiritual lives cognitive adaptations or social imperatives?

The conversation is not a new one. The article notes that many cognitive scientists view the pervasive existence of religion in human culture to be an outcrop of a biological need. For example, fearing an angry god may provide the moral guidance that allows for social bonding in the absence of instinct. If this concept sounds familiar, that’s because the same basic idea is echoed by many religious leaders seeking to legitimize spirituality as the only source of morality.

But the most interesting question raised in the article is: if belief in a god is biologically necessary, why don’t we all believe in our own individual gods?:

Consider belief in a divine creator. Young children are prone to generate purpose-based explanations of the origins of natural objects and biological kinds. They believe, for example, that clouds are ‘for raining’ and animals are ‘to go in the zoo’…

However, these older children do not spontaneously propose novel divine creators. Instead, they adopt the particular creationist account that their culture supplies. This might be a singular God or multiple gods; it might be alien visitors or Mother Earth. If children are not exposed to such cultural beliefs, the explicit notion of an intentional creator might never arise.

So, a predisposition to think in terms of purpose certainly lends itself to a spiritual understanding of the world. But it does not automatically mean that the child will believe in god, much less create a god out of whole cloth which his peers will also recognize and respond to. That is for religion to do, and religion is an entirely cultural affair.

Both sides of the argument, I think, miss the point. The research on childhood development that shows kids reaching for existential and epidemiological answers demonstrates that it is the question not the answer that defines human cognition. Whether we seek those answers though faith, or through science or, as I suspect is the most common choice, a bit from Column A and a bit from Column B, is a matter of preference.