Science and Art

Europe is another world.

The continent has been gripped by a roiling controversy over how to clean Michelangelo’s David. Old-school restorationists favor the cautious application of badger-hair brushes and cotton swabs. The modernists propose methods reliant on chemicals and high-tech ingenuity.

You instantly sense that the parties to this argument are talking past each other. Maybe it’s partly a case of each group of restorationists having hammers that make everything look, to them, like a nail. If you possess a badger-hair brush, you are naturally on the alert for things to brush with badger hair. Likewise, if you own an infra-red laser, you may be on the prowl for things to zap with it.

It may also be that the two sides weigh risks and benefits differently. If cleanliness were the only issue, then maybe the modernists would have the decisive arguments. But there may also be the feeling that Michelangelo’s masterpiece has suffered enough physical depredations, and some might fear that novel methods could cause irreparable harm, in unforeseen ways, to something priceless.

In the end, it is hard to dispel the impression that fundamentally different worldviews are clashing. Romantics will naturally gravitate to the caress of the badger-hair brush. Tough-minded technophiles may tend to see such an attitude as irrationally sentimental. Both sides to this controversy can claim some expertise. But the modalities of expertise at issue seem incommensurable. How should such a dispute be resolved?

Science and Politics

Nicholas Thompson has a thought-provoking piece in the Washington Monthly about the Bush administration’s uneasy relations with the scientific community. Entitled “Science Friction,” the article offers several examples of areas — stem cell research, global warming, ergonomics — in which the administration and Republican allies in Congress have given short shrift to scientific information that didn’t validate their policy goals.

Thompson acknowledges that “Any administration will be tempted to trumpet the conclusions of science when they justify actions that are advantageous politically, and to ignore them when they don’t.” But Thompson makes the case that a growing Republican antipathy to the scientific community has deeper political roots. He quotes from a recent New Yorker interview in which Karl Rove defines the term “Democrat” as “somebody with a doctorate.” Thompson goes on to suggest that Rove’s definition actually captures something. As a demographic group, Thompson says, scientists do lean Democratic — a tendency Thompson dates to the Nixon administration’s conflicts with academia over Vietnam. Given those leanings, there is little political cost to Republicans in taking positions that may alienate the scientific community. Meanwhile, on some topics, scientific inquiry may currently tend to generate conclusions at loggerheads with the policy objectives favored by captains of industry and the religious right — i.e., by the Republican Party’s political base.

Does a similar dynamic help to explain conservative enthusiasm for Daubert? It is always important to remember that ascribing partisan motivations to participants in a debate does not resolve the merits of the debate itself. On the other hand, it would be naive to think that controversy over Daubert takes place in a sociopolitical vacuum. Is it possible, in that light, to see the rise of Daubert as a rearguard action against the extension of scientific inquiry into areas where it might expose features of reality that conservatives find uncongenial — e.g., features of modern capitalist enterprise that are broadly injurious?

Certainly it would be an irony, if the banner of Science were waved so stridently by parties actually keen to cabin the threats they perceived free and rational empirical inquiry to pose. But it wouldn’t be the first time.

Leon Jaroff versus Erin Brockovich

As has been widely reported in the press, numerous alumni of Beverly Hills High School recently filed litigation alleging that their cancers and other health conditions were caused by exposures to fumes from oil wells located beneath the campus grounds. The claimants are represented by the law firm Masry & Vititoe, where Erin Brockovich plies her trade.

Now comes Leon Jaroff, in a Time Magazine column, to inveigh against the “junk science” on which he says the claims are based. It is a fine piece of red-blooded polemic for true believers. One is left with the feeling, however, that Jaroff has been less than neutral in selecting scientific evidence to highlight, and even less neutral in characterizing it. For example, Jaroff cites the University of Southern California Medical School’s Cancer Surveillance Program for the (syntactically byzantine) proposition that “Known causes of [Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma] are not petroleum or petroleum products.” But the actual findings of USC’s study seem less dispositive than Jaroff suggests. Meanwhile, it appears that Jaroff’s special edition of Google may filter out sites affililated with other nearby institutions of higher learning, such as Berkeley, whose Molecular Epidemiology and Toxicology Laboratory reports on studies linking benzene, one petroleum byproduct at issue in the litigation, with hematopoietic malignancies.

It used to be that stories in Time frequently ended with the well-worn “time-will-tell” tagline — e.g., “Only time will tell who has the better of the scientific arguments.” It now appears that in matters of scientific evidence, at least, there is no felt editorial need, at Time, to acknowledge that the debates may take a while to play out. Maybe the readership has grown less patient.