Saturday, February 14, 2009

The age of unreason

One of the most terrifying aspects of modern life is the insidious encroachment of the "Orwellian inversion" – the use of ordinary words where the meanings become reversed.

You see a small example of this today in the story about the partial closure of the fire station at Windsor. Needless to say, a spokeswoman for the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service says the fire authority's plans are "part of a county-wide programme to improve levels of fire cover … ".

From the ridiculous to the sublime, we thus see in The Times the news that scientists are celebrating the dawn of "Barack Obama's age of reason".

At the 175th annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in downtown Chicago, there is a "palpable buzz" as delegates anticipate the gush of funding liberated by Obama's extra £45 billion promised for energy and research in his stimulus package.

His "new policies on global warming and stem cells, and above all with a list of appointments that includes some of the most glittering names in American science," have "transformed the mood of the nation's laboratories."

Reviewing some of the names and the prospect that many who have until recently have been ignored by the White House now stand a real chance of influencing policy, the glum thought occurs that Obama has also transformed the mood of many of the world's lavatories. They are echoing to the sound of millions of people being violently sick.

How else does one treat the news that al Gore was due to give the keynote address to the AAAS last night, especially when this "climate change campaigner and former Vice-President" is "an insider again now," and many scientists attending the AAAS conference are starting to consider themselves insiders too?

The Orwellian twist comes with Obama promising to "restore science to its rightful place," thereby ushering in an age of anti-science and quackery that would have snake oil salesmen blushing.

It gets even worse when Obama blithely declares that "promoting science" is "about protecting free and open inquiry." It is, he says, "about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology."

Straight out of the school of "you couldn't make it up", this is beyond parody. Leave it to Sean Carroll, a geneticist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Wisconsin, to make the point: "The past eight years have been a dark period," he told the meeting yesterday. "Very well-established science, like that of climate change, was denied."

When science equals anti-science, reason becomes unreason.