A new age of unreason or a geek dawn?

Tom Feilden
Science correspondent, Today

image copyrightSPL
image captionIs the enlightenment starting to dim?

Is the enlightenment over? Earlier this year the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Nina Fedoroff, used the platform of her annual address to the country's leading academy of science to warn that the politicization of science - across a range of issues from genetic modification and immunisation strategies to evolution and climate change - was driving the country into a new dark age.

"Fewer people believe in climate change with each passing year, and the conviction that vaccinations cause autism is alive and well. What a tragedy," she said.

Away from the podium Professor Fedoroff was even more blunt - claiming she was "scared to death" by the contempt shown for evidence in the debate over climate change.

"If you're speaking from your best scientific knowledge and you're saying "world, wake up. This is what's happening, these are the facts, and with every passing year it gets harder and harder" then you expect people to respect that, but we're doing nothing, zip, zero. So that's why I'm scared to death. Where are we going?"

The author of Unscientific America and The Republican Brain, Chris Mooney, thinks he knows.

"Essentially what you have is an incredibly militant rejection of the best available knowledge. It's terrifying and heart rendering when you consider that the US was founded on enlightenment principles, but that's what you get now from the tea party and the Republican right".

media captionTom Feilden reports on whether science makes enough of a mark on government agenda

Of course turning your face against uncomfortable truths is nothing new. In the past people have killed scientists for pointing out that the earth is not flat, or that it's just one of a number of planets orbiting a fairly unremarkable star.

Here in the UK Mark Henderson, the author of The Geek Manifesto, argues the problem is not so much the militant rejection of unpalatable evidence as indifference and ignorance of the vital role science has to play in the development of public policy.

Just one out of 650 MPs has worked as a research scientist, he points out, and while politicians like to claim the authority of sound science when the facts fit, they routinely cherry-pick data and casually disregard evidence that doesn't chime with their preconceptions.

"There's very little what you might term anti-science here, very few MPs who are actively hostile to what science has to offer. But there is a much broader problem of indifference to science and ignorance about what evidence and testing could bring to public policy. It's simply not something that the vast majority of our elected representatives, and indeed civil servants, have actually thought about."

But there are also signs that things are changing. A series of recent demonstrations, staged by geek activists outside homeopathy clinics, have attracted hundreds of ordinary people to turn up and deliberately swallow massive overdoses of the alternative remedies - to no ill effect.

And while in the past the prospect of having your experiment trashed by anti-GM campaigners might have sent plant biologists scurrying back to their ivory towers, a threat to destroy the latest trial - of a genetically modified wheat variety that's been engineered to deter aphids and cut down on pesticides - has brought scientists from the Rothamsted Research Station out swinging.

The lead scientist on the project, Professor John Pickett, has challenged protesters to a public debate, urging them to engage rather than destroying the crop, at a demonstration scheduled to take place this weekend.

"There are a lot of people out there who are actually rather worried because they don't really understand what we're doing. So it's very important to engage so that we can explain and answer the questions and concerns they have. But we can't do that if people are going to destroy the experiment that's designed to answer those questions".

We'll have to wait and see whether the activists bring their arguments or their scythes to the demonstration at Rothamsted on Sunday, but there are encouraging signs that the geeks are fighting back.