Conservatives 'hurt' science progress

2014-03-14 10:29
Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell has warned that conservatism may threaten the progress made in science and technology. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell has warned that conservatism may threaten the progress made in science and technology. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Cape Town - Conservative political beliefs threaten to undermine the progress made in science, particular in the US where the debate has shifted to the right, a top astronomer has warned.

"If you'd got a very conservative Republican in power, they might not be happy about some of the scientific research going on, because it conflict with their fundamental beliefs," Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell told News24.

Burnell discovered pulsars as a student in 1967, but her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish shared the Noble prize in 1974 for the discovery.

She is a specialist in radio astronomy and said that science often threatens people's cherished beliefs.

"We all have fundamental beliefs of one sort or another and it is very threatening if somebody is saying they're wrong."

Sceptic shift

This view was as true in the age of Copernicus and Galileo who challenged the dogma of the Earth's place in the solar system half a millennium ago to the current conservative view of climate change.

Burnell echoed the sentiment from Naomi Oreskes, professor of History and Science Studies at the University of California San Diego.

Oreskes, who co-authored Merchants of Doubt with Erik Conway, said that established science is usually conservative in its view, despite the accusation of exaggeration.

"We've heard a lot of noise lately about exaggeration of scientific claims - alarmism; hysteria - but actually, I believe that history shows that scientists have actually been conservative in their estimates and that global warming has begun to unfold faster than scientists thought," said Oreskes.

According to Burnell, the sceptic shift on climate change in the US has not spread to the global community.

"I'm not sure whether outside America, that particular issue is a big one, but there certainly are people around who are climate sceptics or climate change deniers - people who don't seem to be able to hear scientific evidence," she said.

Renowned science expert Bill Nye recently had a lengthy debate with creationist Ken Ham on evolution and the origin of man.

2012 beliefs

The debate, held in Kentucky at the Creation Museum highlighted the continued political nature of science in the US, where some commentators have disregarded established science such as evolution and climate change.

There were several questions which Nye couldn't answer, but argued that the nature of science was one of doubt and investigation of the evidence.

Burnell said that she had even investigated crank beliefs that the world would end at the end of 2012 because a "rouge planet" would enter the solar system and harm the Earth. She found no evidence, but it did not stop people from believing it.

"I looked at all of these: They're rubbish, all of them, but the number of people who wanted to believe that something like that was going to happen, regardless of the science, really made me stop and think. 'How good is our science communication? How good is our basic science education is people can believe that some of these might really happen?'"

She said that relatively few UK politicians have science training and because their terms are short, they expect scientists to deliver results on cue.

"A bigger problem is that they have an election every five years, so their timescale is five years. Science doesn't usually work on that timescale," Burnell said.

- Follow Duncan on Twitter
Read more on:    science  |  climate change  |  astronomy

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