Thursday, March 17, 2005

More Theory, More Practice

Ten geologists have been accused of falsifying data pertaining to the safety of the proposed nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada:

Federal scientists may have falsified documents on a key safety issue for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste dump, two federal agencies said Wednesday. If the allegations prove true, it could delay and possibly kill the controversial plan to bury nuclear waste in a mountain 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas starting in about a dozen years. That would be a major blow to the stalled Bush energy plan, which calls for building new nuclear-power plants provided there's someplace to store their waste....
Well, if there is proof of falsification, and it does kill Yucca Mountain - and, by extension, the nuclear component of BushCo's energy plan - then I'd say these professional liars had unwittingly done all of us a great service.

That said, the fact would remain that these people had used their authority as scientists to mislead the public about a matter of the gravest conceivable importance, which is a pretty good - and a depressingly common - example of human viciousness and evil.

I've been involved in a lot of debates lately about what science is, and what it does, and whether or not it can solve the problems we face. Personally, I think it could solve our problems, so long as we first eradicate human corruptibility, perhaps by completely overhauling human nature.

I'm sure each of us is working on that project in his or her own way. Meanwhile, though, there are important questions about what legitimizes scientific authority. Of course, I know what's supposed to do it, in theory. But in practice, a great deal of science is legitimized on the basis of its agreement with political or economic doctrine. (If the hypothesis of global warming had agreed with the interests of our government, it would've been accepted as fact over a decade ago, evidence or no evidence.) The authority of science - as mediated by, say, a professional group or a journal - is not necessarily a match for political and economic authority even in those rare cases where it's truly autonomous from that authority.

What I'm trying to understand is why anyone believes this situation will change.


JMS said...

Scientists are always at risk to having the fruits of their work commoditized. This environment is unhealthy, and leads to some individual scientists behaving as mercenaries.

Of course, your root question is what is it in human nature that allows us to be so easily corrupted and misled, even our brightest.

Asking an audience of liberal critical thinkers is perhaps the wrong approach.

Credit card companies exploit human nature all the time, instead of treating humans idealistically.

The CIA is good at exploiting people too. There are others.

They rely on human behavior, and thus would be able to identify suggest remediation, if they were so inclined.

Finally, as to why anyone would think this state of affairs might change - people lie to themselves, first and foremost.

Phila said...

It's basically a rhetorical question, I guess. But it's also sincere. I'm not saying that change is impossible. But I've heard a lot of talk lately about the evils caused by stupid people who reject science and reason, and I'm not sure that smart people who reject integrity and responsibility - for money and glory - aren't a more serious problem right now.

JMS said...

I hear you. Scientists don't have a base of goodwill in the general population to draw on, like perhaps they did in the forties and fifties of the last century, when they were curing polio and ushering in the age of Mr. Atom. The scientists who chase butterflies are muscled aside by those chasing butterflies with erectile dysfunction.

My gloomy answer to your gloomy question is I don't overlook the possibility that we are fundamentally flawed in aggregate, and these flaws are exploited by the powerful to result in the evils of the world we live in.

It is perfectly logical that these same flaws could be exploited to the benefit of mankind, or not exploited, which is hopeful, but in our universe, it seems Spock has a beard.

Phila said...

Speechless, it could be any number of things. It could even be something like "We know nothing's going to go wrong, but people are stupid and hysterical so let's reassure them." Money and job security are also good possibilities. But really, who knows?

Anonymous said...

Falsification of data is only the tip of the iceberg. A May 18, 2004, Nevada State Nuclear Projects document comments on the DOE paying NRC inspectors to sign off on the project. (Dare we say "bribe?") Worse, the cannisters will be above 300 degrees F for thousands of years (DOE figures). An earthquake occuring after a period of heavy rain could inject a large quantity of water into the tunnels, which then flash to steam. The mountain explodes. Mt. St. Helens is an example of a steam explosion in a mountain. Only instead of kicking out volcanic ash, it is kicking out 77,000 tons of radioactive waste.