The British are famous for their steadiness in the midst of crisis. Londoners had their finest hour as they endured the blitz in 1940 with the proverbial stiff upper lip. Over the past three decades they endured numerous terrorist bombings by the I.R.A. and the assassination of Lord Louis Mountbatten, a patriarch of the royal family, without panic. So it was no surprise that after two attempted bombings in Trafalgar Square and a third at Glasgow Airport in late June, in what is being called the doctors plot, the Brits and the Scots went calmly about their business.
What might have been a surprise for Americans addicted to the news as the theater of crisis was Prime Minister Gordon Browns first Prime Ministers Time in the House of Commons on July 2. Mr. Brown eschewed playing to emotions stirred by the terror attempts to present instead a detailed plan for updating British democracy. His plan would make the executive more accountable to Parliament and Parliament to the people, and would ask the people to be more responsible for their own affairs. He also invited Britain to adopt a bill of rights and a system of checks and balances that would curb government incursion into lives of its citizens. Americanspoliticians, the public and the mediahave a lot to learn from Mr. Browns performance about how not to feed feelings of fright for the sake of heightened sensation. Following the recent series of attacks that may be linked to Al Qaeda, the prime minister refused to use the phrase war on terror, and he insists that fighting terrorism will be a matter of conventional police, intelligence, community relations and diplomatic work.Scientific Illiteracy
The Bush administration has been notorious for its abuse of science. Whether the issue is global warming, the impact of secondhand smoke on public health or supervision of the nations nuclear stockpile, the administration has tried either to limit public access to information or to muzzle the nations science advisory system. It was no surprise, then, that former Surgeon General Richard Carmona testified July 10 that, like his predecessors, he found himself gagged by his political superiors. Anything that doesnt fit into the political appointees ideological, theological or political agenda, he told a House oversight committee, is often ignored, marginalized or simply buried. Dr. Carmona was correct to protest the know-nothing attitude of his superiors. At the same time, the notion he advanced that scientific advice is free from all taint of ideology is but the conventional wisdom of one party in the culture wars. From Leonardo da Vinci to Robert Oppenheimer, scientists have won their fortunes and their reputations in the militarys employ.
As Peter Quinn explained in a recent Commonweal article (3/9), Darwinism spawned racism. Geneticists once backed eugenic sterilization of the retarded, and demographers have promoted compulsory population control for the poor. Sound public policy involves values as well as the data that advocates present as scientific findings. Science literacy requires knowing the difference. In the areas of sexuality and reproduction, with which Dr. Carmona was particularly concerned, the intermingling of the two is unavoidable. Unfortunately, in postmodern American culture, science policy is seldom informed by a searching philosophy, so setting the policy is left to hardball politics, whether of the judicial or executive variety.Vanishing Birds
Many varieties of birds in the United States have been falling in number over the past few decades. In a June report, the Audubon Society pointed out that since 1967, the total bird population has dropped by 67 percent. Certain individual species, the report notes, nosedived as much as 80 percent. Over the past half-century, farmland birds like the meadowlark, for example, have suffered the effects of suburban sprawl, industrial development, intensified farming practices and logging. Similarly, tundra-breeding birds are experiencing the destruction of their habitats as the permafrost melts and predators move in as a consequence of global warming.
How can the Audubon Society be sure of the losses it cites? Every year, across the country, thousands of volunteer citizen scientists assist in the organizations Christmas bird count from mid-December to early January.
The society lists several ways to slow these losses. Implementing sustainable forest management in the face of excessive logging, mining and drilling is one. Another is the promotion of sound agricultural policies that include protecting wetlands. And, finally, on a far wider scale, there is the need to struggle against global warming. Rachel Carsons 1962 book, Silent Spring, highlighted bird losses due to pesticides like DDT. Although DDT is no longer used in the United States, ill-considered housing and industrial development, together with disregard for the fragility of numerous bird species, gives the threat of extinction a new urgency.