Science and Public Policy (cont.)

As I pointed out in a column a few weeks back, there are two sides to the Left’s claim to be the more science-friendly faction. It’s not just conservative politics that is hostile to science, it’s any politics, though the particular scientific topic objected to may be different for Left and Right. A political position, especially one that incorporates a religious view of human affairs, usually contains some implicit view of human nature. Scientific inquiry into human nature, which has been picking up steam in recent decades, is therefore liable to turn up results displeasing to lots of politicians and their more ideological supporters (I include religion as a species of ideology), and will be looked at askance for just that reason.

I’m not sure Dennis Overbye is quite right when he says:

Dr. Fang got in trouble initially because he favored the Big Bang, but that was against Marxist orthodoxy that the universe was infinitely unfolding.

As I recall, Fang Lizhi’s error was more trivial than that. In speaking up for a finite universe, he contradicted an offhand remark of Friedrich Engels in one of his books. Engels mentioned gazing up at the night sky and reflecting that it was so awesome, it must surely be infinite.

That was enough to get you in trouble in Mao’s China. Fang later got into much more trouble. I have no personal acquaintance with him, but he looks to me like a pretty good egg. Likewise Xu Liangying, whom I am ashamed to say I did not know about.

These are real heroes of our time. I recall once during my own time in China, being in private conversation with a worldly man of good character who had suffered some injustice at the hands of the authorities. Naïvely I asked him why he didn’t make some kind of protest. He looked at me with a withering scorn I shall never forget, and said: “Foreigners! You don’t know what it’s like for us. You can’t imagine what punishment is like in China.” That was in the 1980s, well post-Mao.

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