I'm reading a very interesting book. "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars," by Michael E. Mann.
Mann is the climate scientist who led the research into global warming that produced the famous (or infamous, to some) "hockey stick" graph.
The graph shows how the Earth's climate has varied over the past thousand years. The measurements show natural ups and downs for most of that time, but over the final 10 years of the 20 century, they zoom up from the earlier records, like the blade of a hockey stick compared to the stick's shaft.
Using data from tree rings, Arctic ice cores, coral growths in the oceans, and actual thermometer readings (for the past hundred years or so), the "hockey stick" graph shows quite dramatically that our global climate has warmed significantly.
Whatever your feelings about global climate change, this is a book you should read, because it clearly shows the contrast between how science works and how politics works.
The difference is dramatic. And fateful.
Science is a long and patient process that starts with observations and measurements, then moves into experiments that test the ideas developed from them. Science is self-correcting. Ideas that don't stand up to testing are discarded or modified. Ideas that do stand up are acknowledged as factual — until some new test throws doubt on them.
Science is a long-term enterprise. It's like building a cathedral; each newly-verified idea is a brick added to the edifice.
Politics isn't about facts. It's a struggle for power. Politics isn't a long-term enterprise; its horizon extends only as far as the next election. Or, in non-democracies, as far as the next revolution or coup d'etat.
Politicians aren't interested in facts so much as they are interested in winning.
A few examples. In 1941 Nazi Germany had conquered most of Europe. Hitler decided the war was virtually won, so he decreed that German scientists could not work on any projects that wouldn't reach fruition in three years.
As a result, German work on jet engines withered.
The war raged on. By 1944 Germany was being bombed night and day by British and American planes. The Germans rushed into production the Messerschmitt me-262, the first jet fighter to see action.
Although the me-262 had actually first flown in 1941, its development was hamstrung by political decisions from Berlin. Faster than any propeller-driven fighter by more than a hundred miles per hour, and heavily armed, the me-262 could have decimated the Allied bomber formations. If there had been enough of them.
There weren't. Mass production of the jet started too late for the plane to have a serious effect on the outcome of the war.
In the U.S. the government backed development of the atomic bomb. It was a gamble, technically, but it worked. The atomic bomb forced Japan to surrender, saving the millions who would have been killed if the Allies had had to invade the Japanese home islands.
After World War II, it seemed obvious that long-range rockets armed with nuclear bombs could become "the ultimate weapon." The United States did not push rocketry. Soviet Russia did.
In the 1950s, American intelligence agencies were stunned to find that the Soviets were flight-testing ballistic missiles over five-thousand-mile ranges. In deep secrecy, the U.S. engaged in a crash program to catch up to Russia's superiority.
The missile race went public in 1956, when the USSR launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, as proof to a doubting world that the Soviets had rockets powerful and accurate enough to deposit hydrogen bombs on any city on Earth.
A very public space race ensued, culminating in the Apollo lunar landings. And then Washington decided to allow our hard-earned space capability wither away. Today, Washington is paying Russia to launch Americans to the International Space Station. Private firms are stepping into the breach, but at present the U.S. cannot launch people into space, and NASA's hopes for returning to the Moon and exploring Mars are as good as dead.
Politics can cripple science. Since science is the keystone to national wealth, politics can cripple our economic well-being, as well.
Mann's book is a blow-by-blow account of a battle between politics and science. You should read it.