Voices in the Wilderness | Year In Review | Chicago Reader

Voices in the Wilderness 

The Political Climate Has Scientists on the Run

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

It takes little more than a quick perusal of the Weekly World News, or one episode of The X-Files, to realize that the American public hungers for divine or supernatural intervention. We want to believe in something that can't quite be explained by science. We yearn for miracles.

Even the miracle-loving organization that has waged the longest-running war on science has called a truce. Two months ago, Pope John Paul II announced that the theory of evolution can coexist peacefully with the concept of divine creation. That followed the Vatican's 1992 admission (after 359 years) that it had been wrong in persecuting Galileo for announcing that the earth is not at the center of the universe. Today the Catholic Church, ever on the lookout for new souls in need of salvation, is even supporting its own astronomical research program. At the same time, Congress feels free to flout scientific findings with impunity, quashing any research that threatens to disagree with the agendas of wealthy PACs. The pope's conversion was one of the few bright spots in a year whose headlines otherwise showcased the uneasy meeting of science, politics, and the general public.

JANUARY

Climatologists announce that 1995 was the hottest year on record, bolstering what has become a broad scientific consensus that global warming--induced by human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide--has begun. The average surface temperature in 1995 was 0.7 degrees higher than the average for the period from 1961 through 1990.

The House of Representatives passes a budget bill cutting $625 million from nonmilitary science programs, especially from research on the atmosphere and global climate change. During the appropriations process, Representative Dana Rohrabacher, chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, declares that funding research on global climate change is "throwing money down a rat hole."

FEBRUARY

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announces that it will no longer list so-called Candidate 2 species under the federal Endangered Species Act because of the risk of "confusion to the public."

Candidate 2 species, which numbered more than 4,000, included plants and animals that biologists think may be in danger of extinction but for which insufficient information is available to justify full protection under the ESA. In the past, designation of C-2 species encouraged biologists to do further research. But in an era when the Endangered Species Act has grown unpopular--at least in Congress--the Fish and Wildlife Service was concerned that the huge size of the C-2 list might be perceived as too much of a threat by property-rights advocates.

MARCH

Seeking to reinstill the traditional values celebrated at the infamous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, Tennessee state legislators propose a law mandating fines for any teacher who instructs students that evolution is anything more than a theory.

After considerable debate, the legislature defeats the proposal, but the bill's sponsor, Democrat Tommy Burks, remains defiant. "Do you believe that you descended from a lower species? I don't," he says. "This does not have a religious connotation to it. We're talking about truth to a child."

MAY

Throughout Florida, south Texas, and Mexico, eyewitness reports multiply regarding fatal attacks on livestock and pets by chupacabras--Spanish for "goat suckers." Most reports indicate that the creatures are four to five feet high, but other details vary. One Mexican search-and-rescue worker who spots a chupacabra in Sonora describes it as "like a turkey or a kangaroo, but it had a beak because it flew."

JULY

The International Joint Commission, a U.S. and Canadian task force responsible for overseeing water-quality issues in the Great Lakes, releases a survey of major institutions that conduct regional pollution research. The 31 institutions that responded report that cutbacks in federal, state, and local funding will result in total budget declines of between 23 and 53 percent. The number of researchers funded by the groups, and hence the amount of research conducted, will decline by about half.

SEPTEMBER

Reform Party presidential candidate Ross Perot weighs in with his thoughts on the conservation of the spotted owl, whose survival is thought to be threatened by the logging of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest.

"I was up in Washington state and the people were so worried about this huge area [where] they wouldn't let them do any timber cutting because of these owls, and I finally asked a relevant question," Perot says. "I said, 'How many owls are there?' Said '20,' and I said, 'OK, I suggest we send Air Force One out here, transport 'em in absolutely first-class comfort to the nearest national park. Now the owls can live happily ever after in hundreds of thousands of acres in some nearby park, [and] we can go back to work here.'"

NOVEMBER

U.S. Ecology, a company that wants to build a nuclear waste dump in the desert of southeastern California, threatens to sue two scientists commissioned by the federal government to study the safety of the proposed dump. Because the government is prohibited by law from indemnifying contractors, the two scientists stop work, at least for now, on their study.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Peter Friederici

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
Manic Mondays Frances Cocktail Lounge
November 20
Performing Arts
Duck and Cover Classroom The Time Gallery
August 10

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories