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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Wall Street Journal Editorial Board Member Gets Schooled on Science Funding

By Phil Plait

Zack Kopplin is a young man who has been fighting the forces of antiscience for years.  Iâve written about his efforts to repeal an unconstitutional law in Louisiana that uses tax dollars to pay for teaching religion in public schools (as well as here and here).

He has a new project called Second Giant Leap, where he hopes to reinvigorate investment in science in America. He wants to support real science while fighting the people who deny it; something, obviously, with which heâs pretty familiar.

Itâs an uphill climb, to be sure; the forces of antiscience are strong and loud. One of them is the Wall Street Journal, which frequently publishes ridiculous OpEds baselessly denying global warming. Stephen Moore is on the editorial board for the WSJ, and, as youâll see, another person who doesnât understand why we need to fund science.

Moore was on âReal Time with Bill Maherâ recently, sitting with none other than Zack Kopplin. Moore talked about âwasting moneyâ on science research, and Kopplin rhetorically handed him his head at the 1:10 mark:

Awesome. Moore is spewing an antiscience talking point that is not just wrong, it is precisely wrong. As Kopplin points out, the return on investment when you spend money on science is very high, higher even then the interest we pay on debt. Not investing in science is the dumb move.

This antiscience meme Moore parrots is tried and true; it's a way for the far right (in this case in the form of free market libertarianism) to mock science spending, as we saw recently in the entirely made-up foofooraw about grants for scientists to research the evolution duck penises. My friend and science writer Carl Zimmer sends that antiscience garbage to its very deserved watery fowl grave. [Update (Apr. 10, 2013 at 14:45 UTC): In a fun coincidence, today the web comic The Oatmeal makes this point as well, using the mantis shrimp.]

So why do basic research, including that of snail mating habits?

Well, if you want to be bottom line about it, the more we learn about the natural world, the more we learn about us and the better our lives are. Why research moldy food? That later led to the discovery of penicillin. Why research how light works? That later led to discovering the laws of electricity, and the ability to communicate using radio, TV, and heck, the Internet. Why research quantum mechanics? That later led to the very computer you are using to read this.

Howâs that for return on investment?

And thatâs just a pedestrian, look-at-whatâs-directly-in-front-of-you kind of thinking. We research the Universe around us because we are curious, inquisitive, intelligent animals. We donât know what snail mating habits might teach us. Thatâs why we study it. Maybe itâll lead into insight on how animals behave, or a new chemical secreted during the process, or to insight on the environment where snails live. Maybe none of that.

But thatâs not the damn point. We study science because we want to learn about the real world. If we wanted to stick our heads in the sand, as people like Moore would have us do, he wouldnât even have the venue he has to say ridiculous things like he just did.

Science is about exploration and discovery, and making sure we donât fool ourselves. Itâs among the noblest of all human endeavors, and something we should be both pursuing to our fullest abilities as well as defending from those who would drag it down.

Zack has created a White House petition for his Second Giant Leap project. [Update (Apr. 10, 2013 at 16:00 UTC): That petition appears to have expired, but Zack set up another one on [Update to the update: The White House link works once again, so I re-added it.]] You should sign it; I did. Iâm really glad Zack is out there doing what heâs doing. We could use a lot more like him.

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