The classic view of the scientist as an unbiased observer of nature was shattered with the development of the atomic bomb. Suddenly, it became apparent to the physicists working out the equations of nuclear fission could not absolve themselves completely of responsibility for the political uses of their research. Yet since the days of the French Academy of Sciences in the 17th century, kings and other rulers have called on natural philosophers to inform their decisions. These days, scientific institutions state political opinions at will. Some recent news items show them inserting their opinions beyond what the data alone might indicate.
Population: A series on global population in Science at the end of July included a Chinese public policy expert telling China what to do about its one-child policy,1 a demographer at UC Berkeley telling the UN how to project global population trends,2 and another expert discussing the “upside of downsizing.”3
One unusual article in the series was by David Malakoff, a writer (not a scientist), who asked, “Are more people necessarily a problem?”4 He told how the inhabitants of Machaco, “a parching desert of rocks, stones and sand” in Kenya, used to live in miserable poverty and hopelessness. Today, 1.5 million people call it home, and are much better off. Social and economic changes allowed the population to “regreen once-barren hillsides, reinvigorate failing soils, reduce birth rates, and increase crop production and incomes,” supporting the counter-intuitive idea “that rapid human population growth, even in some of Earth’s driest, most challenging environments, is not necessarily a recipe for disaster—and can even bring benefits.” More people meant more innovation, more labor and more political involvement. He added:
And Machakos isn’t alone. In other hard-pressed regions, researchers are finding that even explosive population growth can be accompanied by some surprising trends—such as increased tree cover, more productive farms and economies, and improved well-being. Such results are adding new fuel to long-standing arguments that sheer numbers alone don’t determine the consequences of population growth, and that a complex mix of culture, socioeconomics, and biology also plays a role. The findings are also renewing interest in the work of a pioneering Danish economist who challenged conventional notions about the dire consequences of more people—and are raising hopes that even the poorest, fastest-growing regions could, with the right mix of policies, ride out the global population tsunami….
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