The Sciences

In bed with Templeton

Cosmic VarianceBy Daniel HolzDec 3, 2008 3:58 AM

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The movie "Milk" opened last weekend. It tells the story of Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay politicians in the United States. Although I have not seen the movie, without a doubt the story of Harvey Milk is a tragedy of epic proportions. He fought prejudice, and overcame tremendous odds to get elected. Ten months later he was gunned down, along with the Mayor of San Francisco, by a former colleague. The murderer was Dan White, an ex-policeman who admitted to shooting both men in cold blood, and was subsequently given a light sentence in the infamous twinkie defense. White served five years, and within a couple of years of being released from prison committed suicide. As if all this were insufficiently "Hollywood", the events are strangely intertwined with the mass suicide at Jonestown (the second largest loss of civilian American lives, after 9/11). We are tempted to think of all of this as ancient history, and irrelevant to our more enlightened times. But here we are 30 years later, and in the very state where Milk lived and died a (slight) majority of voters have gone out of their way to inscribe into the state constitution a measure explicitly depriving gays of civil rights. This is known as Proposition 8, and Sean has a nice post on why it's an appropriate issue for a science blog. As it happens, one of the largest individual donations to support Proposition 8 came from John Templeton. Of course, Cosmic Variance readers are familiar with the Templeton Foundation, as my esteemed co-blogger Sean has tangled with them previously. Templeton, when he's not spending his money taking away the rights of his fellow citizens, has a predilection for spending money on scientists.

Historically I've been uncomfortable with the Templeton Foundation because of their attempts to conflate religion and science. However, their Foundational Questions Institute appears to be a genuine effort to generate cutting edge science. Although I'm sure there is much I would disagree with in a conversation with Templeton, his support of basic science is to be applauded. Arguably the United States has been immeasurably strengthened by both the separation of church and state and the separation of church and science (the latter is not to be taken for granted; think of Galileo, or Bush's incursions into stem cell lines and global warming). That even Templeton recognizes that science works best when it is unfettered, as much as possible, by external preconceptions is an encouraging sign. We can only hope that he spends more money on science, and less on politics. We thus wish Sean the best of luck in winning the $10,000 jackpot, a prize he will no doubt share with his co-bloggers.

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