Skip to comments.Battle of the Bunsen Burners - The science wars are here to stay
Posted on 01/06/2006 8:31:56 PM PST by neverdem
Has science become politicized? A better question might be: When has it ever not been? The Roman Catholic Church's prosecution of Galileo is a famous example. Another is the Environmental Protection Agency's decision to ban the pesticide DDT even though an EPA administrative law examiner, after a seven month hearing of scientific evidence, determined that it shouldn't be prohibited.
The problem is that scientific results always have an impact on somebody, usually because they can be turned into newfangled innovations that threaten old technologies. Consequently, lobbyists and activists swarm Capitol Hill yelling about the advantages of their new product and the horrors perpetrated by the old. On a mundane level consider the epic battles between cable and broadcast television, and between recording companies and file swapping utilities like Napster. Do violent video games boost the teen murder rate? Do abortions increase a woman's chance of getting breast cancer? If man-made global warming turns out to be a big problem, emitters of carbon dioxide fear that they will lose out to alternative power sources like wind and solar.
On the medical front, pro-lifers sing the praises of adult stem cells while pouring scorn on embryonic stem cells. They do so because they think that producing embryonic stem cells is the moral equivalent of dismembering infants for parts. Pro-lifers know that their ethical arguments will only sway so many people, so they resort to scientific arguments, claiming that adult stem cells are just as efficacious as embryonic cells in order to convince the rest of us to abandon research they believe is a moral horror. In fact, if they turn out to be right, that would have an impact on federal funding and the direction that thousands of stem cell researchers would drive their work.
And then there is the vexed problem of funding sources. Surveys of studies show that scientific reports sponsored by drug companies generally find the supporting company's drugs to be safe and efficacious, whereas independent studies often do not. Interestingly, studies supported by the $132 billion in federal research and development expenditures rarely occasion such scrutiny. Perhaps that's because they are generally above reproach. But it is also true that most academic research is funded by government agencies and it will not help a scientist's career to bite the federal hand that feeds him and his postdocs. I also suspect that most agency funded research generally finds that what the agency guesses is a problem turns out to be a problem.
In a liberal secular society in which traditional sources of authority—the Church and the State—have eroded, science stands the ultimate arbiter of truth. So, both the right and the left loudly seek to claim that scientific findings justify their political goals.
Not surprisingly, when a scientific finding doesn't support their policies or programs, both sides suspect that it has been "politicized." In this case, "politicized" means disagrees with what we good people want. Naturally to prevent politicization, both Republicans and Democrats have sought to legislate scientific objectivity. On the right, the Republicans are proponents of the Federal Data Quality Act of 1999 (FDQA). The FDQA directed the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to "issue guidelines...that provide policy and procedural guidance to federal agencies for ensuring and maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of information (including statistical information) disseminated by federal agencies." Who could be against any of those good and true things?
However, the Bush Administration's OMB issued controversial regulations providing government-wide guidance aimed at enhancing the practice of peer review of government science documents. Democrats and various left-leaning activist groups object that the new OMB peer review process largely excludes scientists who are agency employees from serving as reviewers. Naturally, the Democrats and activists believe that scientists working for the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Food and Drug Administration are objective experts who, not incidentally, will support their programs. Never mind the distorting public choice incentives that pressure even honest agency personnel to find evidence for the existence of the problems that their agency was created to address. So last year Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) submitted the Restore Scientific Integrity to Federal Research and Policymaking Act (RSIFRPA), portions of which aimed to quash the new OMB peer review regulations.
On the other hand, the Democrats can point to evidence that the Bush Administration has censored scientific research and disseminated false information. Consequently, Democrats and their ideological confreres hope that they have put a stop to the Bush Administration's subversion of science with the adoption of some portions of the RSIFRPA, which were incorporated into the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services budget bill last month. The act prohibits federal employees from tampering with or censoring federally funded scientific research or analysis or directing the dissemination of false or misleading information. Again, what person of good will could be against these salutary goals?
What these efforts to legislate scientific objectivity really point up is that science, as the chief arbiter of truth in our society, will remain unavoidably enmeshed in politics. The government official who ordered the ban on DDT despite the scientific evidence for its safety, William Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the EPA, brought admirable clarity to the issue. In 1979, Ruckelshaus wrote to Allan Grant, president of American Farm Bureau Federation president, stating, "Decisions by the government involving the use of toxic substances are political with a small 'p.' The ultimate judgment remains political." What was true for the EPA in 1972, is even more true for federal agencies today. The science wars are here to stay.
Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent.
In that light, here's something from, oh, 10 years ago or so on the subject...speaking of the politicization of science.
Recently a scandal has been brewing in the biochemical scientific community. A Nobel laureate, David Baltimore, has been accused of covering for a colleague who falsified important data.
Several years ago, a post-doctoral associate blew the whistle on the colleague upon noting that some published results did not agree with the contents of the colleagues laboratory notebook. The post doc was shunted off to whistle in obscurity, the colleague received a prestigious appointment to Tufts University, and life went on.
But a U.S. Congressman took up the issue. After an investigation, in part by the U.S. Secret Service, and a denunciation of the investigation by Baltimore and others government should not interfere in the free flow of Science! it now appears that the data in question were fudged, and that Baltimore had not checked the data properly before publication. This episode raises questions about scientific ethics, and about public perceptions of science as an institution.
For context, we must look back to the end of the Middle Ages in Europe, and the beginning of the Renaissance, when many of our societys institutions and values were forming. In the Middle Ages, the traditional authority, the Roman Catholic Church, was pre-eminent. Most people were content to accept the churchs teachings, having neither the literacy nor the training to answer the big questions themselves.
But as the Middle Ages ended, the church was being challenged on two fronts. First, its religious authority was questioned. As the Bible was translated from Latin in to the languages of the common people, they were able to compare the teachings of Christ and the early Christians with Catholic doctrines and practice. Discrepancies between the former and latter led to the splintering of the church. Many splinter groups survive as todays Protestant churches.
On temporal matters, the watered-down Aristotelian teachings of the church could not stand against the observations of early Renaissance astronomers. People began to rty things for themselves instead of relying exclusively on ancient Greek and Latin texts. We often forget that the two trends were contemporaneous. Thus Henry VIII broke from Rome during the lifetime of Copernicus, and Martin Luther was in his 30s when Leonardo da Vinci died.
The main trend was a shift from reliance on authority alone, to a reliance on authority backed up by empirical observation. Everyone, for example, knows the story of Galileos trial by the Catholic Church.
But it was not always religion that held up the progress of science. For instance, progress in chemistry was greatly slowed by over-reliance on a secular authority, Aristotle. And Isaac Newtons interest in theology did not prevent him from being a first-rate physicist.
As time went on, technology (mechanical contrivances) grew more sophisticated and existing knowledge was more widely disseminated. It became easier and easier for any interested observer to contribute to knowledge of the natural world. Even though there was no National Bureau of Standards, and there were few scientific journals, investigation could be pursued by the common man. The concepts involved were not too obscure, and the necessary materials and apparatus readily available. Thus (the story goes) Benjamin Franklin flew his kite in a thunderstorm; and oxygen was discovered by an English clergyman ironically named Priestly.
The replacement of authority by empiricism was complete, and empiricism itself became a new church with scientists as its priests.
Today, however, science itself is becoming inaccessible and obscure. No individual can afford his own Hubble telescope; no one except specialists understands general relativity at all. Even independent replication of experiments by other scientists is growing rarer.
Non-scientists are now placed in a position like that of medieval peasants. Authority taxes them, but they are unable as individuals to challenge independently authoritys teachings.
This gives rise to a difficulty. People will give money to support science only if they feel individual scientists are trustworthy, and if they understand scientific principles well enough to feel they are getting value for their money. After all, science as an institution claims that its role is to make peoples lives better.
These three elements I have summarized determine the role of science in society.
First, there is Authority. People are expected to trust the scientist as they once trusted the parish priest. I am a Scientist, and I say that the Earth orbits the Moon. Trust me.
Second, there is Empiricism. Empiricism is used to legitimize the authority of the scientist. The Earth orbits the Moon not just on my say-so, but because I have watched it, and you can test this claim for yourself to prove it if you dont trust me.
Finally, there is Ethics, the glue which bonds the competing claims of authority and empiricism. If a scientist holds up the first two elements, but violates the third, then the credibility both of that scientist and of science as a whole is diminished. I never said the Earth orbits the Moon. I really said the Earth orbited the Sun. How dare you take away my research grant!
Scandals tent to destroy trust between scientists and the public, and that troubles me. People will no longer pay for scientists and their equipment if they feel theyve been cheated. And if they believe that science is incomprehensible, or irrelevant to their daily lives, they are very likely to feel cheated.
In a court case over a car crash, a lawyer used Newtons laws of motion to analyze the cars paths. The opposing lawyer won over the jury by arguing, The laws of physics are obeyed in the laboratory, but not in rural New Jersey!
The public is beginning to ask whether the benefits of applied science really outweigh the drawbacks of misapplied science. Already some groups of people seek to lay the blame for all of mankinds woes on Science, while forgetting the benefits. They read about Chernobyl sitting in houses partly heated by nuclear power; they drive to Earth Day protests in automobiles emitting greenhouse gases.
If the scientific community continues to concentrate on its own prestige, an not on the view and needs of society as a whole, then perhaps the day is not far off when people will choose some new authority instead of Science, even as they once turned to Science instead of the Church.
Modern felid species descend from relatively recent (<11 million years ago) divergence and speciation events that produced successful predatory carnivores worldwide but that have confounded taxonomic classifications. A highly resolved molecular phylogeny with divergence dates for all living cat species, derived from autosomal, X-linked, Y-linked, and mitochondrial gene segments (22,789 base pairs) and 16 fossil calibrations define eight principal lineages produced through at least 10 intercontinental migrations facilitated by sea-level fluctuations. A ghost lineage analysis indicates that available felid fossils underestimate (i.e., unrepresented basal branch length) first occurrence by an average of 76%, revealing a low representation of felid lineages in paleontological remains. The phylogenetic performance of distinct gene classes showed that Y-chromosome segments are appreciably more informative than mitochondrial DNA, X-linked, or autosomal genes in resolving the rapid Felidae species radiation.
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The Pajamadeen! We caught Dan Rather, didn't we?
Actually, a number of the scientists get caught through carelessnes...I remember reading a thread within the past week of one who was supposedly an "up-and-comer" destined for a Nobel prize who had faked numerous work, but who used the same data in a number of different papers, which led to his undoing.
And there was a Harvard cardiologist who got caught when one of his longitudinal studies included one subject who (according to the published birthdays, etc.) would have had to become a father at the tender age of 7.
I wouldn't look at that as success. For every Korean stem cell researcher that gets caught, how much forged data doesn't, just because it isn't too profound?
The risk / reward ratio is such, and the social pressures (particularly as a scientist climbs higher up the ladder), that scientists probably need to be fairly honest to begin with...
That is, putting up "don't commit scientific fraud" public service announcements is akin to putting up billboards on Wall Stree saying "Don't DO insider trading."
So, sadly, I agree with you.
Try reading my long earlier post in the thread, if you haven't already.
No cheers, unfortunately.
Nice one, from almost two years ago. Boy, the election years sure come around quickly.