The Sciences

Defining Science Abuse Down

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJan 25, 2006 4:24 PM


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There's an article up at that's attempting to be contrary and counterintuitive about the Bush administration's "war on science." I must say, I found it fairly feeble. The author's first maneuver is to significantly understate the causes of concern. Thus, the vast scope of science abuses by the administration are culled down to two narrow categories, and some of the most prominent issues (like evolution and stem cells, where the president himself, rather than some sub-lackey, has made scientifically indefensible statements) are ignored entirely.

Once this feat is accomplished, the author, Ehsan Masood, attacks what I can only call a strawman:

I often wonder what kind of person would be so shocked to discover that political interference is alive and well inside science. Any Iraqi college-student will tell you that an administration at ease with regime change in a country almost 10,000 kilometres from the American homeland is hardly likely to think twice about poking its spaner in the workings of a scientific advisory committee.

Actually, no one's shocked to discover that "political interference is alive and well inside science." What's shocking is the extent of interference, its crassness, and its audacity under the Bush administration. At some point, utter disregard for evidence and the scientific process become more than a tad alarming. The Bush administration is well past that threshold, and it refuses to apologize or even admit the existence of a problem.

But Masood has another strawman to present and then demolish:

Second, even if it is accepted that scientists are less politically savvy than people in other walks of life, there is an assumption underpinning the Union of Concerned Scientists campaign that many scientists themselves must surely find bewildering. This is the idea that a scientist's individual beliefs, behaviour or politics do not influence their decisions in areas where science meets public policy.

I seriously doubt there is any such assumption underpinning the Union of Concerned Scientists' scientific integrity campaign. There is certainly no such assumption underlying my own writing.

Many scientists, and especially sociologists of science, know very well that "individual beliefs, behaviour or politics" influence scientific decisions "in areas where science meets public policy." Tell us something we don't know. The question is, is the Bush administration's response to this well known fact--repressing government scientists, appointing lackeys to force-edit their reports, and politically slanting scientific advice in the other direction--either appropriate or proportionate to the problem?

Of course not. The constructive response to science's imperfect objectivity would be to set up a scientific advisory process with integrity and checks and balances in the form of peer review and other mechanisms to ensure a careful vetting of ideas. That's the best we can do, but that's not the Bush strategy. The administration shows little or no respect for the results of precisely such careful assessments, including from the National Academy of Sciences.

From this point, Masood's article digresses into a seemingly irrelevant discussion of the degree of scientific certainty needed to make a political decision, and I couldn't follow it any more. There's little else in it that I disagree with, but I must wonder, what is the point of this little exercise, if not to undermine concern about the Bush administration and science?

If I've been overly critical, it's because I can't see the usefulness of such an activity. Furthermore, I'm sick and tired of slapdash "counterintuitive," contrarian writing by people who ought to know better (and, in fact, probably do). Firmly established opinion is not always wrong, and not necessarily worth attacking, simply because it is firmly established opinion.

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