27 October 2011

Enter With Caution

I have an essay up at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as part of a roundtable on the subject, "When politicians distort science."  My essay begins, "Here we go again . . ."

Please have a look and please come back here with comments, critique or questions. Along with Robert Socolow and Randy Olson we'll be engaging this roundtable discussion for the next month or so, with new pieces coming out every week.


  1. My favorite phrase: "...[scientists] may find that rather than making politics more scientific, they have instead made science more political." That's almost inherently the case that science becomes more political anytime a scientist speaks during a political event. At that point, everything he or she says is assumed to be political, including the scientific statements.

  2. I would describe science as a faith in a reproducible order, which is necessarily constrained to a limited frame of reference.

    The distortion you refer to is not about science per se, but about competing interests employing leverage to increase their holdings of capital, elevate their status in society, and consolidate power over other human beings. This is not limited to politics and is a repeating phenomenon throughout our world.

    By the way, it is not necessary to question evolution as a description of origin, by offering creationism as an alternative. There is neutral ground between atheism and religion.

    We have access to a permanent set of limited, circumstantial evidence, without the ability to determine coexistence and continuity. Our best effort to explain the means by which our universe overcame entropy is that there is an underlying order which remains to be determined.

    Well, that's my understanding of our current state of knowledge. Can you offer additional insight? Thanks.

  3. If a scientist speaks out "on behalf of science", he is taking on the role of referee and calling a foul on an offending politician. However, the role of ref requires him to be fair and call the fouls both ways. If he chooses not to do so, he has forfeited any moral authority to play referee. He should be viewed as the partisan hack that he is and he deserves the loss of credibility and loss of respect that results when caught misusing his office for improper purposes.

    We've seen a lot of scientists in recent years forfeit their credibility because they've entered the public forum in the guise of being referees only to be exposed as partisans. Surprisingly, some of the partisan hacks still don't understand why they no longer enjoy the respect they once had as scientists.

  4. The problem the scientific community has with politicos who express views they think are unscientific or anti-scientific is that they never bother to find out the nature of the underlying logic that leads to that view. They just write them off as fools. Which is fair enough since scientists are written off as fools by everyone else except, maybe, in their limited line of expertise.

  5. The Bureau of Atomic Scientists motivation for this dialogue: "Republican presidential candidate and Texas Gov. Rick Perry recently questioned the science of climate change in ways so unsupported by evidence that.... What is the proper scientific response to the political distortion -- or even outright rejection -- of science? In coming weeks, three Bulletin experts will offer authoritative and at times provocative analysis."

    Pielke --
    "Scientists are not just ordinary citizens; they have specialized expertise." ~ They are SUPPOSED to have such expertise, but in fact they don't know what they are talking about.
    "...because scientists are held in high regard within our society, they are more likely than the average citizen to have their voices amplified (if not treated with deference) by the media..." ~ No, obviously, it is the supposed consensus that is amplified by the media. Dissenting scientists are cast as cranks, on the basis of reasoning as flimsy as any real crank's that ever sullied the name of science.
    "there are several pitfalls that scientists should be aware of when making a decision to speak out" --
    "First, although scientists are not like every citizen, all citizens have the right to speak out. So if a scientist says that life on Earth evolved over billions of years, anyone else has the right to counter that view by expressing his or her belief in creationism" ~ And a scientist like me, independent of the consensus but with more knowledge, has the right to counter that both of those diametrically-opposed beliefs are in fact wrong, and that the public is not properly served by a war of equally false dogmas. But see above, about the treatment of dissenting scientists.
    "Second, when scientists speak out publicly, they will quickly learn that it is not just candidates for office who have their views scrutinized" ~ In my opinion, your article then loses focus, with you giving examples of the selectivity--read bias--of scientists in recent years, rather than examples of scientists having their views scrutinized (in the public debate, not just in your view, of their selectivity, in this article)
    "Scientists who take on politicians in the name of science risk being perceived as simply using science as a fig leaf of expertise to advance what ultimately are political preferences." ~ In my opinion, if the scientific truth supports a political preference, no one can complain; if the scientist puts out falsity as authoritative science (and this is the norm in recent years), then all hell should break loose upon him/her.

    And Robert Socolow's piece, on the same web page, is simply arrogant and incompetent.

  6. "Bill Clinton bombed a Middle East chemical factory based on supposed scientific proof that ultimately did not exist."

    The Al Shifa plant actual made pharmaceutical products, rather than "chemicals." It apparently mixed ingredients, then put the resulting products into individual packages. Apparently, the products included pharmaceuticals for both humans and animals.


  7. Hi Roger,

    Woohoo! It worked! ;-)

    Regarding the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant, two definitive pieces on it were:

    1) A report by ABC Medical Correspondent Dr. Timothy Johnson. Dr. Johnson personally conducted a complete tour of the facility, as I recall within 24-48 hours of the bombing. He found "blister packs" of medicines scattered on the floors, and hand-written order logs written in English. He noted that such records would be virtually impossible to fake.

    2) Seymour Hersh wrote a piece in the October 12, 1998 New Yorker titled, "The Missiles of August."

    Unfortunately, the Timothy Johnson report doesn't seem to be readily available, but here's a summary of the "Missiles of August" piece:


  8. I think your piece has the right tone for this forum, Roger. Scientists need to be very careful to keep the public onside. They also need to be very careful to keep their own house in order. Robert Socolow suggested that "Anyone working anywhere can overturn a prior consensus. Safeguards against human frailty take the form of countless processes that protect decision-making from being compromised by friendship, rivalry, and financial interest."

    I think this is well and truly over-egging the pudding. The small number of outright scientific fraud cases that have reached the public eye are just the tip of the iceberg. I read recently that the number of scientific papers being withdrawn has doubled in the past year, and that in confidential surveys 1-2% of scientists admitted to fabricating or doctoring evidence.

    Science should get its own house in order before trying to tell the rest of us what to do.

  9. The problem is the tin-earred, culturally insular modern academic culture. For all the talk of logic, method and discipline, there is a broad inability to separate positions resulting from empirical, logical necessity from those that emerge solely from the aesthetic and ideological preferences of the nation's most politically monotonic environment (the campus).

    And for all the talk of inclusion and diversity, the hatred of Western religious traditions is overt and palpable.

    Creationism (which I regard as more of a theological than empirical disaster) poses zero threat to the funding of any major university or research facility.

    In contrast, unscientific green hostility to GM crops, medical research testing and nuclear anything has real economic and political consequences for science, scientists and public policy.

    However, more ink and passion is spent in battles with the ghost of Bishop Wilberforce than against green idiocy. And that is irrefutable evidence that our scientific spokespersons are more likely to be interested in promoting a narrow, post-yuppie cultural and political aesthetic than in actual defense and advancement of scientific approaches to policy.

  10. I have a problem with the word 'scientist' itself. There is little resemblance between great minds like Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Bohm etc. and (for example) the small minds that some of the denizens of RealClimate appear to have.

    When the word 'scientist' is used, it conjures up decent honest individuals who are held to account by their peers in a genuine search for truth.

    Not employees under the control of their employer which more often than not has a vested interest. Namely American and EU governments. The majority of CRU funding comes direct from the EU.

    There are billions of dollars at stake in the global warming debate for the establishment / corporate side in carbon credits and carbon trading.

    Climate 'scientists' are political by their very employment.

  11. Socolow wrote: "Science is a process of searching, always incomplete. Its norms include strict evidentiary standards and transparency. Anyone working anywhere can overturn a prior consensus. Safeguards against human frailty take the form of countless processes that protect decision-making from being compromised by friendship, rivalry, and financial interest."


  12. Stan

    Richard Horton, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, has said that "The mistake, of course, is to have thought that peer review was any more than a crude means of discovering the acceptability — not the validity — of a new finding. Editors and scientists alike insist on the pivotal importance of peer review.

    We portray peer review to the public as a quasi-sacred process that helps to make science our most objective truth teller. But we know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong."


  13. IMNSHO the problem is that many scientists are "political idiots", in the sense that they understand nothing of politics and like the average guy, treat it as a spectator sport: complaining when the other squad breaks the rules, uttering not a pip when their squad does just the same.

  14. Robert Socolow, in his comments, assumed the skeptics and Rick Perry were wrong. He assumed the case was closed and not to question the results. He clearly is one of many main stream scientists with a strong background that has not closely followed the level of disagreement and quality of many of the skeptics argument. His attitude is an example of the problem, not the solution, and if the skeptics are proved reasonable by a dropping temperature over the next 10 to 20 years, where will the confidence in scientists go?

  15. In response to Socolow..

    "Rejection. More threatening than the distortion of science, however, is its rejection. At issue is whether the scientific way of knowing is privileged relative to other ways of knowing that are rooted in myth."

    I actually don't recognize the scientific enterprise I live with from his words.

    First, in my world, there is no one "science." That is a reification. There are a variety of social, physical and biological disciplines, which can be brought to bear on any societal problem and, for any real world problem, are in competition with each other for claim to the framing of the issue such that their expertise is the solution.

    In many cases, the counterpoint to "science" is not "myth" but rather real-world empirical observations, usually by various kinds of practitioners. This occurs in cases when scientific methods include modeling without independent empirical verification (asking Nature a question and not waiting around for an answer). People observing the natural world often have thoughts to share when model results turn out differently than observations. There is a practice of climate adaptation as well as an academic community, and clearly both should be able to give their opinions to policy-makers.

    If science is, as he later states, "a process of searching, always incomplete," then we should encourage questions and debate- I think the public interest and blogging around the "science" makes for a better, and stronger scientific process.

    Unless one's expectations of science are really that of a priesthood, and not a process.

  16. I think it's a good and thoughtful piece. One thing I would add is the culture of science is different from that of political discourse, and this often disorients scientists when they step over to the dark side.

  17. Kudos on a good article.
    An article worth writing would be in counterpoint to your excellent article:
    When scientists distort the political process.
    As to Socolow and the reactionary meme that he is pushing, he is making of himself a sad caricature.