20 October 2011

See No Evil

Why have a number of areas of US science become so politicized?

One answer to this question is that those concerned about science in politics have ceded discussion of issues of science policy to the most overtly partisan, many of whom see science as nothing more than a convenient tool to extract political advantage. This dynamic manifests itself in the overwhelming selectivity of attention among those who purport to be concerned about science in politics.

Consider a few examples:

Remember when James Hansen was told that his access to the media would be limited and controlled by minders at NASA?  Of course you do. It has been a talking point for years.

But what about when the Obama Administration recently muzzled scientists and other officials at the Department of Health and Human Services? If you frequent the science corner of the blogosphere you might have missed it (though if you visit the conservative-o-sphere you may have seen it).  Here is what one long-time journalist said about the policy:
The new formal HHS Guidelines on the Provision of Information to the News Media represent, to this 36-year veteran of reporting FDA news, a Soviet-style power-grab. By requiring all HHS employees to arrange their information-sharing with news media through their agency press office, HHS has formalized a creeping information-control mechanism that informally began during the Clinton Administration and was accelerated by the Bush and Obama administrations.
AAAS? Chris Mooney? Crickets.

Remember when the Bush Administration was accused of couching its ideological preferences in the name of science in order to prohibit research on stem cells?  Well, of course you do.

But what about the Obama Administration's hiding its decision to close Yucca Mountain behind science?  As President Obama's spokesman explained:
"I think what has taken Yucca Mountain off the table in terms of a long-term solution for a repository for our nuclear waste is the science. The science ought to make these decisions."
Of course, the science. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists hints there may be more than just science at play:
In 2002 the Energy Secretary issued a formal finding of Yucca Mountain's scientific suitability, but the White House press corps didn't question Gibbs on what  "science" he was talking about. Instead, most coverage focused on Obama's ties to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, an Obama supporter who was heading into a tough re-election campaign in a state where there is widespread public opposition to Yucca Mountain. With the stroke of a pen, the president leveled a mountain of research that had taken 20 years and $10 billion to build.
Defenders of scientific integrity? Silence.

Remember when Congressman Henry Waxman compiled a laundry list of examples where Bush Administration had violated standards of scientific integrity?  Yes, yes, I know you do.

Well just today Senator David Vitter and two colleagues compiled their own list of alleged transgressions of scientific integrity by the Obama Administration and fired it off to John Holdren, the president's science advisor, demanding a response to a long list of questions.

I received a copy of the letter by email. The only media coverage that I am aware of is Fox News, who have their own agenda.

Science bloggers? AGU?  Nothing.

Among those in the scientific community and those who like to pal around with the scientific community, the selective ignorance of issues associated with scientific integrity fits politics as usual, but ultimately will only reinforce the pathological politicization of science. Of course, many scientists and scientific organizations are willing to allow science to be used in this instrumental fashion because their own political preferences align with those who are exploiting them.

As I have long argued the issues raised by the Bush Administration's and now the Obama Administration's ham-handed efforts at the intersection of science and politics do not have a partisan solution. Rather, they involve mundane, messy and complicated issues of bureaucracy, governance, and accountability -- policy rather than politics.

Those who seek to extract partisan advantage from debates involving science are not really friends of science. The politicization of science will not improve until the scientific community itself takes charge of this issue and returns it to the realm of science policy rather than partisan politics.

18 comments:

n.n said...

Competing interests (including individuals) will always have their bias. The best we can hope is that they will not prematurely quell dissent, especially through the very effective tactics of appeals to emotion, authority, or consensus.

We should be especially wary of efforts to control dissemination of public information by authoritarian interests. Especially that which does not bear implications for the security of our nation.

That said, do you think embryonic or fetal stem cell therapy will ever be viable, or will adult stem cell (extracted from the patient) therapy continue to prove effective? It seems the former has some extraordinary hurdles to overcome, including: rejection, uncontrolled division, etc. From my last review, we still do not understand the process which directs differentiation.

Sharon F. said...

Was there a link to the letter in your post, Roger? Somehow I missed it...

Harry Dale Huffman said...

My factual disproof of the greenhouse effect should have swept through all of science like a sudden religious experience, sweeping the politicized climate debates away in a cleansing flood. In fact, that disproof should have been identified and made the foundation of a true climate consensus 20 years ago. My point is, if science were healthy, it would not, could not, be politicized. It is not healthy, it is riddled with empty dogma. It stopped advancing, long ago; it is now largely fighting over the meatless bones of old, entrenched ideas that are but speculations piled upon unsupported assumptions, that most scientists can no longer distinguish from the real natural laws at work. It is incompetent, in fundamentals and therefore in the larger picture. The whole enterprise hangs by a thread, the thread of its false pride in itself. I think you should put the caption "Academic Scientists"--or more correctly, "All Of Our Scientific Institutions"--on that picture of the three monkeys (and name some names, of "those concerned about science in politics [who] have ceded discussion of issues of science policy to the most overtly partisan"). Science needs to throw Hansen, Trenberth, Mann, Schmidt, etc. out of science, along with their ardent defenders--or simply accept that the greenhouse effect has been disproved, and move past their nightmare scenarios. And the people need to impeach Obama, not just vote him out, for his repeated autocratic abuse of his position--or simply stop listening to him, and move past his personal need to be important. The same can (and should) be said of Darwin and the ardent followers of the now-stifling paradigm he brought forth. Science needs to determinedly slug its way out of its present feverish dreams, and regain its cool detachment from dogma, if it wants to rid itself of politicization.

stan said...

Roger,

But there is a big difference between the Democrats and the GOP when it comes to ideological control of "science". Democrats are sugar and spice and everything nice. When they make a decision it is only for good, moral reasons. Republicans are hate-filled, mean-spirited, racist, sexist, homophobes. When these bitter clingers make a decision it is only for evil reasons.

Scientists know all this. Because they're smarter than everyone else.

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

-2-Sharon F.

There is now .. Thx

Jacob B said...

Wow. Why has this blog become so partisan?

"One answer to this question is that those concerned about science in politics have ceded discussion of issues of science policy to the most overtly partisan, many of whom see science as nothing more than a convenient tool to extract political advantage."

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

-6-Jacob B

Please help me, which political party is this blog now cheering for? ;-)

Jacob B said...

I don't see much partisan cheering from you Roger, but the comments on this blog seem to be bringing out some heavily partisan comments from the Tea/Libertarian Party. Interested to hear if you agree with this and what your thoughts are? Nothing against you but it just struck me how accurately the statement quoted above seems to fit with the discourse on this blog.

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

-6-Jacob B

Welcome to the blogosphere ;-)

John said...

"Why have a number of areas of US science become so politicized?"
Which century are you examining? My fair Commonwealth embraced a murderous fad, masquerading as science, early in the past century. Lobotomies, sterilization, Social Workers taking children from their home: I am most familiar with traditions in the Old Dominion; certainly my forebears were not first to apply 'modern' thought to governance.
Every citizen should apply his skills to contemporary problems. Humble 'experts:' "Beware: your testimony deserves rigorous scrutiny."

hro001 said...

"Those who seek to extract partisan advantage from debates involving science are not really friends of science."

Strongly agree! But ...

"The politicization of science will not improve until the scientific community itself takes charge of this issue and returns it to the realm of science policy[...]"

IMHO, venture into the real of "science policy", on the part of (some very vocal members of) the scientific community, was the first mis-step that led them down the garden path to (activism, advocacy and) partisanship.

My recommendation would be that the scientific community needs to ensure that there is a return to the realm of (pre-post-normal) science. And leave the "policy" to the policymakers!

TheTracker said...

"But what about when the Obama Administration recently muzzled scientists and other officials at the Department of Health and Human Services?"

Sounds bad. So what do the new guidelines actually say?

To honor this commitment, HHS expects its employees to abide by the following set of core communications principles:

Be honest and accurate in all communications

Honor publication embargoes

Respond promptly to media requests and respect media deadlines

Act promptly to correct the record or erroneous information, when appropriate

Promote the free flow of scientific and technical information

Promote plain writing of media documents and releases

Create greatest transparency possible through distributing information timely and widely through internet, email, media wires, and other mechanisms

Protect confidential, classified, and non-public information


The horror . . . I had no idea . . . the horror.

Mark said...

I don't see much partisan cheering from you Roger, but the comments on this blog seem to be bringing out some heavily partisan comments from the Tea/Libertarian Party.

What about from those on the left, like me. But you don't notice those? Confirmation bias is a bitch.

That is, in fact, what Roger is pointing out in his article. Some people only notice constraints on science when it comes from the opposite political side.

Roget points out that science is also limited by Obama, and you go off on a rant about how political the posting is!

Frontiers of Faith and Science said...

Jacob B seems to think telling the truth is partisan.
How disturbingly unsurprising.

Jacob B said...

My point was that the discussion in the comments on this blog have been ceded to the most partisan posters (particularly those from the right)- just as the political discourse has been ceded to the most partisan politicians.

Mark B- For confirmation bias to work against my point we would need to agree that comments in general on this blog are not overtly partisan and do not lean toward the right. These are two things that I do not believe to be the case- do you? Roger- Do you have any thoughts on this- You're in a better position than anyone to make this call.

FFS seems to think that the truth he supports is not from a partisan position, where partisan is "a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause, or person; especially : one exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance." Maybe I'm missing you but to classify the comments that lean right as "the truth" is the very definition of partisan.

dljvjbsl said...

Isn't the primary problem with all of this is that each side thinks that their position is the "truth" as opposed to the self-serving bias of the other.

Each side appeals to unerring science to justify their own views

Abdul Abulbul Amir said...

.

Part of the problem is funding. Large parts of scientific research funding is directed by a political process. The decisions in a political process are made using political not scientific criteria.

The public is well aware of this as it is also aware that a large fraction of politicians are predisposes to be in favor of any solution to any problem that involves more control by politicians or more tax revenue for those politicians to distribute to their favored constituencies.

.

Charlie Martin said...

Hm. Apparently Fox News has an agenda, but from "Science bloggers? AGU? Nothing." one might infer they don't.

On the other hand, the obvious inference from the examples might be that both sides have an agenda.

JacobB@#15 -- I think the comments here have largely been ceded to the people who comment.

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