18 February 2011


Yesterday in Washington, DC I participated on a panel on science and politics in a pre-AAAS workshop on "Responsible Research Practices in a Changing Research Environment."  Also on the panel was former Congressman Bill Foster, of Illinois, one of three PhD scientists in the last Congress. He lost his seat in 2010 to a "Sarah Palin-supported Tea Party candidate."  Foster is presently engaged in a worthwhile effort seeking to start up a political action committee -- Albert's List -- to get more scientists to run for office.  Here I focus on an interesting aspect of Foster's presentation at the AAAS workshop yesterday.

In his short presentation, he explained that politicians often look to experts to provide information that is useful in advancing their agenda, typically information that can be conveyed in SOUNDBITE fashion.  He explained that scientists should expect that the information that they bring to the political process, such as through testimony before congressional committees, will inevitably be "distorted" in the political process.

He then raised what he called "a difficult ethical question" -- if a scientist knows that their message will be distorted in the political process, to what degree should s/he predistort their message in hopes that what comes out the other end is a closer approximation to reality?  Foster cited as an analogy cheap earphones that achieve high quality through software that counterbalances distortion. Foster warned that such predistorion might be "heading down a slippery slope" but he was fairly ambiguous about the tactic.

I am not so much interested in Foster's views on the subject than I am the concept, which I think is very useful for helping to raise issues that often come up at the messy interface of science and politics. Longtime readers will probably guess that I am no fan of predistortion, and in fact, I think it is an enormously problematic practice for various parts of the science community today.

The way to deal with distortion in the political process is not through counterbalancing distortion, but through effective science institutions that can serve as trusted arbiters of knowledge and honest brokers of policy alternatives.  What do you think?  Is predistorion sometimes a justifiable practice from our experts?