Tuesday, July 05, 2005

LAT on "Science Fiction"

In an editorial Monday, the Los Angeles Times takes the Administration to task for several recent cases of rewriting scientific conclusions to suit a predetermined policy. The most recent example is the transformation of government scientists' conclusions that a new grazing policy would have "significant adverse effects" on wildlife and ecosystem health. In the final version of the report, that phrase was somehow morphed into "beneficial to animals." I discussed this case here, back on June 18.

Writes the LAT: "The Bush administration's efforts to undermine, ignore and edit scientific findings add up to something even more dismaying than the resulting poor public policy. It's bad enough to push an ill-considered idea - such as increasing budgets for abstinence-only sex education - despite studies that show the idea doesn't work. Even more disheartening is the rewriting and deletion of scientific truth. It damages the scientific disciplines that have held the rational pursuit of truth above all else and, in that pursuit, have produced technical and medical marvels. This country already faces unprecedented challenges to its scientific supremacy from India, China and Singapore. It's not going to help the nation's scientific prestige to downgrade the work U.S. experts do" [emphasis added].

If the grazing report were an isolated incident of this, it would still be wrong. But it's hardly an isolated incident. It comes, as the LAT notes, just a few weeks after a White House aide was found to have edited a report on global climate change, and several more examples are cited in the editorial. "These alterations of inconvenient fact have grown serious and pervasive enough that Congress should act to ensure that government research comes to public light, in its draft as well as final forms, and that government scientists are protected in their efforts to speak out," the LAT writes. I think that would be a more than fair step to take, although clearly free, fair and candid intra- and inter-agency debate over policy must be preserved, so that (in an ideal world) the best scientific result is what comes out in the final draft.

"If the administration wants to make industry-boosting federal policy, it should at least do so without the science fiction. Bush could have acknowledged that the grazing study found significant problems but said he felt the needs of a troubled industry outweighed those concerns - all without altering the findings. He would have been roundly criticized, but he will be anyway. The scientists would feel irrelevant, but at least they wouldn't see their hard-researched truths fall into a sinkhole of falsehood."

This I agree wholeheartedly with. If the Administration wants to disagree with science, or put industry ahead of it, they can do so. I'd rather them do that, and say they're doing it, than take the shady route and rewrite scientific findings to suit the conclusions. Operating this way makes it look like there's something wrong with the decisions that are being made. Imagine that.


At 1:59 PM, Blogger TNHegemon said...

It is just not that simple. “Scientific Truth” is a rare jewel to find. Jonathan Duffy, BBC Online reporter, explains this well in his piece, “Faking it: Where science goes wrong” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/290121.stm). Duffy points out that most, 90%, of what is printer in scientific research journals turns out to be “wrong”. This does not sound like “truth”. This is how science works, researcher after researcher constantly revisiting this issue or that. Sometime the original conclusions are supported, sometimes they are not.

Even Newton’s Laws of Motion are not exempted from the possibility that they may be wrong. Einstein proved this.

“Scientific Truth” is hard to find and almost impossible to prove. The system is just too large for us to completely understand.

I am not saying I have any real insight on the current debate concerning grazing, but the point I want to make is:

Be careful believing that anyone or any party has a complete understanding of “Scientific Truth”.

At 2:20 PM, Blogger JBD said...

Good point, TNH - scientific "truth" is indeed difficult if not impossible to attain. However, when a draft written by scientists concludes that a step would have "significant adverse effects" and then it appears in final form (after review not by other scientists but by those with a political stake in the decision) as saying "beneficial," there's a real problem. I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with scientific discussion and disagreement, but tossing politics into the mix at the scientific level isn't a good plan. If that's going to happen, as I said in the post, it needs to happen after the scientific information is out there.

At 3:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Certainly science is subject to mistakes, corrections, etc. But as a general rule, corrections occur when someone comes up with evidence which does not fit the established understanding.

Making "corrections" absent such evidence is not science. And wishful thinking based on what conclusions you would like is not evidence -- I wish I could get a snack from the kitchen just by thinking about it, but my wished-for telekentic powers are simply not supported by any evidence.

At 10:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It would not surprise me if it turns out smoking is good for you.

At 11:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The users of medical marijuana think it does.

At 12:37 PM, Blogger Walter E. Wallis said...

In this grazing thing, I believe that some of the angst is for the loss of graze to wild horses. You know, those good old native american wild horses, the weeds in the prairie garden. Kinda like the "Native American Burro" who has almost eaten the desert bighorn out of house and home.


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