Thursday, October 05, 2006

A Science Shakedown Operation

Noah is annoyed with a post on the Cato at Liberty Blog by Jerry Taylor about a new political watchdog group called the Scientists and Engineers for America(SEA). Noah's complaint, if I can take the liberty of distilling it down, is that Taylor simply fails to make his case that there is any cause for sneering. (Taylor is a to put it?...skeptical of the new group's motives and sincerity.) And on that point I couldn't agree more. The post by Taylor that Noah links is mostly useless, and Taylor's own link to his earlier article on Global Warming completely so. Taylor's "argument," if I can call it that, depends entirely on shared assumptions with his readers about the motives of scientists who criticize the Bush Administration on - well, he doesn't say it directly, but one gets the impression he means - climate change policy. In other words, he present no real case and wouldn't convince anyone who didn't already agree with him.

Well, I think I can do better. Like Noah, I had a look at the website in question (and, full disclosure here, I am one of Taylor's readers who shares his assumptions about the pro-Kyoto crowd), but I didn't come to the same conclusion that it deserves the benefit of the doubt:

Noah writes:

While [Taylor] undoubtedly has reason to be skeptical - many, many academics, scientists included, are, in fact, far left - it is entirely reasonable for a nonpartisan group to pay special attention to the Bush administration's policies. After all, Bush is in the fifth year of his presidency. It would make little sense for such an organization to focus primarily on the policies of former administrations.

Surely there are no grounds for disagreement that in terms of presidential administrations it is reasonable for a putatively non-partisan group to focus on the policies of the current one. But that doesn't seem to be what's going on here. Noah missed this line from the foundational entry on their blog:

Over the last several years, scientists have come under political assault and the integrity of science has been compromised. The attacks have ranged from White House rewriting an Environmental Protection Agency report on global warming, to veto of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, to the promotion of intelligent design to disseminating inaccurate scientific information on federal websites.

Clearly, they have singled out the Bush Administration. It isn't, in other words, a perfectly "reasonable" focus on the policies of the Administration that happens to be in power, it is a specific focus on this one in particular.

Even without this statement, though, we would have cause to be skeptical, and that's because science policy in this country isn't decided exclusively by the sitting administration. In a Westminister system like Canada or the UK it might make sense to single out the current Government, since the Prime Minister automatically enjoys a majority in Commons. But power in the United States is not so centralized. Most things in this country are done by compromise and committee. A Republican president cannot count on his Republican majority in Congress to back him on everything; bills that get passed usually only do so with a large amount of negotiation and compromise with members of the opposition. This group is positively KIDDING ITSELF if it thinks that only what the Administration thinks about science is relevant. As a simple example, a large amount of the environmental pork in Bush's "energy" bill came from addons from Democrats buying the votes of their corn-growing constituents with promises to make a transition to ethanol. This despite the fact that there isn't a shred of scientific evidence to suggest that such a move would be in any way economical. Somehow, this doesn't make SEA's radar - because, you see, only the President makes science policy. Give me a break. Either this group has a hardon for the sticking it to the Bushies, or they're so incredibly ignorant about the way politics work in this country that no one should take their opinions on the subject seriously anyway.

Next, a look at the categories listed for their blog should give pause. They are: Education, Election News, Energy, Environment, Evolution, General, Global Warming, National Security, Politics, Scientific Inquiry, SEA News. There are several red flags here. First, we get "Environment" and "Global Warming" as separate categories. That automatically betrays a certain commitment to the idea that Global Warming is a serious policy concern. It isn't a slam-dunk case, of course, but I'm betting good money these people are Kyoto supporters. Second, "Evolution" gets a category. I'm on record saying that focusing on this is a screwed-up priority, so I will leave the reader to access that link. Third, it isn't at all clear that "National Security" has much to do with science policy. The only real accuracy issue I can think of off the top of my head would be missile defense. And of course, that is a Bush-specific policy. Fourth, a lot of seemingly obvious categories are missing. There is nothing on drug approval and the FDA, for example, nothing on NASA and space, nothing on Natural Disasters, nothing on Medical research, etc. In short, this looks to me like a list of concerns tailored to points on which the Bush Administration specifically is likely to appear weak - at least to their scientist readers. What it is not is a general survey of scientific accuracy in all applicable areas where government policies are based on scientific work.

Another thing conspicuously missing from their site is any detailed description of the methodology they intend to employ. As anyone who has worked in the scientific community will no doubt appreciate - what counts as "accurate" is largely in the eye of the beholder. Points that are of vital importance to some researchers matter little to others. Two pieces of research may be perfectly compatible with one another, but because of theoretical committments, the authors of each paper will reject the other, etc. Now, this obviously doesn't mean to say that there aren't some clear cases of ignoring evidence that might need to be policed. I'm just saying that getting a group of scientists to agree on whether or not something is "accurate" or "true to science" is a herculean task. What I would expect to see, therefore, from a group such as this is some set of standards for what it means to them to say that something is "inaccurate." For example, they could establish that a vote of 70% of their members is required, or that any two from a list of common fallacies counts, or something. But these "scientists" haven't wasted time with such "trivial" details as methodology. Which I would expect from certain kinds of public policy interest groups - but c'mon, scientists who publish for peer-reviewed journals should really know better! This is a huge red flag for me.

As a final point, I'd like to get away from the specifics of this group and just say that I think Taylor is right that we need to be automatically skeptical of any group of scientists who undertake to review government policy on science because there's an unavoidable conflict of interest here. Many scientists depend on government money for their research. A group which represents their interests is hardly likely to ever recommend anything other than that government needs to fund more research. It's a bit like appointing a panel of nothing but Gender Studies professors to review their university's gender equality policies. Such a panel will only ever find that equality problems exist, requiring ever more surveys conducted by ever more Gender Studies professors, etc. Further, I think everyone can agree that science itself does not and should not decide public policy. It can advise public policy, but there are other considerations that go into these things. This is especially conspicuous involving issues like Global Warming. A strong majority of researchers agree that the Earth is warming. But this has little to say about what should be done about it - and that's because any policy proposed will involve economic tradeoffs. Which policies are clearly inadvisable is something scientists might be able to tell us (on the grounds that they wouldn't work, etc.). But which policies are best for society is not a question for scientists. The job of climatologists is just to supply the relevant data - and then the community of citizens (or, rather, their representatives) decides how far they are willing to sacrifice (or if, indeed, it is worth it to them to sacrifice at all) to deal with the problem as represented by the data. It is not the job of scientists to plan policy, so we must really be skeptical of scientists who seek to review how science is used in policy planning. Again, just so that I'm not misunderstood - I agree that there are times when scientists can say without qualification that this or that politician is misrepresenting established scientific consensus or ignoring relevant data. All I'm saying here is that we ought to be skeptical of groups of scientists who take too much of a political interest. It isn't to say we should automatically ignore them, just that we're justified in being suspicious.

Now, that said, Taylor's article on this was pretty bad and raised almost none of these points. It's hard to see what he wrote as anything other than some pretty lazy axe-grinding. I hope that the points in this post have done a better job of explaining why the creation of this group is indeed suspicious and should be treated with a certain amount of skepticism.


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