Resurrection Science...

Olivia Judson blogs on the need to "restore science to government"

Published in the New York Times on December 7, 2008

Back to Reality

President-elect Obama already has a long to-do list. But here’s another item for it: to restore science in government.

The most notable characteristic of the Bush administration’s science policy has been the repeated distortion and suppression of scientific evidence in order to fit ideological preferences about how the world should be, rather than how it is.

In his disturbing book “Undermining Science: Suppression and Distortion in the Bush Administration,” the journalist Seth Shulman describes case after case of intimidation of scientists in government posts, the suppression of scientific evidence and the perpetuation of misinformation.

The fields affected range from climate change to public health. Although some incidents are small in and of themselves, the cumulative effect is horrifying. Shulman also catalogs a long list of established government scientists who, during the course of the Bush administration, resigned their posts in despair.

The distortion and suppression of science is dangerous, and not just because it means that public money gets wasted on programs, like abstinence-only sex “education” schemes, that do not work. It is dangerous because it is an assault on science itself, a method of thought and inquiry on which our modern civilization is based and which has been hugely successful as a way of acquiring knowledge that lets us transform our lives and the world around us. In many respects science has been the dominant force — for good and ill — that has transformed human lives over the past two centuries.

In schools, science is often taught as a body of knowledge — a set of facts and equations. But all that is just a consequence of scientific activity.

Science itself is something else, something both more profound and less tangible. It is an attitude, a stance towards measuring, evaluating and describing the world that is based on skepticism, investigation and evidence. The hallmark is curiosity; the aim, to see the world as it is. This is not an attitude restricted to scientists, but it is, I think, more common among them. And it is not something taught so much as acquired during a training in research or by keeping company with scientists.

Now, I don’t want to idealize this. To claim that scientists are free of bias, ambition or desires would be ridiculous. Everyone has pet ideas that they hope are right; and scientists are not famous for humility. (Think of the opening sentence of “The Double Helix,” James Watson’s account of his and Francis Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA: “I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood.” Those words could be said of many who have not gone on to win a Nobel prize.)

Moreover, to downplay evidence that doesn’t fit your ideas, and to place more weight on evidence that does — this is something that human brains just seem to do. Worse, such biases become stronger under certain circumstances.

For example, scientists in the pay of drug companies are more likely than independent scientists to find that a given drug has a beneficial effect, and less likely to discover that it is harmful. Sometimes, such discrepancies are actually fraudulent; but often, they are due to differences in interpreting a data set, or the ways in which experiments are designed. And there is certainly room for interpretation in the results of experiments: many experiments don’t give clear-cut results.

However, the beauty of the scientific approach is that even when individuals do succumb to bias or partiality, others can correct them using a framework of evidence that everyone broadly agrees on. (Admittedly, this can sometimes be a slow process.) But arguing over data is different from suppressing it. Or changing it. Or ignoring it. For these activities debase the whole enterprise and threaten its credibility. When data can’t be accessed or trusted, when “facts” are actually illusions — well, this threatens the nature of knowledge itself. And a society without knowledge is steering blind.

The rubbishing of science is far more serious than any particular decision over whether to fund research into stem cells, the sexual behavior of fruit flies or the quarks and quirks of particle physics. Undoing the damage of the past eight years may take another eight. But it must be done. We are probably one of the last generations that will be able to use our knowledge and methods to guide human civilization to a sustainable future. This is our time.

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For a damning account of the Bush Administration’s approach to science, see Shulman, S. 2008. “Undermining Science: Suppression and Distortion in the Bush Administration.” University of California Press. For a supplementary account, see Mooney, C. 2006. “The Republican War on Science (Revised and Updated).” Basic Books. For an astonishing account of how much money has been spent on abstinence only programs, and for evidence of their ineffectiveness, see Hampton, T. 2008. “Abstinence-only programs under fire.” Journal of the American Medical Association 299: 2013-2015.

For people being prone to downplay evidence that disagrees with their worldview, see chapter five of Fine, C. 2007. “A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives.” Icon Books. For scientists being as prone to this as anyone else, see Mahoney, M. J. 1977. “Publication prejudices: an experimental study of confirmatory bias in the peer review system.” Cognitive Therapy and Research 1: 161-175. For bias being worse when drug companies are funding research, see pages 48-51 of Tavris, C. and Aronson, E. 2007. “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)” Harcourt.

Thanks to Dan Haydon, Gideon Lichfield and Richard Reeve for insights, comments and suggestions.

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