Thursday, December 11, 2008

the gutting of science

I'm going to put on my scientist hat for this post. One of the things that has come up in many states and in the federal government is how to keep scientific progress moving forward with huge budget cuts. But there may be a more insidious problem that is "gutting" science.

With the current administration, there has been a movement away from a science policy that looks at data on how things really are. Instead science policy has been more aligned with fitting ideological preferences on how the world should be. There have been journalistic reports on intimidation of scientists in government posts, suppression of scientific evidence and perpetuation of misinformation.

There apparently isn't any field that has been spared. Everything from climate change to public health has seen a decline in funding and staffing. Many of the staff losses were those who resigned their posts in despair.

There was an excellent post entitled "Back to Reality" by Olivia Judson, in a blog in the NY Times. She indicates that the distortion and suppression of science is dangerous. It's dangerous because science is 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.

She points out that the facts and equations that are taught in schools are but a consequence of scientific activity. Science itself is something else. It encompasses a method for measuring, evaluating and describing events, the environment, and the world based on investigation and evidence. Scientists seek to understand how things really are, based on empirical observations, not on anecdotes or biases. To acquire such an attitude takes training and a desire to be unbiased--to let the data lead to results that can be discussed and presented for review.

I know that there are scientists here where I work and around the world who have bias, ambition and great egos. I think that it's the case that when one conducts an experiment or does a study, there is an idea that the null hypothesis will be refuted. And sometimes as Olivia Judson points out, erroneous conclusions are reached because 1) the study wasn't designed correctly, 2) the interpretation of the data is erroneous, or 3) the data are fraudulent.

But because of peer review and the scientific method, there is a framework within which the truth will eventually come forth. Scientists may argue over data, but to change data, ignore results, or limit access to the "truth" is dangerous and actually threatens the core of knowledge.

I hope that striving for the truth and to uncover facts will be something that scientists always do. And maybe we will be able to engender the trust of the public as we go about our work of discovery.


  1. There are many influences "dumbing us down". It is my hope that people will become more and more aware of this to the point where culturally , it will no longer be accepted out of apathy.jeNN

  2. I would like to share your faith that the truth will out. But 7 years after 9/11, various agencies are still trying to reach a concensus about what to do with ground zero. It has nothing to do with science, I know, but is symbolic of the inertia & bureaucracy that has frozen progress in this country.

  3. Wow, this is an appropo post, I work in higher education and the absolute loss of critical thinking in America is very sad and will not od us any good in the end, but with hope and some new resolve maybe things will change.

    thanks for this post Syd.

  4. Sweet, Syd. I'm proud to have read it. That is the very type of crap that brought the Nazi's to power. It is very scary stuff. I wish if would be written about more often and more public.

  5. I work with the health care industry getting help for the indigent elderly and the mentally ill. We are seeing government benefits tighten, facilities close or fill up to capacity with no new places in sight with insurance companies charging more and giving less. The Indigent Burial Program has gone from 50 a year to 15 a month with alcoholism, addiction and suicides increasing drastically. That's my report.

  6. Hey Syd, this all sounds well and good but how does this affect me and everyone else on this perfectly flat planet of ours? ~AR

  7. Under an Obama admin hopefully things will change. Sadly critical thinking has been dormant in the US for quite a least 8 years. The survival of our economy is dependent upon lots of other factors besides consumerism. Without an investment in education, science, and the arts a country can't expect to prosper. I think that Obama grasps the interconnectedness of these things but his challenges are great...however I believe we can expect progress if not perfection under this admin.

    Have you seen that Obama has set up a new site where you can pose questions to the transition team? It is

  8. Global warming, I reckon nature will probably have some mechanism to make it not as bad as predicted, well I hope so anyway.
    I was listening to this podcast the other night and it mentions this algae which gives out sulphur dioxide and this in turn seeds cloud formation.
    as the temperature increases the algae population increases making more sulphur dioxide meaning more clouds which cool the oceans maybe this is one of natures saviors?
    You know now I wish maybe I had been sane enough to build on my science degree but its easy to say "if only" in retrospect.
    Hey syd I keep asking you this as a scientist cos I cant find it on the net anywhere but is there a oxidising agent that can liberate fluorine from fluoride?
    I am just curious because redox tables always say fluorine is the strongest "common" oxidising agent?
    Oh yes Silly Season, its just a term people use in Yorkshire for christmas probably because people are more drunk and hence silly near christmas

  9. I'm definitely one for questioning things and searching for the truth. Too bad I was never very adept at science.I think my son may go that way, though.


Let me know what you think. I like reading what you have to say.