04 September 2005

Science and Politics in the NY Times Magazine

There's an interesting article in the New York Times Magazine today about politics and science. The article discusses possible reasons for why most (nearly all?) scientists think the Bush administration has done an abysmal job listening to and properly reacting to scientific developments and studies. It's probably a good factual review of several instances where science was suppressed/changed for political ends in the administration, and also a good description of John Marburger's role and why he thinks he's doing good for science.

Unfortunately, I think the writer missed the point. He focused nearly entirely on the way that scientific results are incorporated into reports and policy decisions. This is surely an important component of how the administration treats science, but it's not the whole story. What I think really upsets scientists---me included---about this administration is not the specific suppression of a study in an EPA report (though this is pretty bad); it's their seeming disregard for facts and reason and their willingness to take public positions in support of pseudo-scientific, ideologically driven theories. This complaint would be there even if they had never, ever, pressured an employee to change the mention of scientific results.

Several examples of what, generally, pisses scientists off:

  1. The president's stance on Creationism (aka Intelligent Design). I know that most of the country believes this, but I would hope that the president would want to lead the country, not follow it in its ignorance. (By the way, the article doesn't mention Creationism at all.)
  2. The president's position on climate change, and the response of the administration to the overwhelming scientific consensus that CO2 is causing global warming. (This is discussed in the article, but more from a point of view of suppressing the relevant information in EPA reports and whatnot.)
  3. The rationale for tax cuts in the face of growing deficits and no significant spending cuts. You can't have your missile-defense cake and eat it, too, people. This isn't science, but it's such a glaring stupidity that scientifically minded people can't help but notice it.
The common theme here is: the article focused on the details of policy---reports, committee selections, etc---but I think scientists are more interested in the projected public attitude of the administration. I think that most scientists would be willing to forgive some pretty big omissions and commissions on the details front if you didn't get the feeling that the people in change had wooden heads. I mean, if a guy really believes in Creationism and tells the public that it's on an equal scientific footing with evolution, does it really matter if he gets all the facts right in an EPA report? Admittedly, the public pronouncements of the President don't have as much of an immediate policy effect as the committee work and rules published by the agencies, but it's the public persona that people follow; Bush and the upper levels of the administration are basically telling the country that there's two worlds: the scientific, rational one and the one that does whatever you want. And you don't have to listen to the scientists because you can just live in the other world. That attitude does more damage than the specific examples in the article, and that's what really pisses scientists (well, at least me) off.

Update: I totally forgot about issues like AIDS in Africa, but it's another one. Again the message: it doesn't matter what you scientists discover about the best way to prevent AIDS---we don't have to listen to it. It's not getting the facts wrong; it's ignoring the facts you know to be true.

Update II: I didn't realize that this article was still available, or I would have linked to it above. Favorite quote (the article is by Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Suskind):

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency. The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''
Really! This kind of shit goes over like a lead balloon with physicists (and probably most other scientists, too). Again, the outrage isn't in the details---it's in the fundamental assumptions of the people in power.

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