Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The government and the scientists.

I'm on the wrong coast to attend this talk in DC tonight, but it promises to be interesting. Chris Mooney is a science writer, and the talk is titled “Abuses of Science in Politics and Journalism.” So, I imagine there are two main threads he'll take up:

  1. The ways appointments to "science panels" in various bits of the government bureaucracy have, it is reported by scientists, taken a turn for the political. Specifically, it has been said that scientists have been queried about who they voted for rather than about, say, their scientific qualifications. Given that scientists are pretty committed to to the idea that what they're doing in their scientific capacity ought to be guided by sound scientific methodology and empirical facts rather than by anyone's political agenda, you can see how the scientific community might not like this development. (While some political operatives have essentially responded, "Dude, the party in power gets to appoint who it wants," it does make you wonder why you would then label the panels resulting from such appointments scientific panels rather than "panels of our political allies who happen to be scientists.")
  2. The ways public controversies over such things as global warming and intelligent design theory are presented in the popular media. In particular, a number of scientists feel that certain public controversies have been presented as if they were raging scientific controversies, even when the scientific community has come as close as it ever does to reaching consensus. Why does this happen? Who in journalism school is telling the science writers of tomorrow that you must present both sides of each of these scientific controversies as if they had equal scientific standing? How on earth does this give the lay person good information -- information that they can trust when participating in public dialogue about important policies -- about what the scientists know?

Yes, as it turns out, I have a strong opinion or two about some of this stuff.

I don't think these issues about the relation between science and the government, and about the presentation of science to the public by journalists, are just about scientists maintaining relative autonomy while feeding at the public trough. There really is a concern that the government's efforts to control science to suit a particular political agenda will undermine the integrity of the scientific enterprise that labors under this control. Similarly, there is a worry that the false impression the public gets of science and the state of scientific knowledge due to shoddy science journalism will make the public more willing to let the government direct science in overtly political ways. To the extent that the public actually depends on good scientific knowledge from sound scientific research, this will be a Bad Thing for nearly everyone. (Maybe so much for the politicians in the short term, but I hold out the naive hope that their genetically-modified, bird-flu-laden chickens will come home to roost.)

I suspect a lot of scientists are actually kind of burned out on the extent to which PR plays a role in their being able to do their research, especially given the sorry state of public discourse lately. I think this is part of the explanation for the scientific boycott of hearings on intelligent design theory in Kansas. The Kansas State Board of Education is wrestling over the teaching of evolution and "alternatives" in biology classrooms. Again. (Dear Kansas BOE, Could you please stop recycling agendas from years past? It makes it very hard for doddering academics like me to keep track of what year it is. Love, Doctor Free-Ride)


Anyway, there's a hearing scheduled with a raft of supporters of IDT slated to testify. There are some scientists, but none has published any scientific research to support IDT. The scientific mainstream -- including the scientists from Kansas's six major universities -- has declined to participate, because they don't see this as a real scientific debate. Rather, it seems pretty clearly to be driven by the religious agenda of certain school board members, and the scientists don't really have the time for a religious debate. That is not what scientists do, at least not in their professional capacity.

It will be very interesting to see what the press makes of this supposed scientific hearing with no scientists. My cynical side worries that it will be spun as the scientists laying low because they know this evolution stuff is on shaky grounds. I hope the science writers bother to interview the scientists opting out of the show trial.

But I've survived a lot of shoddy science journalism of late, so I am not holding my breath.


At 7:12 PM, Blogger Laura said...

Interestingly, I'm doing a presentation on science blogging, mainly focused on the idea that scientists who blog can fill in some of the gaps in science journalism. And that scientists can debate issues like intelligent design in a way that they can't in their professional realm. Note that I am giving this talk to a bunch of scientists while not being a scientist myself. I just like science and feel that blogs are an especially useful source of information for me. I feel like I get the real story from blogs while the NYT leaves stuff out or treats the "other side" as an equal when it's not.

At 9:47 PM, Blogger Doctor Free-Ride, Ph.D. said...

I've been thinking lately about the role blogging might play (either already or sometime in the future) as a scientific communication, whether scientist-to-scientist or scientist-to-layperson. Certainly there are now blogs (like Panda's Thumb) where scientists (and others) talk about evolutionary theory and IDT -- but since they're high profile, they attract a lot of trollish comments. And I'm sure there are a bunch of insightful scientists with blogs that don't attract much traffic at all. I always feel good when I stumble onto one, and I suspect that in the long run keeping such a blog will help the scientists communicate more effectively with the public in other contexts, but I don't know how effective a counterbalance they are to crap science writing in the NYT.

Hope the presentation goes well!


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