Friday, September 23, 2005

Anti-science chickens coming home to roost.

Remember when I was worrying about the government's relations with science? How I thought government interference with scientists and their results might undermine the ability for the government to actually produce science that anyone can trust?

We may be on our way, folks.

In a story this afternoon on The California Report (sorry, no permalink -- it's the first story in the September 23 archive), it was reported that the U.S. Department of Education is withholding a study on bilingual education. It only took three years and a couple million dollars to do the study, so no big deal. As the description of the story puts it, "Officials say the research failed to meet standards for quality. But skeptics question whether the decision is politically motivated."

See what happens? You get a reputation for trying to thwart the release of scientific results that go against your policy objectives (or, say, those of your big donors). Then, if you withhold a study whose results might have implications for your policy objectives, people will see this as business as usual. Even if there are actually valid scientific reasons for rejecting the study, no one is going to believe you didn't make them up. Which means, of course, that folks will be suspicious as well if a better version of the study comes out and happens to support the position you (or your donors) prefer.

Dr. Free-Ride's Better Half views this as a little victory for the cynical enemies of science. They've got things to the point that a piece of science produced under the government's auspices can be dismissed out of hand regardless of its actual scientific merit or shortcomings. And from there, it's not such a stretch to cutting science out of the public policy dialogue altogether.

I'm a little less negative about this. For one thing, science not done under the government's auspices can still hold its own under scrutiny. For another, it's not obvious to me that the public ends up agreeing that the science doesn't matter. If there were a serious politically motivated effort to withhold a scientific study, wouldn't that indicate that the pols were scared of the science? Wouldn't that be a clue that they knew, deep down, that the science should matter in the public policy dialogue?

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