Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Hostile workplace.

Guest blogging over at Brian Leiter's blog, Jessica Wilson writes about just how bad things have gotten for government scientists since November 2000 or so. She includes some essential links, which I'll duplicate here since they're just that important:

2003 Waxman Report, "Politics and Science in the Bush Administration"
Survey of Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) scientists

And, if you cruise on over to the Government Reform Minority Office Politics & Science page, you'll find plenty more relevant links in the sidebar.

Long story short: Scientists in the government's employ have had their findings suppressed and distorted. The distortions and suppressions have tended either to be so "Science" seems to support, or at least not to undermine, administration policy initiatives; also, they've tended to be very pro-industry. The scientists in the government's employ (plus scientists in general) think the pervasive "political intervention to alter scientific results" is bogus.

Indeed, it would be bogus no matter what the political aims of an administration that interfered with science in the ways alleged. Completely bogus.

I can't help wondering, though, if these political efforts will be self-undermining. The reason to try to interfere with what the science says is that what the science says is taken to be important. If science says that we can drill in ANWAR and drive Hummers while doing no harm to the environment, then by golly we can! If science says that condom use is an effective way to stop the spread of HIV, then policies that discourage condom use are going to need to address this and provide some other justification.

But, if you screw with the science, and if scientists (and the public) notice that you're screwing with the science, then what the science says can't play the same justificatory role for your policies. Why should anyone care whether your bogus, in-house science seems to support your policy initiatives? It seems like it would matter more what real (independent) scientists have to say about the matter.

Suddenly, we're plunged into a world of the real scientists vs. the government scientists (which at this point is not what we've got -- there are lots of scientists working for the government who value their scientific integrity maybe more than their jobs, but if they all get fired ...). Everyone in the scientific community would know where to turn for objective scientific reports. That information would certainly get out to others.

Why, then, would the government even bother to keep their own stable of scientists (as opposed to, say, press release writers)?

By the same token, though, the government (via NSF and NIH and that crowd) funds an awful lot of science by folks who do not think of themselves as "government scientists". No reason to think that there might be more pressure brought to bear on these "independent" scientists to think of their results as "deliverables" that ought to be tailored to the needs of the funders.

Hard to imagine, in this nightmare scenario, that the real scientists would keep taking government funding. If they couldn't find some other source of funding that would let them do independent, objective science, it's easy to imagine them going someplace else where the climate for science is more favorable.

Then the government wouldn't have to worry about wasting its money supporting science that undermines policy initiatives. Heck, once the scientists have fled, science wouldn't even need to be a part of the debate. Just pure, unadulterated politics.

Of course, our economy will be just find without objective scientific research, so no worries. (C'mon, you're not telling me the people in charge would even think of doing something that could seriously harm the economy …)

UPDATE: Discussing Chris Mooney's book The Republican War on Science, Amanda Marcotte makes some very nice points about how this is all part of a larger war on reality. The killer point is that the war against science seems not to be one that can be won on ideas. Else, why not be open about saying, "Science sucks, theology rules, vote for us!"?

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