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May 06, 2013

Scientists, Politicizing Science

The problem with wanting government to be guided by science is that scientists, being human like the rest of us, have trouble rising above their own political bias:

... He also rattles off a list of anti-science Congressmen, all Republicans. Excluded from his list are the 53 Democratic Congressmen and Senators (compared to only two Republicans) who wrote a letter to the FDA demanding labels on genetically modified food. This policy position is in direct opposition to that held by organizations representing America’s finest scientists and doctors – the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the American Medical Association (AMA).

Plait also failed to mention the group of Democratic Congressmen who support a resolution proposing a new hypothesis about global warming: That climate change will cause an increase in the number of hookers around the globe.

Also AWOL from Plait’s list is Tom Harkin, the quack-loving, homeopathy-pushing Senator from Iowa who is responsible for helping legitimize alternative medicine. Such pseudoscientific voodoo has done more to harm average Americans than any misguided teachings on evolution or climate change.

Plait goes on to lament how scientific reports were censored in the “Bad Old Days” of the George W. Bush administration. He conveniently leaves out that the Obama Administration purposefully withheld information from scientists during the BP oil spill and doctored documents to make it appear as if scientists agreed with the drilling moratorium they implemented. And he did not mention that the Obama administration interfered with the FDA’s approval of genetically modified salmon.

The biggest bee in Plait’s bonnet was the latest bill proposed by Rep. Lamar Smith, which orders the National Science Foundation to only fund research which is in the national interest. This is a very bad idea for multiple reasons, and Plait is correct to call for its defeat.

But Plait’s characterization that “Smith wants politics to trump science” Soviet-style is absurd. The NSF’s mission is to promote science, engineering and technology. The fact that fields like psychology and sociology receive funding from the NSF means that politics has already trumped science. The NSF should never have gotten involved in social studies, especially political science, and Smith’s bill – while poorly thought-out – is almost certainly aimed at them.

Finally, at the end of the article, Plait makes something of a confession:

I know I focus a lot on these attacks coming from the far right—because that’s where the overwhelming majority originate—but in truth they’re coming from all directions, and it’s up to us to do something about it. [Emphasis added]

Wrong. Plait focuses on the far right because he is a partisan. He ignores the equally massive volume of anti-science garbage coming from the far left because he sympathizes with that side of the aisle. It is confirmation bias combined with motivated forgetting.

This is why many Americans find the media so infuriating. There is barely even a pretense of giving both sides of the story. Instead, the media is divided into ideological camps, and each side only tells half the truth.

Too funny. I don't blame scientists for falling victim to the entirely human bias we all struggle with. But a little more self awareness and humility wouldn't hurt.

Posted by Cassandra at May 6, 2013 08:18 AM

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"wanting government to be guided by science"

The most chilling words ever uttered.

Posted by: George Pal at May 6, 2013 10:11 AM

Reminds me of one of my favorite statistics maxims: "Figures don't lie, but liars do figure".

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at May 6, 2013 10:15 AM

What about Guam tipping over? And the end of helium balloons? This stuff is important, you right-wing extremists and idiots.

Posted by: Hank Johnson at May 6, 2013 11:32 AM


Posted by: Cass - Confirmation Bigot-in-Training at May 6, 2013 11:56 AM

I *do* blame people who claim to be 'scientists' for acting like Luddites and/or 'No Nothings.'

(full disclosure, my BS was Applied Science, and I'm a Navy Nuclear Engineer)

Posted by: CAPT Mike at May 6, 2013 09:58 PM

When I first started in scientific research one old timer told me, "seeking research funding is a cross between begging and prostitution."

To this day it still makes me laugh.

Posted by: Allen at May 7, 2013 10:51 PM