Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Freeing Science from Politics - Nice Idea, but...

Chemical and Engineering News is reporting that 17 different US government agencies are releasing policies designed to protect the research within their agencies from political tampering.
"Policies aimed at protecting science from political interference have been finalized by 17 federal agencies three years after President Barack Obama called for reforms 'to restore science to its rightful place.'"
I am fully in support of such efforts, but I don't believe for a second that this will prevent any politician from politicizing science.

Science is a human effort. The experiments are designed by humans, executed by humans, analyzed by humans and interpreted by humans. After all this, the results are used by humans to achieve certain ends. And as well all know too well, humans are completely infallible beings of superior intelligence that are able to remove all irrational behavior from their beings, or at least when they are doing science [*].

While that last sentence is completely false, that is how much of the public views science - as a flawless activity that is never wrong. Yet we all know otherwise. The biggest weakness of science is near the end of the design/execute/analyze/interpret sequence is at the very end: interpretation of an experiment. Much effort has been devoted to removing human flaws from the first 3 steps, but that last step - interpretation - is, has been and probably always will be the weak link. Different people can honestly look at results in completely different ways. The peer-review process understands this. Reviewers seldom look at a paper with an eye towards questioning the integrity of the researcher - they are instead largely attempting to make sure that the interpretation provided can be supported by the evidence and that other interpretations are ruled out or at least considered.

Further, I also see the view of infallibility in science as an underlying assumption for these new regulations. "If only we would leave the scientists alone, then they could work without any external influence, and we would get the TRUE answers we seek." No. Such an environment will change nothing. Even after an un-influenced report is issued, the results can and will be rightfully challenged by any and all parties on the outside. This is how is how science works. This is how it should be.

While I generally am suspicious of the ability of politicians to legitimately questions scientific results, they will still be free to do so, and it really won't stop them from politicizing the results. Unlike scientists, politicians (at least at the national level) have little regards for facts and instead are looking to score points with constituents, voters and supporters so that they can get reelected. Sure that sounds like nothing more than over-the-top cynicism, but there is research to support it . With the internet, fact checking is easier than ever, but has that ever really stopped politicians from saying anything to get reelected? If anything, there are more lies being told than ever before. Politicians are going to keep politicizing science as long as there is something to be gained from it. The only way to prevent it is to keep the results secret and out of their hands, and that is completely unacceptable to all.

So while I support the new rules, the only positive outcome that I see will be that it should make life a little easier for the researchers as they shouldn't have such direct "concern" and "interest" and "tacit influence" over their work. Being a researcher myself, I can sympathize with them. But "restoring science to its rightful place"? Nope, ain't gonna happen.

[*]And since I'm laying it on really thick, let me further state that chemical engineers are paragons of this level of perfection, achieving levels that all others can't even dream of.


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Materialist said...

I think these standards will help protect science from politics, not because people will stop trying to mess with politicians, but because having a standard in place to deal with problems gives a less-politicized method of resolution.