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Politicians and scientists should try a loveless marriage

Fri, Mar 9th, 2007
Posted in Commentary

The current administration has been, according to observers grounded in science, the most hostile and dismissive administration toward science and scientists ever. The Union of Concerned Scientists has catalogued the egregious episodes of ideological interference. The list of the destructive and inappropriate policies and behaviors makes one believe this must be a conscious assault on science. That may not be the case. It may be both scientific illiteracy and ideology that has led the country down this path. Some can be laid at the feet of scientists as well.

In the former case, James Inhofe, a senator from Oklahoma, believes global warming is a conspiracy by hundreds of climate scientists in order to obtain funding for their research. How nearly 2500 scientists have kept this conspiracy secret all this time without one leak he doesn't explain. Since there has been a reduction in federal funding for climate science the conspiracy is not doing so well. He referred to the discredited fiction by Michael Crichton as art imitating life.

Our own former representative, Gil Gutnecht, wrote a letter to the head of the federal Health and Human Services in 1995 claiming there was no evidence that the Human Immunovirus was responsible for AIDS. This was 10 years after this was settled science and 12 years after the virus was cultured from victims of the disease. Gutnecht, a member of the House Science Committee, threatened to push for hearings in his committee if government scientists continued to follow main stream science on AIDs.

These two are living proof political ideology in scientifically illiterate politicians can be dangerous. Either there is no mechanism or no effective mechanism for politicians to obtain non-partisan scientific information or beliefs are more persuasive than science for these examples. Since they "work" just a few days per week (except for fund raising), perhaps sloth also is operative.

Scientists, on the other hand, must accept some responsibility for politicians and the public not understanding and accepting science responsibly. Many non-scientists and some semi-scientific literates think of science as facts and truth written in indestructible stone. It is not.

Part of the problem between scientists, the public, and policymakers may be something simple, like terminology. Theory is a good example. To the public and most policy makers a theory is a guess, an estimate, or postulate. To a scientist, a theory is a collection of facts concerning a collection of postulates that is the best explanation possible to explain a phenomenon. To be scientific, all facts must be reported, all known shortcomings discussed, all experiments included, all experiments repeated by various investigators resulting in the same facts and data, and conclusions must be appropriate to the data. Most importantly, you must be able to disprove the theory by finding new facts and data pertinent to the problem. There are physicists right now trying to disprove Einstein's theory of relativity and special relativity. There are those who think Einstein disproved Newton's laws of physics and others who think he just expanded them. The germ theory of infection from Koch could be said to be under assault with the finding of the prions of mad cow disease.

Science is a living, evolving collection of knowledge that is science only because it can be disproved. Uncertainty will never be completely removed from any scientific work. Policy changes cannot, reasonably, be held in abeyance until all uncertainty is removed. As Rumsfeld would say "there are known unknowns and there are unknown unknowns" in science. It is likely there are more unknown unknowns than known unknowns.

Good science is a redundant phrase. Whenever you see or hear this phrase be very suspicious. It is likely the person writing or saying this is not a scientist or someone on the fringe of a scientific controversy. It is either science or it is not science.

The interface between science and political policies will become more and more complicated as our knowledge expands. Science is likely to effect political policy more often as knowledge increases.

Policy makers are unlikely to become more scientifically trained. Scientists are just as unlikely to become more politically astute. The abrasiveness between them is likely to increase unless they both understand and accept the importance of the other. It is incumbent on each to communicate in an understandable way with the other. The scientist must not hide in the lab and be above it all. The policy makers must find a way to develop scientific consensus panels to instruct them that are above partisanship. Approached as a loveless marriage, the best to be expected would be trust and effectiveness, but, as in any marriage, it will require constant effort and compromise.

Dr. Robert Sauer lives in Preston. He can be contacted at r.sauer@mchsi.com

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