Sunday, December 17, 2006

Political Interference and Censorship in Science

A few days ago I read news of the Union of Concerned Scientists' protest against political interference in science and today I was confronted with news that reinforced my belief that their objections are well-founded. Recently the Bush Administration has tightened the publishing rules that scientists working at the U.S. Geological Survey are subject to.
    "The new requirements state that the USGS's communications office must be "alerted about information products containing high-visibility topics or topics of a policy-sensitive nature."


    The changes amount to an overhaul of commonly accepted procedures for all scientists, not just those in government, based on anonymous peer reviews. In that process, scientists critique each other's findings to determine whether they deserve to be published.

    From now on, USGS supervisors will demand to see the comments of outside peer reviewers' as well any exchanges between the scientists who are seeking to publish their findings and the reviewers. "
When people like myself say that this administration is hostile to science, this is exactly the sort of thing that we're talking about. This is important because we have scientists working in government for a good reason. On matters concerning the environment and public health, as well as other issues, understanding the facts of a situation is crucial to setting good, effective policy.

By intentionally limiting one important manner in which scientific progress and understanding is achieved for the sake of "harmonizing" the product of government research with various political positions (something that certain officials deny, but which is clearly the case if you read between the lines of their doublespeak) then as a rational person, you're forced to conclude that the only thing that can result is public policy that ignores the scientific evidence or is based on scientific evidence that has been doctored to reach certain predetermined conclusions.

Pretty clearly, this is going to result in bad policy, or at very least will stifle and delay the implementation of good policy.

This, as much as anything demonstrates the chilling cleverness that forces within and without the U.S. government are displaying in their ability to subvert the American people to get them to blindly support bad decision-making. The scientific process is corrupted, ironically, in the name of supposedly improving the accountability of their scientists. The quality of education received by students is compromised in the name of teaching children "both sides" of the evolution "debate". We let them get away with it because they're pretty good at coming up with arguments that sound OK on the face of it to your average person who lacks a fundamental understanding of science and the scientific process.

I haven't mentioned a lot of specific examples illustrating exactly how such interference is such a bad thing, because for one thing, I think it should be obvious, but for another, because there are so many different examples, that it's difficult to choose.

But to just pick one that relates a little to what I was talking about in my last journal entry about American agriculture, there is this instance of a scientist working for the USDA who complains that he was prohibited from publicizing the results of his research, which concerned the dangers of airborne bacteria resulting from farm waste. There is no good reason to suppress research on such a subject unless the administration fears what the information might do to people's perception of current agricultural policy. This is not the action of a government that is acting on behalf of the people, it is the action of a government acting on behalf of powerful special interests.

And that is what we call "corruption".

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