Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Professors on the take? Yes, but that's not the point!

Monday's op-ed column by economist Paul Krugman in the NY Times criticizes Republican presidential candidates for their anti-science policies, or should we say posturing.  The party is, incredibly, throwing up cretins as legitimate candidates for such a high office.  Apparently intentional ignorance, if it is not the demagoguery it seems to be, is what a substantial number of Americans want in their leaders.

These noble representatives of our enlightened populace are holding forth, as if they knew anything at all about the subject, against human-caused climate change and against evolution.  They misrepresent the evidence, which means they listen to advisers, since they are politicians rather than scientists, and can't be expected to do more than respect the evidence and ask responsible and knowledgeable people to explain it to them.

They use incomplete aspects of the evidence as if it meant that the overall evidence is wrong.  They don't question their own willingness to accept very incomplete evidence when it comes to subjects like economics and religion, because in all these cases they color their interpretations to serve their personal agendas.  As we've said in an earlier post, it is perfectly legitimate to say that we'll just ignore climate change because it let's us live our current lives, and let future generations deal with whatever their lives have to face.  And it's perfectly legitimate for them to say that they're unwilling to think about evolution, because prayer gives them a sense of comfort and order in the world, and that's enough for them.

But something else they do is quite wrong, even then.  As part of their purported argument against the evidence, Krugman notes that they argue that the scientists are in a sense in a cabal to perpetuate bad evidence because they're on the take--that is, they are at the  public funding trough and they want to stay there, indeed, to increase what's in the trough.

Of course scientists are, in this sense, on the take.  If we have to live on grants, we need grants.  If we believe in science or have to live on the public's belief in science, we have to tout our work and have to lobby for more funding.

We criticize genetics all the time for this kind of vested interest--in universities, in the media, and in corporate entities like Pharma.  It's something to be criticized for, but in a sense what should be changed (if possible) is the way things are funded.

The fact that we lobby for our interests does not, in itself, make our claims for our science wrong.  And the accusation that it does is what's wrong with the Republican anti-science movement.  Scientists will lobby for funds for correctly understood research as well as for incorrectly understood research.  If the Big R's of American politics want to oppose the science itself, and they can find legitimate grounds for doing that, it would be fair game.  But the accusation of vested interests, even if true, is an irrelevant red herring--and is being used by demagogues, not people sincerely concerned with leading  national policy appropriate to the facts of nature--or deciding to ignore the facts of nature.

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