Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The integrity of science; the integrity of its critics

Here's a video from the Daily Show that, not surprisingly, builds satire around a grain of truth.  But in this case, it's not clear if the Daily Show realized where the grains all lay.

The video wholly appropriately lampoons the Republican candidates---even for President, if you can believe the awful prospect!--for their extreme and wholly culpable ignorance.  One can ask if these people are even intelligent enough to spell 'Republican'.  Of course, the other party has its various demogogues and benighted figures as well, but they're not as flagrant at this particular time.

So let's ask some relevant questions.
  • Do scientists go after money for their research?  Absolutely
  • Do they try to manage things so the money flow increases, never stops?  Absolutely
  • Do they massage their data in ways that favor their theory, or prospects for future funding?  Routinely
  • Do they present their work in a way that maximizes the attention they get? Certainly
  • Are scientists greedy and money-seeking?  Often
  • Are they aware that they are dissembling the media and public?  The smart ones definitely are
  • Are they doing their jobs for the public good?  Some certainly do
  • Do scientists make mistakes?  Often (always?)
  • Are scientists wrong about their claims?  Almost always to some extent (we're human, after all)
  • Does 'peer review' effectively prevent mistakes or screen out bad theories?  Not very well
  • Does peer review put straight-jackets on what is 'acceptable'?  Routinely
  • Do scientists outright cheat?  Very rarely

Now, it would seem the height of hypocrisy for Republicans to play the J'Accuse role against the venality and greed of science when they are rarely deviating advocates of the rawest forms of wealth-accumulation and inequality, defenders of every corporate interest by systematically reducing oversight, allowing advertising claims, manipulating the media, and passing  laws favorable to private greed, and using every diversionary tactic to get voters to go along with it.  We could ask the above same kinds of questions of these politicians and those they represent.  Accurate answers would show them to be certainly no better than those they accuse.

So if the categorical slurs they make against science have some cogency, the attackers' bottom lines are ridiculously off-target and hypocritical.  Intelligent Republicans ought to repudiate these abuses, made in their name.  You don't have to be an atheist or even to accept ('believe in'?) evolution to see the repugnance of what they'll say in order to get elected (if you assume that at least some of them privately know better than what they say).

But no matter their political persuasion, everyone should recognize that each political party has had its overstated dogmas, and its times of rampant demagoguery--or maybe one could say there's some of it in every party all the time.  And science is no longer an arcane basement-lab kind of endeavor.  Even in the past it had its promoters, exaggerators, and, yes, charlatans.  We're in the middle class, we need to earn our living, there are lots of us, and we are simply a part of the same greedy, self-promoting (but occasionally kind, humble, and sharing) society that businesses, universities, and media of all sorts work in.  Science perhaps needs to be watched over,  constrained, or made accountable to societal concerns and for what it yields from its funding--just like industry does.

Science is a human and therefore fallible endeavor.  Things could be improved, and faults need to be resisted.   But it would take societal will to do that in serious ways, and that would require more humility by us, more patience by the public, better ethics by the media (including the advertising and PR megaliths), and better schools across the board.  Alternatively, some (especially scientists) argue, that despite our clay feet, in the end we achieve enough good to overcome our evils, that might be hard to purge in any case.

Despite our manifestly clay feet, science does systematically uncover and characterize individual facts about our world.  And even if it rarely if ever does so perfectly, it also discovers major, over-arching, systematic truths about the world, too.
  • Evolution happened, whether or not we understand all its causal details
  • Climate is changing, whether or not we understand all of the causal reasons
  • GM crops work in some ways, if not in all ways
  • Vaccines work, even if not 100% of the time
  • Tobacco kills
  • Planes fly, cars pollute less than they used to, and computers of all sorts do amazing things
  • And without science you'd not have a giant TV to watch the Republican know-nothing show
Unfortunately, all too often, demagoguery and ignorance work at least as well as truth.... If some accountability needs to be forthcoming, politicians should look inside themselves first.


n8craig said...


Anonymous said...

Well said! It really is ridiculous that the Republican candidates and all the people who go along with what they say don't realize how ridiculous they are! Scary really!