Saturday, January 07, 2006

Is science hopelessly politicized?

Reasononline’s science correspondent Ronald Bailey’s Jan. 6 post revisits the issue of objectivity/politicization in science, asking: “Has science become politicized? A better question might be: When has it ever not been?” He sees no way out of the current situation where funding sources – both industry and government – seem to bias “scientific” conclusions. He continues:

“Surveys of studies show that scientific reports sponsored by drug companies generally find the supporting company's drugs to be safe and efficacious, whereas independent studies often do not. Interestingly, studies supported by the $132 billion in federal research and development expenditures rarely occasion such scrutiny. Perhaps that's because they are generally above reproach. But it is also true that most academic research is funded by government agencies and it will not help a scientist's career to bite the federal hand that feeds him and his postdocs. I also suspect that most agency funded research generally finds that what the agency guesses is a problem turns out to be a problem.

“In a liberal secular society in which traditional sources of authority—the Church and the State—have eroded, science stands the ultimate arbiter of truth. So, both the right and the left loudly seek to claim that scientific findings justify their political goals. “Not surprisingly, when a scientific finding doesn't support their policies or programs, both sides suspect that it has been "politicized." In this case, "politicized" means disagrees with what we good people want. Naturally to prevent politicization, both Republicans and Democrats have sought to legislate scientific objectivity.”

Bailey then concludes.
“What these efforts to legislate scientific objectivity really point up is that science, as the chief arbiter of truth in our society, will remain unavoidably enmeshed in politics. The government official who ordered the ban on DDT despite the scientific evidence for its safety, William Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the EPA, brought admirable clarity to the issue. In 1979, Ruckelshaus wrote to Allan Grant, president of American Farm Bureau Federation president, stating, "Decisions by the government involving the use of toxic substances are political with a small 'p.' The ultimate judgment remains political." What was true for the EPA in 1972, is even more true for federal agencies today. The science wars are here to stay.”
Who’s to say Bailey’s wrong? I hope we never entirely replace our healthy skepticism with a crusty cynicism that forecloses a healthier outcome for our polity. As I blogged earlier, the objective criteria of good science termed “evidence-based medicine” by scientists united in the Cochrane Collaboration seem, to me at least, to offer hope. The concept is that the rules of the game are set out before the evidence itself is assessed – sort of like an election where we agree to accept the outcome because we know the process itself has integrity (or at least it does in Baghdad if not Broward).

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