Smeared Science

A doctor walks into his practice’s waiting room and finds a man who tells him, “Doc, I have shingles.”

The doctor replies, “Shingles is a serious condition, but I know how to treat it.” And without performing any physical examination, ordering any diagnostic tests, or asking any questions to prepare a preliminary case history, the doctor starts writing prescriptions. The list includes antivirals, pain killers and the best balms and salves the pharmaceutical arts can offer. The doctor hands the prescriptions to the man and says “use these to fix the problem.”

The man takes the prescriptions, scratches his head and says, “Uh, okay, if you say so, I’ll use these to fix the problem. But what do you want me to do with the shingles?”

Now the doctor is confused. “Shingles? What do you mean what should you do with the shingles?”

“The shingles in my truck,” says the man. “I’m here to fix your roof.”

There’s an alarming and increasing number of elected officials who remind me of that doctor. These are lawmakers offering policy prescriptions without fully understanding the issue at hand and having only a dim grasp of how the solutions they are so eager to implement actually relate to the problem. They can often be spotted by their fondness for the phrase “I’m not a scientist, but …” What follows is usually the sort of twaddle that not only convincingly confirms the lack of lab coat cred, but also hints at a deep commitment to abetting alternative-fact moonbeam production. So in that spirit, let me just say that I’m not a phrenologist, but I’m pretty sure the knots on the lumpy heads blathering such babble and balderdash are not there to increase grey matter carrying capacity.

I’m not sure exactly when it became respectable to be anti-science, but boffin bashing has definitely gone mainstream. While America has always taken a perverse pride in its anti-intellectualism, just lately things seem to have progressed from needling the nerds to actively hunting them down. They once roamed across our social landscape in their thousands, rattling their horn rims, fiddling with slide rules, and engaging in arcane mating rituals involving hot Bunsen burners and flashy pocket protecter displays (a lot of scientists are involuntarily celibate). Not anymore. The people currently running the federal government—from the president on down—have pretty much declared open season on scientists. They are being systematically deprived of their primary source of nourishment–research grants–and being subjected to public censure, denunciation and even humiliation.

Near as I can figure, science has attracted this ire because it keeps supplying political discourse with an unending streams of data and facts that are irritating and inconvenient to a large swath of ideological policy preferences. This is particularly notable on—but far from limited to—science’s nosy parker prognostications on climate change. Science has reached a consensus conclusion that human society’s two-century long carbon fart is having a noticeable effect on the atmospherics of our collective planetary elevator (here’s 12,000 scientific studies with gory details). This sore distresses fossil fuel types and their political minions who were hoping the rest of us wouldn’t notice the stink, much less start agitating for the government to consider the corks-in-bungholes option.

The upshot of science’s insistence that the facts aren’t pointing in the same direction as certain ideological policy preferences leads to not just political discomfort, but to some truly jaw dropping acts of sophistry. For example, Jim Inhofe, a United States Senator, quite seriously argued that one unseasonable DC snowstorm convincingly disproved those 12,000 climate studies (he brought a snowball into the chamber to prove his point). So who’s correct on climate change? Well, on one side you’ve got a sizeable city’s worth of weather nerds sporting more advanced degrees than a thermometer. This lot have spent decades analyzing oceans of data and trying to sort signal from noise in peer reviewed research. And on the other you’ve got a legislator clutching a compacted fistful of frozen precipitate whose specious wuffling is not doing Bill Nye’s blood pressure any favors.  (BTW Jim, if you’re looking for extra meaningless data points, we had a very hot day hereabouts back in February).

That sort of comparison doesn’t put certain policy agendas, or certain policy makers, in a flattering light, and that fact almost certainly explains the attempt by the current leaders of the federal government to push science into the dark. That movement is truly scary. There are plans afoot to seriously cripple the scientific enterprise at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and even the National Institutes of Health (!). Academic labs at all the major research universities are facing cutbacks. The list of agencies and scientific research projects nervously awaiting the chop is depressingly long and is going to insulate public policy from sound science in a whole raft of critically important issue areas.

The only good news is that with science out of the way policymakers won’t have all those annoying empiricists mucking up their prescriptive plans with substance and knowledge. This will allow government policies to be pursued on the basis of good old fashioned ideological shamanism. Yep, that should work out well. Not.

There are those who might say that this is all being too hard on certain policy perspectives, and is being way too deferential to science and scientists who, let’s face it, are not always super-consistent in their conclusions and have been known to make a boo-boo or two. Fair enough, it is true that science is not correct 100 percent of the time, and it is equally true that perfectly competent and legit scientific studies can still reach conclusions that are incorrect. Plus we still haven’t got flying cars, meals in a pill, and I’m not sure if eggs are good for us this week or if they’re still avian cholesterol and cancer bombs. Yeah, sometimes scientists definitely got some ‘splaining to do. That is no reason, however, to substitute fact-fogging charlatanism for what is, for all its faults, the greatest knowledge producing process ever conceived.

The bottom line is that shooing science away from governance and public policy might usefully serve the political agenda of one side or the other in the short term. In the long term, though, substituting politics for science is to substitute blind faith for insight, soft ignorance for hard knowledge, and flights of political fancy for grounded reasoning. In short, if policymakers ignore and de-prioritize science they become that doctor in the waiting room instructing someone to fix a hole in the roof with prescription paper. And what with the climate changing and all, that’s likely to get us all wet.


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