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Scientists nobly try to distill politics out of research

Scientists nobly try to distill politics out of research

The public tends to trust “experts” when it comes to considering science-based policies.

Sadly, some of the experts have a specific agenda  to promote that is counter to reality.  A good example is Mark Lynas, a British environmentalist who was a leading force in the movement against genetically modified organism/foods (GMOs)  during the mid-‘90s, arguing as recently at 2008 that big corporations’ selfish greed would threaten the health of both people and the Earth.

Addressing a farming conference recently, he rescinded his previous views most completely:

For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment…

So I guess you’ll be wondering—what happened between 1995 and now that made me not only change my mind but come here and admit it? Well, the answer is fairly simple: I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist.

One of the few election night wins for California citizens this November was the failure of Proposition 37 with stringent labeling requirements for GMOs to pass. As I pointed out in my arguments against the measureAgriculture has been nothing but a series of people genetically modifying plants and animals (look at the origins and development of fruit such as California’s naval oranges and Kobe beef.), Scaring people away from products that may be potentially more cost effective and have a health benefit (see golden rice) gets a big thumbs down.

More and more professional scientists are recognizing that research its far too politicized, which has potentially extremely harmful consequences to humanity (e.g., preventing access to Vitamin A enriched rice, spread of malaria). Lorraine Yapps Cohen recently reported on 125 scientists who wrote an open letter claiming that the United Nation Secretary General’s assertions on climate and weather are not substantiated by current scientific knowledge.

The scientists spoke as a non-political group, unified by the science of climate change rather than the powers of policy-making. The group cited specific remarks the Secretary General made in public statements, including Al Gore’s “Dirty Weather” Webcast , and said the remarks were simply unsubstantiated by science.

The letter reported scientific evidence that the globe has not warmed in the last 16 years. Whatever changes there may be are not caused by human activity.

Daniel Sarewitz, the co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, is concerned about the troubling trends in the coupling of science with politics. Recognizing that, “scientists in the United States are often perceived as a Democratic interest group,” he writes:

To prevent science from continuing its worrying slide towards politicization, here’s a New Year’s resolution for scientists, especially in the United States: gain the confidence of people and politicians across the political spectrum by demonstrating that science is bipartisan.

With Team Obama in charge, this will be a challenging goal to meet.  However, it is good to see some steps being taken in that direction.


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Where there are government or large foundation grants these days the term “science” usually means the dominance of the social sciences like behavioral sciences and pedagogy and sociology. There’s an assumption that we are talking about the natural sciences but it is not true. The natural sciences all over the world are becoming subject to the political ideology of Constructivism or its new name of Modelling. Unfortunately cause and effect and reality still lurk out there waiting to bite. An understanding or even awareness of Gravity does not affect what happens when you fall out of a 5th story window. is specifically about something called the USGCRP 2012-2021 report where actual science and temps is to give way to models for purposes of planning for the US future. Our government agencies have now officially announce they will use the government monopoly over K-12 and higher ed to simply influence beliefs to gain the desired behaviors.

It is hard to see how a government in a free country can decide to use education to integrate the “natural and human components of the Earth system” without tyranny in all but name being the actual result. I guess as long as the media fails to cover these realities the resulting repression of economic and personal freedoms cannot really be happening?

Even though these released reports are very specific.

Lysenko all over again except famine is easier to see.

The ONLY way to get politics out of science and research is to get government funding OUT of universities.

Even seemingly beneficial and apolitical research like cancer treatment is politicized. First, certain types of cancer are more politically appealing and more likely to get funding without respect to their frequency, mortality, or the likelihood of success of the particular research.

Also, once a project is funded, the grantee and the institution will lobby to keep that money coming – without regard to the progress or lack thereof, or potential benefits of success or lack thereof, crowding out new and more promising research from the limited funds.

If politicians fund it, it WILL be politicized. There is no way around it, it is the nature of the beast.

    nordic_prince in reply to Estragon. | January 5, 2013 at 4:44 pm

    Ditto with money for AIDS research – certain special-interest groups lobbied hard to get that plum, to the detriment of other diseases that strike a greater portion of the population.

    Suffering from disease X is unfortunate, but that doesn’t make politicization of disease X right. Limited funds means that money ought to be spent wisely, not squandered, and that generally means allocating it where it can achieve the greatest good. Is it better to alleviate the pain and suffering of 100 people when the same amount of research dollars could alleviate the pain and suffering of 1000? It’d be nice to wave a magic wand and make everyone better, but the reality is that hard decisions have to be made.

This is a really important topic. Judith Curry just had a post on this same issue at her blog. She writes:

“‘Here’s a New Year’s resolution for scientists, especially in the United States: gain the confidence of people and politicians across the political spectrum by demonstrating that science is bipartisan.’ – Daniel Sarewitz

Daniel Sarewitz has provocative opinion piece in Nature entitled Science must be seen to bridge the political divide….

The US scientific community must decide if it wants to be a Democratic interest group or if it wants to reassert its value as an independent national asset. If scientists want to claim that their recommendations are independent of their political beliefs, they ought to be able to show that those recommendations have the support of scientists with conflicting beliefs. Expert panels advising the government on politically divisive issues could strengthen their authority by demonstrating political diversity.”

There’s a discussion of specific issues as well as a recognition of the fact that the people who need to hear this discussion the most aren’t listening. Still, though, it is important to realize that ‘science’ seldom tells us what to do in terms of public policy – we must decide that together as a society. Science can tell us facts, and it can even compare the effectiveness of various policy interventions – but the most effective policy isn’t always going to be acceptable to us as a society. Insisting that obviously ideological policy positions are “settled science” convinces nobody, and only serves to undermine scientists’ credibility.

TrooperJohnSmith | January 5, 2013 at 4:48 pm

We tend to laugh at the fact that Galileo was forced to bend to the will of the Vatican and its scientific experts. “Oh, what a bunch of idiots they were, thinking the Earth is flat and at the center of the universe!” All the while, in our collective smugness, we are no more enlightened, having politicized science and research, especially climate research. Al Gore and his ilk are just the latest Inquisition trying to stop the advance of knowledge and pursuit of the scientific method of inquiry.

Or, as my Dad used to say. “An expert? An ‘ex’ is a has-been and a ‘spurt’ is just a drip under pressure.”

It’s not bad science to be very cautious with GMOs. If we find some long-term side effects from GMOs, it may be too late to eliminate the strain in nature.

Can I have the right to buy GMO-free food and have some guarantee that there will be non-infected crops? Or must I be forced to participate in the experiment?

Specious to talk about genetically modified crops without first discussing “how” they are genetically modified. There’s one heck of a difference between cancer-causing tumor-causing grains that are their own insecticides — and the development of the naval orange.

Cinderellastory | January 5, 2013 at 8:29 pm

It is interesting that there are many anti GMO people are all for human stem cell research even to the extreme of using aborted fetuses for the stem cells. I guess genetic modification is only acceptable under certain liberal/progressive circumstances.

    Heh. Let me borrow your method. It is interesting that folks who bring up baby killing are for growing viruses in their flesh and forcing parents to inject the pus into their children.

Fluffy Foo Foo | January 6, 2013 at 4:47 am

Thank God for this guy. Why it took him so long to understand his ignorance I’ll never know, but he has overcome it.