The Steampunk Satyricon

Friday, December 31, 2010

Out with the Old

A catch-all, end-of-the-year megapost to clear the decks for the new year:

(10) Gratuitous display of one of the scary-looking equations that made cell phones possible.

An op-ed titled "Lab Politics" that appeared on the Slate web site a few weeks ago totally tweaked my outrage meter. The author -- Daniel Sarewitz, an academic at Arizona State University -- cited poll data that revealed 55 percent of scientists identified as Democrats and only 6 percent were Republicans (the rest were independent or undecided) and suggested that the American public would benefit if there were more scientists who considered themselves conservatives.

My initial reaction was, "Sarewitz, you're a whiny-ass moron." But the benefit of getting distracted and failing to write an immediate response is that you have a chance to reflect and give your reactionary fury a chance to subside. That's not to say there weren't major problems with the editorial.

Sarewitz starts with the completely faulty premise that *good* science is influenced by ideology. He openly accuses non-conservatives of doing bad science to score political points -- perhaps he was thinking of the pharmaceutical industry where "Science-on-Demand" is a regular occurrence and customized results, tailored to maximize profits, can end up killing people. Basically, Sarewitz is saying that scientists operate like political strategists (or pundits) who only ask questions when they already know what they want the answers to be. Science can be politicized, and when it is, it's no longer science -- it's bad science and we should all disregard it. But you can't dismiss good science just because you don't like what it tells you. There's a reason why no one takes flat-earthers seriously.

The real problem with Sarewitz's editorial -- like so many op-eds, where the writer is probably held to a word count even if it's for online publication -- is that the author states his grievance, but doesn't actually make a case. He raises the issue of climate change and suggests that if more climate researchers were Republicans/conservatives, more people would trust their findings. But Sarewitz only criticizes the policy suggestions for responding to the research findings, he doesn't explicitly mention any particular researcher or paper as being biased. He doesn't even attack the peer review process or give us proof that liberal reviewers are simply rubber-stamping work that conforms to their liberal views.

One woefully accurate aspect of the issue, that the author correctly alludes to, is that no debate can even begin if the two sides can't even agree on what the facts are. One side has its trusted sources and the other side has theirs. Both sides are convinced that their reality is the one that matters and the other side is presenting erroneous, hopelessly biased information that simply can not be considered credible. How is any kind of reasonable discussion possible where there is no common ground?

Sarewitz's op-ed is so wrong in so many ways that I'm tempted to go on for another 500 words, but there are other important (i.e. fairly trivial) things to get to. Suffice it to say that good scientists don't want to be leftists, they just want to be right.