Science with an agenda

Radley Balko, in Big Fat Mistake (TCS 05ap21) describes the human side of science.

No matter how well-intentioned the researchers, government science and government science translated into policy is too prone to incentives, misplaced motivation, and the prodding and influence of special interest groups to be taken at face value, particularly on a matter so intimate and vital as nutrition. It’s possible that even these numbers are wrong, which is exactly why basing policy decisions on them is such a bad idea.

We’ve let “public health” — once a term used to describe legitimate public goods, such as protecting against communicable diseases and, more recently, bio or chemical terrorism — come to encompass such ridiculous and obviously personal matters as whether or not we wear our seat belts, choose to have a cigarette, or how many trips we make to the buffet table.

In any measure, there are always issues of precision and accuracy to consider. These issues become very important when statistics is being used to try to isolate the effect of many contributing factors. One result is that ‘observer bias’ can become a significant problem, especially when taking a conclusion or finding to a matter of policy. There, the impact on individuals and their freedoms becomes a matter of serious concern.

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