Science policy, when the shoe is on the other foot

One of the ongoing allegations is about how the Bush Administration is putting politics over science. Like many such allegations that attempt to malign and impugn the current administration, even a cursory inspection of history shows them to be hollow, misleading, and intellectually dishonest. For example: Henry Miller, a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution, was an official at the FDA from 1979 to 1994. He wrote an article for the Mercury News: In twisting science to suit policy, Clinton outdid Bush presidency.

Never has American government been burdened with such politically motivated, anti-science, anti-business, anti-social eco-babble as during the Clinton-Gore years, but during that time I don’t recall hearing from the born-again, now-vociferous defenders of scientific, data-driven public policy.

As MIT meteorologist Richard Lindzen has sagely observed, science “provides our only way of separating what is true from what is asserted. If we abuse that tool, it will not be available when it is needed.” Cynicism about the motivations and actions of those in government is healthy. But if criticism about abuses of science — among other things — is to be credible, it should be consistent and even-handed, even if not wholly apolitical.

It is not cynicism that is healthy, it is skepticism – an appropriate skepticism. A cynic has made a judgment and snarls at what he does not like. A skeptic holds to an appropriate uncertainty and seeks out what is true by inquiring about facts and reasons.

Those who currently lambaste the government for its involvement in science are saying that political science is OK but only if it agrees with their politics. They do not offer solutions for a problem that traces back to WW II. They are cynics when things are not going their way and not skeptics. They do not address the underlying reasons for their discontent nor do they seek realistic solutions to the problems inherent in the public funding of much scientific research.

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