Wednesday, October 20, 2004

When Physics becomes Partisan

There's been alot of discussion over the past couple years about the relationship of the current administration to science. This New York Times article covers alot of it very nicely. It's pretty friendly to the scientists complaining about W, since it can only muster the White House Scince Advisor and one climate change hack to defend W.

TAPPED cites the piece and brings up comments from early in the article where John Marburger (the Science Advisor) basically admits that the typical corporation rhetoric about deregulation being in line with science is complete bologna. But I was also interested in a couple of statements from Marburger at the very end of the article:

Dr. Marburger argues that when scientific information is flowing through government agencies, the executive branch has every right to sift for inconsistencies and adjust the tone to suit its policies, as long as the result remains factual.

He said the recent ferment, including the attacks from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Democrats and environmental groups, all proved that the system works and that objective scientific information ultimately comes to the surface.

"I think people overestimate the power of government to affect science," he said. "Science has so many self-correcting aspects that I'm not really worried about these things."

He acknowledged that environmental and medical issues, in particular, would continue to have a difficult time in the policy arena, because the science was fundamentally more murky than in, say, physics or chemistry.

"I'm a physicist," Dr. Marburger said. "I know what you have to do to design an experiment where you get an unambiguous result. There is nothing like that in health and environment."

In his first statement, Marburger has to stretch pretty far to defend W. Yeah, if the government was interested in picking and choosing between different research results regarding the number of dimensions present in the early universe, then he might have a point. Any number of different research groups have come up with any number of different answers, and at this point, one answer is probably as valid as another. This is not the case, however, with climate change. There exists a dominant paradigm among basically all non-industry sponsored researchers, that the Earth is heating up, that humans are causing at least part of this change, and that this change will probably end up being pretty bad for us. W and his cronies pick their info from a small group of industry-sponsored scientists that know what their results will be, well before they start. To say that these industry sponsored scientists have found "inconsistencies" and that the administration has every right to highlight them is hogwash. The administration might as well be talking to invisible dragons.

In the middle paragraphs, he's being particularly disingenous. The simple fact is that government sponsors (through many different avenues) the vast majority of basic scientific work in this country. Thankfully, the US is an open society and science has been able to work itself out, even against the wishes of the rich and powerful at times. But, in societies that aren't open, Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, science hasn't worked itself out, particularly in medicine and health related fields. In both of these societies, eugenics played a major role, largely because of what science the government was willing to fund, and what questions researchers were allowed to ask. Science flourishes in the west, because scientists are able to ask really dumb questions . When that process stops, (e.g. when scientists are not able to ask questions about sex, homosexuality, AIDS, climate change, environmental distruction, etc.) the corrective powers of science disappear. Sadly, this is where W and his henchmen are taking us.

Finally, Marburger really gets my dander up in the last paragraph. Here he brings up the typical physics superiority statement:

--Physics is simple and straightforward. There are no uncertainties in physics research. Research in other subjects is not as good as in physics, because the answers aren't reducible to simple varifiable equations. --

Will physicists be saying this forever? Good research is good research whether it's about physcis or climate change, or whether it is reducible to equations or not. If an environmental researcher studies detailed models of climate change, and controls for all the variables that they can think of (yeah, its harder because there's more than in a simple mechanics problem), and explains where their uncertainties lie, and where future research work should be done, then it's good work, and should be accepted as such. It shouldn't be passed off as murky just because it's cutting edge. If Marburger really accepted what he was saying, then he would have to conclude that General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are "murky", because there still are large areas of these theories which are unexplored and unexplained. Just because science involves people doesn't make it less valid.

And as a last thing, here's an article about W's apparent lack of real Christian values. It is left as an excersize to the reader to develop a correlation between the two articles.


P.S. Back to being messangerboy.


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