Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Science denial by anecdote

Science denial is doing serious harm to people. And if the Republican Know-Nothings have their way, it will get worse.

Steve Silberman discusses Why the GOP Hates the National Science Foundation Neurotribes 05/27/2011. The immediate occasion for his post is the issuance of an anti-science report:

Yesterday [05/26/2011] in Washington, amid great fanfare, the Republican senator from Oklahoma, Tom Coburn, released a 73-page report called The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope. The report – deemed “scathing” in an “exclusive” by ABC News, and widely touted by other news organizations, particularly those owned by Rupert Murdoch — purported to expose a culture of waste, fraud, and mismanagement at the NSF.
The report provided examples ready-made for radio talk-show ridicule:

... the type of “studies” cited by the report sound dubious indeed, including research into “How to ride a bike; When did dogs became man’s best friend; If political views are genetically pre-determined; How to improve the quality of wine; Do boys like to play with trucks and girls like to play with dolls.”
Such anecdotes are popular and, for better or worse, effective ways of communicating ideas. It's common as dirt these days to hear anecdotes about this or that incident of incompetence or irrationality in laws.

Have you heard about the old lady who spilled hot coffee on herself and then sued McDonald's? You know old Joe Jones who lives down the street? He has a city car that he uses all the time for his private trips! And what about all the paperwork my business has to turn in to the gubment? And so on.


The problem with anecdotes, though, is that unless you have a good picture of the whole story, they usually don't actually tell us much about the larger policy picture. For instance, one of Coburn's reports criticisms was directed at at program in which a "scientist put shrimp on a tiny treadmill to determine if sickness impaired the mobility of the crustaceans." Silberman writes:

Surely there is waste and mismanagement at the NSF, as there is at any large organization staffed by human beings, though even allegedly LOL-worthy studies of ailing shrimp can yield results that inform the fate of fisheries that provide food and jobs for millions of people. Many outlets in the mainstream media and the right-wing blogosphere dutifully mocked the alleged absurdities detailed in the report, complete with the inevitable photos of sick shrimp on treadmills (also furnished by Senator Coburn's office) ...

This particular know-nothing way of trashing government expenditures was given a prominent boost by an important liberal Democratic Senator, William Proxmire, who was a major critic of the Vietnam War. Rick Perlstein sketches the history in The Saga of the Golden Fleece: Why America Needs to Learn to Love Government Spending Once Again Our Future 02/03/2009:

Proxmire, who left public service in 1989 and died in 2005, may be best remembered—it's what I remember—for a monthly publicity stunt called the "Golden Fleece Award," bestowed upon what he would claim was the month's most wasteful and ridiculous pockets of government spending. The pundits fell in love with the notion's good-government pretensions, and for all I know the stunt did the nation some good paring the federal budget of waste, fraud, and abuse.

I suspect, though, the exercise was largely a silly waste of time. One of my professors in graduate school won a Golden Fleece award. Senator Proxmire awarded it for a supposed grant to fund her "mountain climbing hobby." Actually, she's one of the nation's most distinguished anthropologists. She has never climbed a mountain in her life, but used her field work among the Sherpas of Nepal to arrive at some of the most incisive theorizing extant on how societies work. Second-guessing the peer-review process of National Science Foundation grants made for nifty headlines. But it was also numbingly reactionary. According to the Wikipedia entry on Proxmire, the prizes sometimes "went to basic science projects that led to important breakthroughs."

It savored of the Reagan aide who once, defending cuts in higher education spending, said it wasn't the business of government "subsidizing intellectual curiosity." ...
The New York Times' (Richard Severo, William Proxmire, Maverick Democratic Senator From Wisconsin, Is Dead at 90 12/16/2005) obituary for Proxmire included an example of one of his Golden Fleece awards dealing with a project at ... the National Science Foundation:

But he was best known for his Golden Fleece Awards, which he announced in monthly press releases to call attention to what he believed to be frivolous government spending. An award, for instance, went to the National Science Foundation in 1975 for spending $84,000 to learn why people fall in love.
But however much Proxmire may have contributed to the trend back in the day, today's Republican Party is giving itself over to magical thinking in the service of some very worldly ideology. Except for his perhaps overly-rosy view of the New York Times, Silberman's description is right:

Today's GOP has a visceral distrust of scientists for the same reason that it has a visceral distrust of the "lamestream media" (particularly deeply reported news organizations like The New York Times), teachers, organized labor, regulatory agencies, National Public Radio, and protest movements that are have not been astroturfed for Fox News’ cameras by Koch Industries: They’re not with the program, whatever this week’s program might be — more windfalls to Big Oil, justifying torture, or floating amendments to officially brand gay people as second-class citizens. [emphasis in original]
Fanaticism ain't pretty.

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