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“Bragging About Their Ignorance”: “I’m Not A Scientist” Is A Dangerous Cop-Out

The evidence for global climate change is overwhelming. Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists, along with the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and more than 30 professional scientific research societies, agree that climate change is happening because of human actions and that it will be an increasingly serious problem if we don’t stop it. It is reasonable for politicians to debate the best way to solve this problem, but whether it is a problem should not be up for discussion anymore. However, in response to questions about climate change, political candidates, including high-profile politicians such as Senate Minority (for now) Leader Mitch McConnell, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio are frequently saying: “I’m not a scientist.”

When politicians say “I’m not a scientist,” it is an exasperating evasion. It’s a cowardly way to avoid answering basic and important policy questions. This response raises lots of other important questions about their decision-making processes. Do they have opinions on how to best maintain our nation’s highways, bridges, and tunnels—or do they not because they’re not civil engineers? Do they refuse to talk about agriculture policy on the grounds that they’re not farmers? How do they think we should be addressing the threat of ISIS? They wouldn’t know, of course; they’re not military generals.

No one would ever say these things, because they’re ridiculous. Being a policymaker in a country as large and complex as the United States requires making decisions on a variety of important subjects outside of your primary area of expertise. Voters wouldn’t tolerate this “I’m not a scientist” excuse if applied to any other discipline, yet politicians appear to be using this line successfully to distance themselves from experts crucial for solving many of our country’s most important problems.

American populist rhetoric has always had a dark side of anti-intellectualism, the belief that the common sense of the average man on the street is equal to or greater than the expert knowledge of people who spend years studying a particular question, and that has been on full display in recent years. Who can understand what those weird, other-worldly scientists are talking about, anyway? Somebody needs to “stand up to the experts.” Despite what any politician says, the overwhelming evidence supports the scientific consensus that climate change is happening because of human activity and that we should take action to stop it because it will be a significant threat—a position the U.S. military agrees with.

I actually am a scientist (a marine biologist), but you don’t need to be an expert on anything to pay attention when 97 percent of people who are experts in that subject agree that something is a problem and that we should do something about it. You don’t need to be a fully trained expert in the sciences to make decisions that involve science (which is good, because less than 4 percent of the representatives in Congress have any kind of scientific training, even broadly defined).

“ ‘I’m not a scientist’ is a cheap cop-out that is becoming all too common, not just on climate change but on issues like fracking and evolution, too. Politicians of both major political parties are trotting out the ‘I’m not a scientist’ remark to avoid stating where they stand on policy,” says Michael Halpern, the manager of strategy and innovation for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Lamar Smith (R-Texas), is also not a scientist, but that’s not stopping him from attacking National Science Foundation–funded scientific research. Smith has been publicly mocking grants to study topics that he doesn’t personally see the value in studying, proposing laws that would change peer review at the NSF to value studies with purported economic benefits, and attacking NSF officials in congressional hearings. Smith seems to be trying to look tough on government spending, and appealing to anti-intellectualism is an easy strategy. However, the total budget of the NSF is less than a quarter of 1 percent of the federal budget, and only the top 5 percent of proposals are funded. All research proposals submitted to NSF go through a rigorous system of peer review with experts in the field anonymously evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of each, often with suggestions for how to improve the research in the future. Peer review is a critical part of free scientific inquiry, and the fact that an anti-intellectual politician doesn’t personally see the value in a particular study should be irrelevant to whether that study is funded.

The ranking Democrat on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee says she is baffled by Smith’s public attacks on the peer review process. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson has correctly pointed out that there is no evidence whatsoever of waste or fraud associated with the NSF grants that Smith is investigating, that Smith seems to be targeting NSF-funded projects that he thinks sound silly based on his limited understanding of their purposes, and that such unprecedented attacks from a high-ranking government official can have a chilling effect on the free scientific inquiry that has helped make the United States an economic powerhouse.

You don’t need to be a scientist to recognize that climate change is a problem, but you do need to be a scientist to appropriately participate in peer review. Politicians who get this backward, as well as those who disrupt the process of scientific research or willfully ignore the conclusions of that research, should be voted out of power.


By: David Shiffman, Ph.D. Student at The Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy at the University of Miami; Slate, October 22, 2014

October 27, 2014 Posted by | Climate Change, Politics, Science | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“A Devastating Blow To The Scientific Process”: The Idea That Politicians Decide What Is Worthy Of Research Is Perilous

This week, ten years after swearing to destroy Saddam Hussein and build democracy in Iraq, the United States took a step toward dismantling its investment in studying how democracy works.

For more than 15 years, congressional Republicans have been trying to do away with federal funding for political-science research. Every time until now, political scientists successfully fought back. One reason they could: The pot designated for political science in the National Science Foundation (NSF) was a tiny percentage of overall research money—about $10 million out of a $7 billion budget. That’s less than two-tenths of a percent. But it’s also the majority of total grant funding for political-science research. The field provides us with much of what we know about how democracies, including our own, function (and don’t function). Political scientists study how and why opinions change on key issues, what motivates people to vote, and how public opinion influences elected officials. For a relatively small sum, the nation that loves to tout its democratic ideals has been funding projects to investigate how that democracy works (and doesn’t).

Last May, when House Republicans passed an amendment by Congressman Jeff Flake to stop funding the NSF’s Political Science Program, Senate Democrats stopped it from going anywhere. Even New York Times columnist David Brooks got agitated by Flake’s selective targeting of the program, arguing, “This is exactly how budgets should not be balanced—by cutting cheap things that produce enormous future benefits.” (If he’s like most political journalists, Brooks uses plenty of NSF-funded data.)

But tucked inside the 600-page continuing resolution the Senate passed on Wednesday afternoon—the measure that must pass to avoid a government shutdown—is an amendment from Republican Senator Tom Coburn, designed to cut off the vast majority of federal support for political-science research. The amendment prevents the National Science Foundation from funding its Political Science Program, “except for research projects that the Director of the National Science Foundation certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.”

Perhaps most surprising, the resolution passed by a voice vote, meaning there was no real opposition from Democrats. It’s quite a turnabout. Democrats have long supported research grants for the social sciences. When Coburn introduced a similar amendment in 2009, Democrat Barbara Mikulski went on the offensive: “This amendment is an attack on science. It is an attack on academia,” she said. “We need full funding to keep America innovative.”

But this time around, Senator Mikulski, as appropriations chair, was shepherding a difficult piece of legislation through the body as Republicans threatened a government shutdown. Democratic leaders were afraid that if Coburn didn’t get his way on the amendment, he would slow down the continuing resolution. That might have doomed the thing, with Congress headed to recess. Instead, it seems Coburn modified his original amendment to assuage the Democrats. His new language permitted the NSF to allow exceptions for political projects that “promote national security or the economic interests” of the country. Instead of cutting the $10 million allotted for the Political Science Program, the measure simply prohibits grants in political science. The NSF gets to keep the money for other purposes.

“It reflects the nature of the Senate more than it reflects any shifting views or shifting support,” says Thomas Mann, political scientist and congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. “If there were a [roll call] vote on this, it never would have passed.” The House has already shown its support for a similar measure. The die has been cast, at least in the short term. Democrats will have a chance to undo the measure in October, when Congress will need to pass another budget for the next fiscal year.

The American Political Science Association called the decision “a devastating blow to the integrity of the scientific process.” That’s not overstating things, even if $10 million looks like a drop (if that) in the national budgetary bucket. If you care about scientific process generally, it’s not hard to see why the amendment is an ominous portent for other NSF programs. Growing up as the daughter of a political scientist who received several NSF grants, I was well aware of their importance, not only to political-science research but to the social sciences in general. Fields like sociology, psychology, and economics also rely heavily on NSF funding—and could also fall victim to the whims of an influential member of Congress. What if Senator Coburn next decides that sociological studies of gender and homophobia are frivolous? House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has already expressed his support for getting rid of funding for all social-science research, even though the combined budget for those programs is less than 3 percent of total NSF funding.

The situation could easily spread further, into the many parts of the hard sciences that are just as easily politicized—say, evolutionary biology or climate change. When the Flake amendment entered the House, the science magazine Nature wrote an editorial detailing the threat to all fields: “Scientists should ask themselves which vulnerable research programme could be next on the hit list,” the piece read. “The idea that politicians should decide what is worthy of research is perilous.”

Second, political-science research is important. NSF funds a number of major projects that inform much of how we understand our system. For instance, for decades, the Political Science Program has funded the National Election Study, a multimillion-dollar project run out of the University of Michigan. The data, freely available to anyone, provides the most comprehensive look at how American political opinion has changed over time on key issues. Through the study, we can track the evolution of partisan identification, public opinion, and a variety of other key issues over decades. The findings are used by journalists and campaigns, and they’re used to train undergraduates and graduate students in research. If the study ceases, there will suddenly be no way to see long-term trends in the American electorate.

Other Political Science Program studies have investigated questions that are important to our functioning democracy but not particularly easy to raise money for—like gender gaps in political ambition or how responsive elected officials really are to public opinion. Furthermore, the research has helped develop a number of statistical and methodological tools, like computer-assisted interviewing, which has since become standard in private-sector research.

Without NSF, many of these projects may go unfunded. Political-science research, like most academic research, relies on outside funding. Universities pay professors’ salaries and offer basic infrastructure—the buildings in which the research can take place, for instance—but most of the actual dollars for research come from grants. NSF funds 61 percent of political-science research. “There are other opportunities out there” for funding, says John McIver, who ran NSF’s Political Science Program in the mid-1990s. “But there are no pots as big as the NSF program. It’s going to be hard for big political science to continue.”

Why would political science be singled out for cuts in the first place? Coburn says he opposes the funding because the $10 million spent on political science takes away $10 million from studies of diseases or other causes deemed more worthy. In a letter to the director of the National Science Foundation earlier this month, he argued, “Discontinuing funding for these types of studies will increase our ability to fund research into basic fields of mathematics and science such as engineering, biology, physics, and technology.”

Of course, the National Science Foundation has a number of programs that have no direct economic or medical benefits. Physicists spend millions studying dark matter; not only have some of those studies failed to reach a conclusion but the research has no impact on most of our lives. Political-science research also makes its way into Congress—as the political scientist John Sides noted in 2011, even Coburn hasn’t let his opposition to NSF’s political-science grants stop him from relying on NSF-funded political-science research when the research bolsters his own positions. In one debate, he cited NSF-funded research to demonstrate the lack of congressional oversight of the Government Accountability Office.

Singling out political science for a cut seems absurd, until you consider that political scientists conduct research about elected officials and also that this research (usually) doesn’t rely on access or parlor games. Unlike reporters, who must establish relationships to gain access and information—and risk getting shut out when they write something controversial—political scientists have been free to critique and explain our political process, warts and all, and have never had to fear political repercussions. Until now, it seems. “Members of Congress don’t like research being done about members of Congress,” McIver says. “In a world in which Congress has an 11-percent approval rate, Congress is not happy to know there’s research being done specially on that topic.” As if to prove his point, Senator Coburn has repeatedly insisted that there’s no need to fund studies of the GOP’s use of the filibuster. It just so happens that many political scientists are eager to examine how the tool has been used (if not abused) under the current Republican leadership in the Senate.

Coburn’s attempt to stifle political science probably won’t succeed for long. Democrats are expected to restore the status quo by next October. But the fact that this decision was made at all is worrying. Flake, Coburn, and Cantor aren’t likely to let this go, especially now that they’ve had a taste of success.


By: Abby Rapoport, The American Prospect, March 23, 2013

March 24, 2013 Posted by | Science, Senate | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Ignorance Caucus”: Republicans Are Unable To Apply Critical Thinking And Evidence To Policy Questions

Last week Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, gave what his office told us would be a major policy speech. And we should be grateful for the heads-up about the speech’s majorness. Otherwise, a read of the speech might have suggested that he was offering nothing more than a meager, warmed-over selection of stale ideas.

To be sure, Mr. Cantor tried to sound interested in serious policy discussion. But he didn’t succeed — and that was no accident. For these days his party dislikes the whole idea of applying critical thinking and evidence to policy questions. And no, that’s not a caricature: Last year the Texas G.O.P. explicitly condemned efforts to teach “critical thinking skills,” because, it said, such efforts “have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

And such is the influence of what we might call the ignorance caucus that even when giving a speech intended to demonstrate his openness to new ideas, Mr. Cantor felt obliged to give that caucus a shout-out, calling for a complete end to federal funding of social science research. Because it’s surely a waste of money seeking to understand the society we’re trying to change.

Want other examples of the ignorance caucus at work? Start with health care, an area in which Mr. Cantor tried not to sound anti-intellectual; he lavished praise on medical research just before attacking federal support for social science. (By the way, how much money are we talking about? Well, the entire National Science Foundation budget for social and economic sciences amounts to a whopping 0.01 percent of the budget deficit.)

But Mr. Cantor’s support for medical research is curiously limited. He’s all for developing new treatments, but he and his colleagues have adamantly opposed “comparative effectiveness research,” which seeks to determine how well such treatments work.

What they fear, of course, is that the people running Medicare and other government programs might use the results of such research to determine what they’re willing to pay for. Instead, they want to turn Medicare into a voucher system and let individuals make decisions about treatment. But even if you think that’s a good idea (it isn’t), how are individuals supposed to make good medical choices if we ensure that they have no idea what health benefits, if any, to expect from their choices?

Still, the desire to perpetuate ignorance on matters medical is nothing compared with the desire to kill climate research, where Mr. Cantor’s colleagues — particularly, as it happens, in his home state of Virginia — have engaged in furious witch hunts against scientists who find evidence they don’t like. True, the state has finally agreed to study the growing risk of coastal flooding; Norfolk is among the American cities most vulnerable to climate change. But Republicans in the State Legislature have specifically prohibited the use of the words “sea-level rise.

And there are many other examples, like the way House Republicans tried to suppress a Congressional Research Service report casting doubt on claims about the magical growth effects of tax cuts for the wealthy.

Do actions like this have important effects? Well, consider the agonized discussions of gun policy that followed the Newtown massacre. It would be helpful to these discussions if we had a good grasp of the facts about firearms and violence. But we don’t, because back in the 1990s conservative politicians, acting on behalf of the National Rifle Association, bullied federal agencies into ceasing just about all research into the issue. Willful ignorance matters.

O.K., at this point the conventions of punditry call for saying something to demonstrate my evenhandedness, something along the lines of “Democrats do it too.” But while Democrats, being human, often read evidence selectively and choose to believe things that make them comfortable, there really isn’t anything equivalent to Republicans’ active hostility to collecting evidence in the first place.

The truth is that America’s partisan divide runs much deeper than even pessimists are usually willing to admit; the parties aren’t just divided on values and policy views, they’re divided over epistemology. One side believes, at least in principle, in letting its policy views be shaped by facts; the other believes in suppressing the facts if they contradict its fixed beliefs.

In her parting shot on leaving the State Department, Hillary Clinton said of her Republican critics, “They just will not live in an evidence-based world.” She was referring specifically to the Benghazi controversy, but her point applies much more generally. And for all the talk of reforming and reinventing the G.O.P., the ignorance caucus retains a firm grip on the party’s heart and mind.


By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, February 10, 2013

February 14, 2013 Posted by | Republicans | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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