Wednesday, February 15, 2006

On "Political" Science

NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen has leaped into the headlines after he made allegations that he was subjected to political pressure to keep him from expressing his findings on global climate change. Dr. Hansen, director of the agency's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said in an interview reported in the New York Times that officials at NASA headquarters had ordered the public affairs staff to review his coming lectures, papers, postings on the Goddard Web site and requests for interviews from journalists.

Dr. Hansen claims that this review is intended to silence him from expressing views, a charge the NASA public affairs office denies. Unfortunately, there are increasing and persistent reports that his experience is not unique, nor is it restricted to NASA. There is clearly a creeping and insidious trend in some scientific and academic institutions; a politicizing in which legitimate science is simply discarded or changed to support this or that political agenda.

This creates both problems and opportunities for independent scholars and citizen scientists. A number of years ago, in a New York Times Review of Books (February 23, 1967) article titled “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”, Noam Chomsky wrote, “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies”. Think what you will about Chomsky, this is an important, even defining sentiment, especially for intellectuals who work outside the normal academic or corporate venues of research and learning.

If the “official” sources of scientific or any other type of important information are becoming politicized and therefore unreliable, who will take their place? Or if they can’t be replaced—and one would argue that a few web-surfers or backyard experimenters can’t take the place of a government agency with hundreds of millions to spend on research—who at least will be willing to serve as a check on what comes out of those institutions? Bloggers have created a badly-needed counterbalance to the politicization of the news media, but now a similar situation exists with other sources of information involving the sciences, social studies, foreign countries, economics, and military matters, in other words, the places from whence the news media and policy makers used to draw reliable working facts.

Most independent scholars, thinkers, and scientists enjoy doing their work apart from the problems of the rest of the world. But the times when one could escape into an intellectual problem as an escape from the cares of the world might be passing. I believe that our community needs to become more active in at least trying to use our expertise to help keep our fellow citizens informed where traditional institutions cannot or will not.


Anonymous Jim said...

Seems to me there maybe a bit of a turf war going on here with Dr. Hansen. The question is what is the role of a scientist in the global warming debate? Finding out how the climate works and what affects warming are surely roles for scientists. Convincing governments and everyone in the world to dramatically change their behavior does not fit too well with respect to the skills or role of scientists. These things fall in the realm of the politician or religious leader. I am sorry but deciding what to do about global warming is a political and moral issue not a scientific one. I for one would like to see some real public debate on what to do and not on whose fault it is and whether it is real or not.

From reading the popular press it is hard to get an impression that warnings of global warming are being suppressed. In fact my impression is the opposite. Every report you read about some scientific study says such and such “may” happen if global warming continues and such and such is always a “bad’ thing to people or other living things. Surely somewhere something beneficial will happen. I suspect that part of the blame for this is the press and their interpretation of the research. Reading the original research may give a different result.

1:11 PM  

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