Monday, January 26, 2009

Science

In his inaugural address, President Obama made a single reference to a topic that, in fairness, was probably on the minds of exactly one of the two million odd attendees. That's the topic of science.

About halfway through (http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/inaugural-address/) he declared, "We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost."

President Obama's comment was in reference to the alleged squelching of scientific voices that took place in the Bush Administration. Some abuses were reported. But what was often forgotten in the clamor is that science is a disharmonious and messy business to begin with.

Science is an absolutely critical voice in informing public policy. But scientists rarely sing in harmony on complex subjects. Most of them can't sing at all. Besides, costly and sophisticated equipment sometimes breaks: http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2009/01/26/2474114.htm, computers sometimes forget to carry the one, and samples sometimes spill on the floor. Sometimes, the entire lab has a bad hair day - or week, or month - and there's nothing to do but start again in the morning, or at least find a new lab assistant (this author's lab work was simply atrocious).

Truth - or at least something approximating it - is often found. But it is almost never discovered through a simple presentation of snow-pure data. Rather, truth emerges through the fire of the peer-review process.

The volume of scientist's disharmony only swells when it comes to making policy recommendations, since there are confounding facts, conflicting conclusions, and fightin Ph.D's. (Note that "The Fightin' Ph.D.'s" has never been the name of a university mascot, though one wonders why not. He, or she - no Larry Summers bias here http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2005/01/17/summers_remarks_on_women_draw_fire/ - could be dressed in an oversized lab coat, with a properly stained smock as a cape, and a sharpened slide rule or foam blackberry serving as a baton.) Policymakers must decide their way through those conflicts, even as they are also tied to difficult timelines and funding constraints.

"Hopefully, the Obama administration will restore science to its rightful place where needed. But hopefully it will also recognize that the proper voice of science is of many scientists speaking out, sometimes in unison, but frequently in profound disharmony."

Submitted by The Cappuccino Conservative

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