Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bitten by the Bug

Politics and science are usually separate fields. Certainly, politicians control the money that scientists get, and within the scientific communities you get political squabbles. But mostly, science is a meritocracy and politics is a popularity contest. In politics it doesn't matter if you're as dumb as a rock as long as people like you. You don't have to know what you're talking about as long as you can "connect; as long as people like the way you say it, you could suggest eating babies. After all, if Hitler could get elected...

But every now and then they come together, namely in the election years, when we decide who gets to make the policies for the next two, four, or six years (depending on who's running). Most of the time science gets pushed aside as people discuss the issues more relevant, so they think, to the most people: taxes, health care, and that mythical thing called Reform, during which they swear to end corruption and limit the influence of the very cronies who are paying them to say that.

But I, and most scientists, probably, would argue that the state of scientific research in the United States is critical to the welfare of the country. Not just because Big Pharma makes all manners of lifesaving drugs (well...okay, maybe not), but because supporting the infrastructures that do the scientific research, be it particle physics or grizzly bear DNA, generate their own economies. To say nothing of the knowledge that gets put out there--knowledge that transforms industrial practices, knowledge that increases our understanding of the world we live in. Sarah Palin may mock the grizzly bear study, but won't she be sorry if hunters shoot the last bear?

Several factors contribute to the robust health of the intellectual sphere: The budget of the NIH to fund studies is still, despite cuts, larger than the GNP of many countries. The flexibility of the English language ensures that ideas can be communicated. The diversity of those involved in research guarantees that many ideas will be generated, and the system of peer review helps ensure that only the best succeed.

The problem is that politicans often have no idea what constitutes science. Scientists are already prone to interpreting data along the lines of their own personal beliefs, but politicians will flat-out deny the existence of data.

Basing public policies on what you want to think is the truth is very different from basing public policies on what is actually the truth. The truth is: evolution happens, stem cell research is no more or less evil than abortion, mercury in our water systems is bad, and climate change is a fact. Simply because these are inconvenient to us does not change that tey are, and we need politicians with the balls to acknowledge that we do not dictate how the world runs, the world runs and we deal with it.

Whenever and wehere ideology takes the place of knowledge--be it in tribal Pakistan or the halls of the Senate, in the Supreme Court or sub-Saharan Africa, in money or in medicine--shit happens. Ideology has its place; it gives us a platform from which we can jump off as we learn new things, but it should never replace knowledge. Let's pick a prez who knows the difference.


Squawkfox said...

Wow. Very well written. Loved this,

Basing public policies on what you want to think is the truth is very different from basing public policies on what is actually the truth.

The tricky bit, who decides the truth? Being a computer scientist, I'm a huge fan of proofs and algorithms. It's always difficult explaining why a method is better than another though. I wonder if my bias is at fault. ;)

About Jules: said...

Hey, thanks!