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Scientific Integrity

Scientific Integrity, Statistical Evidence, and Public Policy

Scientific Integrity, Statistical Evidence, and Public Policy

Statistics has a long and proud role in quantifying scientific certainty arising from measurements that do not provide absolute proof, such as demonstrating the health effects of smoking, in the face of attempts by cigarette companies to cast doubt.

It is therefore incumbent on statisticians to fight trends in Washington during the Bush administration, where scientific evidence was in an unprecedented number of areas, and the whole process by which scientific input is collected was changed in favor of political bias, and to work toward restoring accurate scientific input during the Obama administration.

Areas of Abuse

Areas in which scientific input was disregarded or distorted include:

Environment

  • Climate change: suppressing reports and publicly misrepresenting scientific consensus,
  • Mercury emissions: suppressing information on the effect on public health,
  • Salmon: removing science-based recommendations from reports,
  • Endangered species: manipulating scientific input,
  • Air pollution: suppression of information,

    Human Health

  • Emergency Contraception: FDA appointees overruled staff scientists and two independent advisory panels to deny access to emergency contraception,
  • Abstinence-only Education: obscuring scientific evaluation of education programs pressuring scientists to promote abstinence,
  • Condoms: distorting the CDC website information on the effectiveness of condoms against HIV/AIDS,
  • Airborne Bacteria: prohibiting publication of research on airborne bacteria originating from farm wastes,
  • Breast Cancer: making up a link between abortion and breast cancer on a NCI website.
  • This picture won the 2008 Union of Concerned Scientists "Science Idol" contest. See the story, and other finalists

    Evolution

  • Evolution: promoting "Intelligent Design" by suggesting there is scientific controversy over evolution. For more background, see the AAAS site http://www.aaas.org/news/press_room/evolution.

    On the lighter side, see Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New 'Intelligent Falling' Theory

  • Scientific Input in Congress

    Furthermore, the whole process by which scientific input inform policy changed, in Congress and the Bush administration.

    Congress shut down the non-partisan and highly regarded U.S. Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in favor of courtroom-style hearings with adversarial witnesses chosen by the majority party to give the impression they choose.

    The OTA was disbanded by a Congress upset by the OTA's summary of the scientific evidence against Star Wars. For more on the OTA see the June 2005 Scientific American.

    The OTA has been replaced with kangaroo courts like the Bush-era congressional hearings on global warming, in which two climate research contrarians with industry ties were invited to challenge one researcher (University of Virginia's Michael Mann), whose work has contributed to the overwhelming global scientific consensus on the issue. Naturally, the hearing did not convey the overwhelming consensus, but rather the impression of uncertainty and disagreement, and a score of 2-1 against climate change; see The Republican War on Science.

    Politicization of Scientific Input in the Bush Administration

    The Bush administration used political criteria in place of scientific merit in creating scientific bodies:
  • Fogarty International Center Advisory Board: qualified scientists (including a Nobel Laureate) rejected after political litmus tests,
  • President's Council on Bioethics: two leading scientists dismissed for dissenting opinions on biomedical research ethics,
  • Arms Control Panel: scientific committee dismissed,
  • Army Science Board: engineer rejected for a contribution to McCain,
  • National Nuclear Security Administration Panel: scientific advisory committee dismissed,
  • NIH Drug Abuse Panel: potential panel members were asked if they voted for President Bush,
  • Lead Poisoning Prevention Panel: Staff-recommended scientists rejected, replaced by appointees with financial ties to the lead industry,
  • Workplace Safety Panel: Well-qualified scientists were rejected due to their support for a workplace ergonomics standard,
  • Reproductive Health Advisory Committee: underqualified and highly partisan nominee was suggested as chair.

    Industry Control over Scientific Input

    The administration used the "Data Quality Act" to let industry prevent scientific evidence from being used: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A3733-2004Aug15.html

    Terminology

    The Bush administration and its allies in Congress and elsewhere orchestrated the systematic use of the term "Junk Science" for scientific information in environmental or public safety realms that might be used to support increased regulation, and the term "Sound Science" for contrarian work.

    Speak Out - make it 15,001!

    It is important for all scientists, and statisticians in particular, to speak out for the use of objective scientific information and statistical weighting of evidence in public policy, and to speak against those who attempt to give the impression "considerable controversy" on issues such as global warming or health effects of second-hand smoke in the face of statistical significance and scientific consensus.

    The Union of Concerned Scientists Scientific Integrity site includes a statement signed over 15,000 scientists, including 49 Nobel Laureates, 63 recipients of the National Medal of Science, almost 200 members of the National Academies.

    Scientists and Engineers for America, www.sefora.org, is a new group working to promote scientific integrity, and highights tight political races where there is a clear distinction between candidates who care about science and those that have an anti-science agenda.

    Further Information

    For additional information, see
  • The Union of Concerned Scientists website on Scientific Integrity,
  • Scientific American: Okay, we give up (Apr 05), Bush-League Lysenkoism (May 04), The Fossil Fallacy (March 05), Political Science (Nov 04), and Science Abuse (Oct 05),
  • The Republican War on Science 2005, Basic Books, New York.
  • Scientists and Engineers for America, www.sefora.org

    Full Circle

    I close with mention of another spoof of Intelligent Design, the Flying Spaghetti Monster movement, which states that the Universe was created by an invisible and undetectable Flying Spaghetti Monster.
    This brings us back full circle to statistics; the FSM open letter to the Kansas School board demands equal treatment of FSMism with evolution and ID, and notes the "statistically significant inverse relationship between pirates and global temperature", complete with statistical graphics!
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