This morning on the way into the office, I heard a radio discussion on the BBC on whether or not scientists and researchers ought to be more open for scrutiny in the wake of the East Anglia climate office scandal. One commenter said yes, because scientists should want their research open for public scrutiny, because that’s precisely how science improves. Another said no, not really, because public debate can be so abusive these days; researchers are loath to open themselves up to the kind of viciousness that’s routine nowadays.
I thought about that this afternoon when I read William Saletan’s Slate essay about the Elena Kagan abortion policy mess that’s come out of her hearing. Saletan says the real scandal here isn’t that Kagan, working as a senior White House staffer, tweaked a scientific report to better reflect the Clinton administration’s political priorities; the scandal is that the scientists at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists went along with it. Excerpt:
Kagan, who was then an associate White House counsel, was doing her job: advancing the president’s interests. The real culprit was ACOG, which adopted Kagan’s spin without acknowledgment. But the larger problem is the credence subsequently given to ACOG’s statement by courts, including the Supreme Court. Judges have put too much faith in statements from scientific organizations. This credulity must stop.
Saletan goes on to say that while conservative critics of Kagan aren’t exactly right here, they do make a pretty damning case that she flat-out said something untrue about science because it was politically useful — and that scientists accepted the lie. Saletan:
But if conservatives are being naive about the relationship between science and politics, Kagan is being cynical about it. “There was no way in which I would have or could have intervened with ACOG, which is a respected body of physicians, to get it to change its medical views,” she told senators on Wednesday. With this clever phrasing, she obscured the truth: By reframing ACOG’s judgments, she altered their political effect as surely as if she had changed them.
She also altered their legal effect. And this is the scandal’s real lesson: Judges should stop treating the statements of scientific organizations as apolitical. Such statements, like the statements of any other group, can be loaded with spin. This one is a telling example.
And, as Saletan further laments, this officially sanctioned lie by ACOG formed the basis for subsequent jurisprudence on partial-birth abortion. In other words, the law of the land stands on outright falsehoods propagated by medical scientists.
Saletan is certainly right. I remember sitting in editorial board meetings, in which all it took to more or less shut down a debate was to cite “the science.” Because most of us journalists (myself included) are fairly ignorant of science, we were trusting the integrity and accuracy of scientists — just as surely as in an earlier age, one would have said to trust “the Church.” But we live in a scientistic age, in which many of us — again, I do not exempt myself — fail too often to be skeptical about what scientists tell us. Just this weekend, I was talking with a friend my age about the insane things that medical science told our mothers to do re: proper care and feeding of babies, e.g., that formula was superior to breastmilk.
On the BBC debate, one listener wrote that of course we should trust scientists, because our only other choice is to trust religious leaders, which is obviously (in his view) unacceptable. That’s plainly a false choice, but one that seems normal to many people — as if to be skeptical of what scientists claim is therefore to endorse religion, and vice versa. Absurd. What we should be skeptical of is anything human beings touch, because everybody has motives for spinning facts. To be skeptical is not to distrust everything. Rather, to be skeptical — or at least properly skeptical — is to distrust to a point. Even skepticism has its polemical uses. Science can be telling the verifiable, empirical, straight-up truth about some things, and there will always be somebody who won’t believe it because it doesn’t suit his prejudices, and who will congratulate himself on being undeceived and undeceivable.
We all surely want our decisions to be guided by the best possible information. Consider the overwhelming consensus among researchers that biotech crops are safe for humans and the environment–a conclusion that is rejected by the very environmentalist organizations that loudly insist on the policy relevance of the scientific consensus on global warming. But I digress.
Confirmation bias is a powerful thing.