02 September 2005

Science, misuse of science, Katrina, and responsibility

Scientists are past the point where we can remain silent. We are past the point where we can be afraid of being labeled by our opponents as "playing politics". We are past the point where we can afford to let others define the terms of debate.

People are dead. People are dying. People are injured, hungry, and homeless. People have, again, died because things were not done differently. People are dead because scientific advice was not followed, and people are dead because they did not know enough science to recognize the danger that they were in. These things have happened. They are a reality. They will not change.

So why, people ask, should we start to point fingers and try to figure out who is to blame. What reason could there be other than to try to reap political gain, and what kind of despicable person would want to grab political points on the backs of the dead? Speaking for myself, I want to assess the blame so that we can figure out how to not let this happen again.

This situation is complicated, and the details may not be clear for some time. Nevertheless, I think we know enough to be able to begin to assess the blame, and to begin to work on future plans. I am certain I know enough to list some of the groups that are at least partly to blame for this.

The Democrats are to blame for this.

The Republicans are to blame for this.

Politicians are to blame.

Policymakers are to blame.

And, not least, scientists are to blame for this.

It is our fault, too. There is more that scientists could have done. Yes, politicians have played fast and loose with scientific data in blatant attempts to support their pet ideas. Yes, both parties have been guilty of this, and yes, the current administration has been more blatant in their attempts to manipulate scientific results than any before. But the difference between the current administration and past administrations is only a matter of degree.

We should have done more to fight the misuse of science. Things have certainly been done, but not enough and not in the right places. Individual scientists and individual groups have stood up and taken stands, but the efforts have not been coordinated. Scientists need to stand up against the misuse of scientific results, and present a united front. When the idiots at the FDA push back ruling on Plan B by another two months, we shouldn't just be seeing editorials in NEJM or JAMA. We should see Science and PNAS and other groups weigh in as well. Misuse of science hurts everyone.

Education is also a problem. I'm sure that there are people - lots of people - in this country who do not understand the difference between twenty foot waves and a twenty foot storm surge. There are probably more people who understand what a storm surge is than who understand how wetlands help to mitigate the effects of a storm surge. We live in a country and at a time where science plays more of a role in day-to-day life than ever before, and where people understand extremely little science. Here, too, there are others who have played a more active role in the deterioration of our educational system, but here, too, we have let it happen without putting up a massive, well-coordinated fight.

Reality is not just another worldview. That is a basic fact that we need to make known. Science is not the same as Christianity, or Islam, or new-age navel-gazing. Science is a method that people have devised to help us learn about how the world works. Science is about reality, and scientific conclusions cannot be ignored with impunity. Scientific results do not change with the next election, and they cannot be legislated out of existence.

It's time to stand up for reality.
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