Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Liar, Liar, Forest's On Fire

"Good science," my eye. We're supposed to listen to lectures about what constitutes "good science" from people who, for political reasons, can't accept evolution?

The Fight Over Forests
GOP Cherry-Picks Its Own 'Good Science'

East Valley Tribune, Jul. 13, 2003

The least convincing utterance in the debate over Arizona’s forests -- about as useful as our GOP congressional delegation’s refusal to help obtain emergency aid for Arizona unless Gov. Napolitano endorses the Bush administration’s long-term anti-environmental agenda -- is the oft-made claim that we should use “good science” in forest management. The people using the phrase (call them “suddenly ecosystem-aware Republicans”) know good science when they see it: Science that’s politically correct.

The “good science” rhetoric rests on fundamental misunderstandings of how science actually works. The really interesting issues in science are an ongoing, collaborative discussion. It’s not like a simple math question, to which the answer is either right or wrong. Science is essentially a series of “best guesses,” eventually narrowing toward consensus.

Always, some scientists disagree with the consensus. These outliers sometimes strengthen the theory by noting flaws and encouraging refinements. In remarkable cases, they develop either the data or theory that shatters the previous consensus. But not every crank is Copernicus; humanity always produces far more crackpots than Einsteins.

I’ve used previously the analogy by the author Kim Stanley Robinson likening scientific inquiry -- the construction of a theory -- to building a wall. Scientists place individual bricks of knowledge in what may be seem initially a random pattern; it’s not clear whether there will be a wall, much less what it will look like. Eventually, a wall emerges; scientists test its structural integrity, and if it holds, move to the next challenge.

Few new theories persuade everybody, and there are always some ostensible scientists who aren’t convinced that the wall is solid. But over time, their number dwindles, and when they retire, their successors look for more interesting areas to research.

Unfortunately for the public good, some of these “minority reports” are just too ideologically and politically correct for the Bush administration to resist.

The “good science” of forest health is a theory -- yes, a theory -- no more solid than the science behind global warming. Of course, GOP leaders call global warming “liberal claptrap.” The Bush administration initially misled the American people (sound familiar?) about the National Academy of Sciences report they commissioned which concluded that global warming is real and potentially dangerous. The administration recently made the EPA remove mentions of scientific concerns about global warming from its reports, and instead keeps referring reporters to the small, and shrinking, band of scientists who still doubt global warming.

But doubting and denying global warming serves the political interests of the Bush administration in serving its big-business base.

Take stem-cell research. President Bush used bogus data about the number of viable stem cell lines available to justify his 2001 decision. Instead of the 60-plus Bush claimed, the National Institute of Health so far has confirmed only 11 viable lines, most of which were grown in mouse feeder cells -- greatly complicating any human trials. Scientists since have developed alternative to mouse feeder cells, but Bush’s edict makes these newer, cleaner, and better lines ineligible for federal research funding.

Stem-cell research holds tremendous promise for medical advances and remarkable cures. But hindering that research serves the political interests of the Bush administration in serving its evangelical base.

Or take one of the best-accepted scientific walls of all, evolution. GOP House Majority Leader Tom DeLay derides evolution as “unproven,” and President Bush himself equivocates, as if “the jury is still out.” These same Republicans (who, for political reasons, can’t publicly accept the scientific principle of evolution) want us to accept their new-found devotion to “good science” for our forests.

But to these guys, “good science” means only science that’s good for them -- and their political supporters.

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