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Tilting at Windmills

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January 22, 2009

A NEW ERA FOR SCIENCE.... Chris Mooney had a great piece in Slate last week, noting that the "war on science" is finally over. We've seen the end of an era in which an administration attacked "the integrity of scientific information -- its biased editing of technical documents, muzzling of government researchers, and shameless dispersal of faulty ideas about issues like global warming."

After some very frustrating years, it seems the scientific community finally has reason to celebrate. The New York Times reported today that many scientists are "exuberant" about Barack Obama becoming president, and staff members throughout the government's scientific agencies "reported being teary-eyed with joy."

"If you look at the science world, you see a lot of happy faces," said Frank Press, a former president of the National Academy of Sciences and former science adviser to President Jimmy Carter. "It's not just getting money. It's his recognition of what science can do to bring this country back in an innovative way."

On issues like stem cells, climate change, sex education and contraceptives, the Bush administration sought to tame and, in some cases, suppress the findings of many of the government's scientific agencies. Besides discouraging scientific pronouncements that contradicted administration policies, officials insisted on tight control over even routine functions of key agencies.

And then, here comes Obama, who won plaudits for noting in his inaugural address: "We will restore science to its rightful place."

Indeed, maybe I'm just especially sensitive to the issue, but I've noticed that the new president seems to take the issue far more seriously than most politicians, beyond just Tuesday's speech. When he introduced a Nobel Prize-winning physicist as his choice for Energy Secretary, Obama said, "His appointment should send a signal to all that my administration will value science, we will make decisions based on the facts." Soon after, he introduced one of the most impressive science teams any White House has ever seen.

And soon after that, Obama devoted one of his weekly multimedia addresses to the issue: "[T]he truth is that promoting science isn't just about providing resources -- it's about protecting free and open inquiry. It's about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It's about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it's inconvenient -- especially when it's inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us."

Is it any wonder so many scientists are "exuberant"?

Steve Benen 4:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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I know it is heartening to me personally having leadership that values science. Having a background in it, I especially find the prospect of a more robust and integrated scientific community energizing.

Plus, maybe we can finally get those flying cars we were promised.

Posted by: RomanX on January 22, 2009 at 4:20 PM | PERMALINK

Indeed, maybe I'm just especially sensitive to the issue, but I've noticed that the new president seems to take the issue far more seriously than most politicians, beyond just Tuesday's speech.

I think that the new President is especially sensitive to the issue. Previous presidents never had the truly awful example of how NOT to do things that we've just lived through. For at least the next few months (if not years) everything that Obama does is going to be measured as a counterpoint to how the previous holder of the office did things.

And of course he knows it - actually for him it may be "in his face" even more because he spent months campaigning on just how he was going to do things differently. And as we should all recall, there were very, very long lists of things he was going to do differently. So it will be a while before the compare and contrast elements of his rhetoric shift (if they do at all - most of the next four years are probably going to be devoted to cleaning up messes and putting out fires. Lots of stories about "why are we in this mess" and "here's how we're going to do it differently" will inevitably ensue from that dynamic.)

Posted by: NonyNony on January 22, 2009 at 4:20 PM | PERMALINK

Science depends on the free and open exchange of ideas and information between researchers as they impartially consider mutiple hypotheses as to the nature of reality in the material world.

Nothing could be further from the Dubya's worldview:

Impartiality? Nope. Not when you can have a firm going in position as the Decider....

Multiple hypotheses? Nope. Why bother with multiple hypotheses when you can railroad your unilateral decisions on the rest of the world?

Reality? Nope. Dubya's penchant for various fantasies (WMD, Heckuva Job Brownie, Mission Accomplished, Harriet Miers....) are all well documented. He didn't seem all that comfortable with reality, and certainly spent a limited amount of time exploring it.

Material World? Nope. His heart is set on the things above.

Free exchange of information? Nope. Free is not the same as warrantless or wireless.

No wonder the scientists as exuberant.

Posted by: Westside Buppie on January 22, 2009 at 4:24 PM | PERMALINK

From a friend at MIT describing the scene in a lecture hall where they broadcast the inauguration ceremony:

"It was crowded to the rafters. Stairs, steps, upper passageways, crammed with people. doubled on several seats. I snuck in the back way, and stood on tip toe. [When] Sen Feinstein or CJ Roberts said, 'will all please stand.' The entire auditorium in [the hall] stood. They listened to the oath and then roared. You could feel the whole building. Dozens of people were crying....And --- would you believe the entire [lecture hall] sang the national anthem as if it was worth singing. I am turning 70+ and have not seen anything like this for a long time ....... not since WWII ...."


Posted by: Westside Buppie on January 22, 2009 at 4:25 PM | PERMALINK

I'm only a lowly engineer, but I did major in Physics. Am I exuberant? You betcha! The true beauty of science is that a scientist will publish the results of his experiment even when the results disprove his theory. The Michelson-Morley experiment is the most famous example, but far from the only one. It's nice to see that attitude coming back.

Posted by: fostert on January 22, 2009 at 4:32 PM | PERMALINK

This is all good news, and like everything else about the Obama administration, a strong indicator that it will be a tremendous improvement over the Bush administration.

However, not all scientists are entirely exuberant. As WorldWatch Institute notes:

In his Inaugural Address this week, President Barack Obama called on the United States to "roll back the specter of a warming planet." But at last week's State of the World Symposium, IPCC Chair Dr. Rajendra Pachauri said that Obama's proposed emissions target -- returning to 1990 levels by 2020 -- is insufficient, citing the IPCC's 2007 conclusion that global emissions must peak no later than 2015 to limit temperature increases to 2.0-2.4 degrees Celsius, a level at which the planet will still see serious impacts. Dr. Pachauri also noted that Obama's proposed target is well short of the 20 percent cut by 2020 that the European Union has committed to.

Obama will come under enormous pressure both to scale back his already inadequate emissions reduction goals, and to squander precious resources on phony nonsolutions like "clean coal" and "safe nuclear" -- which don't exist, and can do nothing to mitigate global warming, but will divert billions of taxpayer dollars to wealthy and powerful corporations.

Already, Obama's new Secretary of Energy Steven Chu has stated that he supports building more coal-fired power plants without carbon sequestration technology, as well as "accelerating" the massive taxpayer bailout of the failed nuclear power industry.

On the other hand, Obama is (as far as I know) the first president in history to specifically mention wind and solar energy in his inauguration speech.

So, it remains to be seen whether Obama's stated commitment to "science" will translate into the changes we need to effectively deal with global warming.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on January 22, 2009 at 4:32 PM | PERMALINK

And conservatives seriously wonder why so many academics are liberals?

Posted by: TR on January 22, 2009 at 4:32 PM | PERMALINK

I hope the Obama administration does what it can to prevent the spread of so-called "Intelligent Design" (aka crypto-Creationism) but as that battle seems like it's being waged at the school board level, I'm not sure how much direct influence they can have.

As Twain said: “God made the Idiot for practice, and then He made the School Board”

Posted by: MichMan on January 22, 2009 at 4:35 PM | PERMALINK

@Westside Buppie:

Please ask your friend to post a full account of that MIT scene somewhere. A blog, a letter to the editor, anything.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on January 22, 2009 at 4:38 PM | PERMALINK

It isn't just scientists. Any rational person who prefers facts to ideology, especially when it comes to policy, should be thrilled by the signals coming from the Obama team.

I, for one, am one of those people...and I am no scientist. I am an artist, but I have always enjoyed learning about the world around me.

For example: In the fields of genetics and anthropology, the facts show that genetic drift in mitochondrial dna, passed from mother to offspring, strongly suggests that all non-african races come from a small group that migrated from Africa to Yemen and then spread across the globe. Sorry racists...you are all a bunch of Africans. Sorry strict religionists. This migration started 150,000 - 120,000 years ago, not 10,000 years ago...and they were hardly the only people in Africa at the time.

Posted by: independent thinker on January 22, 2009 at 4:42 PM | PERMALINK

Sorry Stefan,

The best I'm authorized to do is to point you to The MIT student newspaper article on that date:

http://tech.mit.edu/V128/N64/inauguration.html

Posted by: Westside Buppie on January 22, 2009 at 4:56 PM | PERMALINK

"Sorry racists...you are all a bunch of Africans."

Black Uhuru did a song called "The Whole World is Africa." I don't think they really knew how right they were. Haile Salassie dreamed of a day when the color of a ma's skin would be no more significant than the color of a man's eye. Turns out that eye color is more genetically significant than skin color. So often, the artists and visionaries are way ahead of us scientists and engineers, even if they don't know it.

Posted by: fostert on January 22, 2009 at 5:10 PM | PERMALINK

The war on science is over?!!

I am still trying to get through to the government services workers that their waste pick-up service is flat rate, all other utilities metered. So here in Fresno CA, we waste thousands ot tons of co2 simply because the government workers union fears technological change!

I have even heard that progressives are in favor of inefficiency because it creates jobs! CO2 pollution be damned.

Posted by: MattYoung on January 22, 2009 at 5:17 PM | PERMALINK

Fostert's comment reminds me of a the Riceville study done with elementary age students where the students in a classroom were divided up by eye color. The teacher then gave preferential treatment to the blue-eyed children and ignored the dark-eyed children. All of the children were Caucasian. Within a short amount of time the students were separating by choice on the playground by eye color and it was common by the end of the experimental period to hear them making comments about the children in the other eye-color group.

Don't think we won't segregate by eye-color given half a chance to do so. I'm not advocating the methodology or motivation behind the Riceville experiment. I'm just saying what happened when the experiment was run.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Elliott

Posted by: Westside Buppie on January 22, 2009 at 5:30 PM | PERMALINK

Don't think we won't segregate by eye-color given half a chance to do so.

Or bellies with stars.

Posted by: Gregory on January 22, 2009 at 5:53 PM | PERMALINK


Ironically, I found the story "What Was I Scared Of?" to be be terrifying.

I don't know what it is about a pair of pants with nobody in them, but I didn't like it. Still don't.

Posted by: TheWesson on January 22, 2009 at 7:22 PM | PERMALINK

Science isn't elitist.

Science IS the human endeavor.

Without it, you would not be reading my text in the virtual realm.

Obama is simply restating the obvious, that science is us.

Religion is an opinion.

Science informs opinions.

Posted by: Tom Nicholson on January 22, 2009 at 7:53 PM | PERMALINK

Well then, scientists, time to get off your asses and solve our problems. Cold fusion, an easy way to launch mirrors into orbit to act as an artificial sunscreen, curing cancer.

Hop to it! Prove your usefulness!

Posted by: MNPundit on January 22, 2009 at 9:18 PM | PERMALINK

"Hop to it! Prove your usefulness!"

We're on it, can you give us the money to do it? Our experiments don't come for free you know.

I love Westside Buppie's comments because it's so weird for me. My eyes are yellow in the inner ring, but blue in the outer ring. Depending on my emotions, they can appear either blue or green. I have multiple police intake descriptions that prove that. So what color are my eyes? My friends can't say either way, and I won't say. When asked, I always say this: "Well they are blue and green, look at my eyes and tell me what you think." I get different responses to that. I've have had people notice that my eye color can change within ten minutes. It's a fun bar trick. Especially when you consider that sexual arousal will change the color. I can convince women to show their tits to change my eye color. And it works. Now, the color doesn't change, what changes is the that the yellow ring shrinks when I'm happy, making my eyes look blue. When I'm sad, the yellow ring comes out, making them look green. Nobody ever thinks that someone might have bi-colored eyes.

Posted by: fostert on January 22, 2009 at 11:21 PM | PERMALINK

"Well then, scientists, time to get off your asses and solve our problems."

The problems have been solved, but we are not allowed to put them into practice, we have a bottleneck.

The bottleneck was not put there by scientists, nor by corporations, nor by non-profits. Have I left out any sector?

I hope not, by process of elimination, and by virtue of the current Treasury bubble, it is not the private sector, it is not the scientists, it is likely something government is doing or preventing that causes the depression.

Posted by: MattYoung on January 23, 2009 at 12:09 AM | PERMALINK

So Chris Mooney thinks the "war on science" is finally over. Well, keep yur eyes on Texas, where the State Board of Education hss been hearing testimony since Wednesday on revising the science curriculum so it would support the Biblical version of creation. According to the NY Times, "social conservatives have gained 7 of 15 seats on the Texas board in recent years, and they enjoy the strong support of Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican."

The war wages on.
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/22/education/22texas.html?em

Posted by: LeRoy Ferguson on January 23, 2009 at 2:54 AM | PERMALINK

"Well, keep yur eyes on Texas"

Man, I thought that shit was over. I thought the new board was better than the old board. Obviously, I was wrong. I guess The Who gave me proper advice. You need to go down to the Cloak Room and clear this up. It's just across the street from the west entrance of the Texas State Capital building. Do some tequila shots with your representative, and don't mind his hooker. Just tell him how you feel. But make sure you buy his hooker a shot, too. And if you need to do some lines with him, go upstairs. And bring the hooker, she won't talk.

Posted by: fostert on January 23, 2009 at 3:20 AM | PERMALINK

Per the last 2 comments:

The war on science will never be over, but forces of science have won a decisive victory at the national level that should keep the peddlers of ignorance and superstition on the defensive for the next several years.

Yes, the polluters and the religious nuts will continue to fight a delaying action at the federal level and will win a few isolated victories in the states, but those will not have the widespread impact of the previous adminstration's ability to pack key agencies with idealogues of all stripes, muzzle government scientists, redirect funding and suppress or rewrite any scientific reports they didn't like.

Posted by: tanstaafl on January 23, 2009 at 7:50 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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