Saturday, February 14, 2009

The First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All the Scientists

According to a University of California, Berkeley study in the February issue of Political Psychology, when people learn about research findings that run counter to their own political beliefs, they doubt the conclusions. (That's to be expected.) What surprised the UC researchers is that people—particularly politically conservative people—often also question the researcher's objectivity. In the study, survey participants with conservative beliefs tended to attribute scientific data resulting in liberal findings to a researcher's liberalism. At the same time, they were less likely to conclude that conservative findings were due to a researcher's conservatism.

So that could explain why the Republican Congress was so slow to act on Global Warming, and why they got so explosively red in the face when they were accused of nattering on pig-headedly about the whole thing. It could also explain why Bush's White House self-righteously muzzled scientists in general on many issues, and smiled when they did so. And it also may shed light on a more recent hairy tussle between The Infectious Diseases Society of America and the Attorney General of Connecticut. From the Abstract of "Science, Politics, and Values: The Politicization of Professional Practice Guidelines" in Journal of the American Medical Association (Feb 11, vol. 301, #6):

"The Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) issued updated clinical practice guidelines in 2006 for the diagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease.1 Within days, the Connecticut attorney general launched an investigation, alleging IDSA had violated state antitrust law by recommending against the use of long-term antibiotics to treat 'chronic Lyme disease (CLD),' a label applied by advocates to a variety of nonspecific symptoms for which frequently no evidence suggests the etiologic agent of Lyme disease is responsible. The IDSA was forced to settle the claim to avoid exorbitant litigation costs, even though the society's guidelines were based on sound science. The case exemplifies the politicization of health policy, with elected officials advocating for health policies against the weight of scientific evidence. [Emphasis mine.]

Unlike Bush, Obama "gets" global warming. He also gets the need to put scientists in charge of the national debates on health, energy, and technology policy. But will Republican Senators and Representatives reflexively gridlock progress if and when scientists like our new Nobel-laureate Energy Secretary, with full transparency, lead the nation in ways that run counter to conservative political beliefs? Should we expect conservatives to assume that the nation's most eminent scientists are unscientific?


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