Mooney Suffering From Cognitive Dissonance?

I would be woefully negligent if I didn’t note Chris Mooney acknowledging that presidents not named Bush have been accused of downplaying scientific evidence when that evidence appears to rub up against political considerations.  While Mooney mentions specific instances described in a Los Angeles Times piece, that article is pretty thin on details.  (Perhaps the Union of Concerned Scientists can fill in some gaps?)  I would love to get into the specifics of the instances cited by both Mooney and the Times, but in most cases all we have is a one sentence description of what scientists claim took place.  There’s rarely a mention of whether or not the actions seen by some as interference weren’t actually efforts to comply with agency procedures, regulations, or other relevant (non-scientific) items.  For instance, policies may be in place to consider scientific input, but have other priorities outweigh the scientific input when making a final choice.  That may be bad policy, but having something like this

“Fite said that scientists had complained to her that “all of the incentives are geared to support grazing and energy development,” which could adversely affect plants and other animals.”

doesn’t mean that there is bad behavior.  It certainly means that the policy could use revision, but that’s not an issue of suppressing scientists or their activities.  And I’m actually sympathetic to Mooney’s point about using dispersants for the oil spill, that a policy choice amongst several environmentally bad options doesn’t means science is being suppressed.

Let’s not forget that at least two noted examples of interference with scientists (or their advice) that have occurred but are not mentioned in the Times piece (or by Mooney).  There’s the suppression of Alan Carlin at the EPA (which the agency apologized for).  And while the Interior Department is featured in the article, there’s no mention of the engineers who rightly complained that their advice was modified and presented without their input on the changes.

I don’t think the kind of problem outlined in this article will ever go away.

This kind of dispute will almost always play out in areas where both policy processes and scientific processes are involved.  As the rules and norms are different for each, what could be seen as bad scientific behavior may actually be actions trying to comply with policy processes.  (Instances of bad policy behavior to preserve good scientific processes are a subject for another day.)

There is also the perennial conflict between aspirationally value-free science (which isn’t really) and value-laden policy and politics (which tries to hide values through use of experts).  Noses will get bent in situations where nobody does anything wrong.  But care must be taken every time to make sure nobody did anything wrong.

Regardless of what you think of the claims, I take the continued presence of these concerns as additional evidence that Dr. Holdren and the Office of Science and Technology Policy have completely blown the opportunity presented by the Executive Order asking for guidance with respect to scientific integrity in government.  If the scientists on the ground in the government are expressing concerns at a comparable level to a previous administration, the message has not gone out that things have changed (or more accurately, that they want things to change).  Perversely, it may require getting that message out in an extensive, systematic fashion to actually make things change.


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