Welcome Back "Science"

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Science has returned to Presidential politics. President Obama has issued a directive on scientific integrity, effectively telling all agencies to stop playing fast and loose with scientific findings. The order is short and sweet, and restores scientific knowledge to its important place in informing decisions where such knowledge has significant probative weight.

Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health, protection of the environment, increased efficiency in the use of energy and other resources, mitigation of the threat of climate change, and protection of national security.

The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions. Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions… The selection of scientists and technology professionals for positions in the executive branch should be based on their scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.

Much as this does restore order and even sanity to a process that was so badly distorted in the past administration, it may place more reliance on science than it deserves. The major problem in the recent past has been the deliberate masking of scientific findings when they undercut a policy position based on ideological grounds. Both science and ideology are forms of beliefs, and both have a place in policy making. But in those cases where the “truth” of science runs headlong into the “truth” of ideology, science should have some privilege.

But this is not to say that scientific knowledge is the be-all and end-all, and that that privilege is unlimited. Scientific knowledge can be accepted as true only if the underlying theories and models fit the situation, and if all proper methodological rules have been obeyed. Unfortunately many of the critical problems faced by the President and other leaders fall under the category of complexity. These problems arise out of or within systems that cannot be defined by scientific laws, and whose behavior is fundamentally unpredictable. In these cases, for example, global warming, the financial collapse, or sustainability in general, science can inform but not definitively. Wisdom, prudence or some similar quality, maybe creativity, is called for. Scientists may possess these qualities, but not by virtue of their Ph. D. degrees. Small steps reflecting the acceptance of the unknown nature of the problem are appropriate. Truth is determined pragmatically by its correspondence to successful outcomes, not by its methodological purity.

Two social scientists, Silvio Funtowicz and Jerry Ravetz, trying to build a bridge between the need for “truth” in policy making and the inability of conventional or “normal’” science to provide such truth in issues dealing with complexity defined a “post-normal science.” In this model the “truths” would be vetted and determined by a much wider group than the traditional peers.

The shortcoming of [social] scientific expertise related to the economic crunch was highlighted in an article in the Newsweek that came in the mail today.

One of the not inconsiderable side effects of the current economic meltdown is the demise of the economic expert, if experts they truly ever were. Experts took a quieter bath in 1989, when communism collapsed without a single Sovietologist coming near to suggesting the possibility of the demise of the totalitarian behemoth. So, too, did few economists call the global economic collapse that began last autumn. The entire Dismal Science, as Thomas Carlyle called economics, and all its practitioners seem to have been asleep at the wheel…

After being wrong so often during the current crisis, an unseemly humility is beginning to show up in economists. On television, Liz Ann Sonders, the chief investment strategist for Charles Schwab, recently said, “Look, I would love to know where we go from here, but no one does.”

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