Global warming and Smithsonian chilling

To some extent, science has always been more shaped by political realities and pressures than we usually admit. After all, science is “objective,” done properly, and when we look at a scientific study we like to think we’re looking at the best approximation of fact and truth possible at the present moment.

Of course, this is hardly so. Say you get a government grant to study Alzheimer’s and do an absolutely textbook, brilliant, landmark study that moves the field ahead ten years. You’re published in a premier journal, win awards, get quoted left and right, lock up tenure, etc. Nothing biased at all about it.

Except that government funds are not infinite, and back when that grant was being reviewed somebody decided to fund research into Alzheimer’s instead of research into something else, like maybe AIDS or HPV or Parkinson’s or whatever. Like it or don’t, the perfectly objective research you conducted was determined, at an essential level, by a governmental decision to prioritize one disease over another. Political? Maybe. Personal? Maybe – does Alzheimer’s run in the family of the head of the committee making that final decision?

I’m not suggesting that there’s anything radically sinister at work here – merely that even our purest intellectual endeavors are never as free of politics and bias as we’d like and as we sometimes pretend.

Sometimes, though, the things affecting research decisions are sinister. Like when fundamentalist school boards replace science education with superstition. Or legitimate governmental agencies are hijacked by those who decree that up is down because their preacher said so. Or – this:

Smithsonian Toned Down Exhibit on Arctic
By BRETT ZONGKER (Associated Press Writer)
From Associated Press
May 21, 2007 2:24 PM EDTWASHINGTON – The Smithsonian Institution toned down an exhibit on climate change in the Arctic for fear of angering Congress and the Bush administration, says a former administrator at the museum.

Among other things, the script, or official text, of last year’s exhibit was rewritten to minimize and inject more uncertainty into the relationship between global warming and humans, said Robert Sullivan, who was associate director in charge of exhibitions at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Also, officials omitted scientists’ interpretation of some research and let visitors draw their own conclusions from the data, he said. In addition, graphs were altered “to show that global warming could go either way,” Sullivan said.

“It just became tooth-pulling to get solid science out without toning it down,” said Sullivan, who resigned last fall after 16 years at the museum. He said he left after higher-ups tried to reassign him. (Story.)

All the science in the world says black is black, but the administrators at the foremost museum in the nation can’t build an exhibit saying that black is black because they fear retribution from political leaders whose imams and corporate bedfellows have decreed that black is white.

Actually, this case is even worse than it seems at first glance. If a couple bureaucrats roll up in a long black car and tell you that the boss ain’t happy, that’s one thing. But here, the thugs never had to show up:

Sullivan said that to his knowledge, no one in the Bush administration pressured the Smithsonian, whose $1.1 billion budget is mostly taxpayer-funded.Rather, he said, Smithsonian leaders acted on their own. “The obsession with getting the next allocation and appropriation was so intense that anything that might upset the Congress or the White House was being looked at very carefully,” he said.

The Bushies and their land-raper buddies didn’t even have to flash the muscle – they won the fight without even showing up.

This is what’s called a “chilling effect,” and if you live within the control sphere of the Bush administration and are trying to make a living trading in facts, your ass probably has frostbite. You can’t take a chance on challenging the official, faith-based science line, not if you want your doors to stay open. So you make a compromise here, decide that you have to pick your battles there, in hopes of sneaking at least a little knowledge past the brownshirts.

Perhaps the best part is the official Bush response:

White House spokeswoman Kristen Hellmer said Monday: “The White House had no role in this exhibit.”

Which, of course, is a glorious rendition of the fork-tongued dark arts. It manages to be technically accurate and as flagrant a lie as has ever been told all at the same time.

I need to get outside and enjoy the nice day while I can. At any minute someone might pronounce that sunshine is rain, and then where will I be?

:xposted Dr. Slammy in 2008:

6 replies »

  1. While I don’t think that this debate is anywhere near settled, it scares me to think that these people are giving up w/o a fight. On the other hand, given the funding situation across all science now, I can sorta see where they are coming from, too.

  2. The fact that this is even a topic of discussion is all the proof we need that there are a lot of people in DC who need to be run out. On a rail. Tarred, feathered, flogged, stripped and driven across the land.

    I hate to get worked up, but these people have declared war on reality. Our global economic competitors would be laughing their asses off if they weren’t trying to figure out what to do when the seas claim their coastal cities….

  3. Has the Smithsonian’s funding been cut in previous years? It’s possible that while funding was not immediately threatened in the curret funding cycle, Congress has flexed its muscle in the past few years and the Smithsonian administrators didn’t want to fight them again. Or maybe the attempt to de-fund PBS last year was enough of a threat. Its like the schoolyard bully saying, “You want some of this? I think you do!”

    On one hand, I’m for letting the public see and interpret real scientific data. People who aren’t serious hobbyists or professional scientists need to see that science is a living field, not a bunch of facts arrived at magically by some dude 50 or 100 years ago. But if the statement in the article is accurate they not only failed to state the conclusion of the majority of the scientific community, but altered the data to give a false (more favorable to Bushies) impression. As a scientist, that chafes my hide fiercely. In my branch of the physical sciences alone there have been at least 4 major scandals (degrees revoked, established researchers/professors fired) directly regarding data manipulation and falsification in the last year. Seeing a well-regarded public institution altering the data too really breaks my heart.

  4. What happened is scary, and you’re right about the “chilling” effect.

    However, as we’ve discussed before, I have an issue with your conflating cultural bias with personal bias. Do both affect scientific research to some (indetermined) extent? Absolutely. As your example pointed out, there’s no way that a society with limited resources (people, money, time, etc.) can avoid some biases, even if that bias is simple selection bias. But are cultural biases “worse” than a personal bias that limits the scientist’s ability to accurately collect and analyze data?

    Not an easy question, and I could see situations where both “yes” and “no” apply. Perhaps the best solution all around is to make damn sure that every scientist understands as many of the influences on their research as possible.

  5. Personal bias and cultural bias and political bias are all different in some ways, to be sure. But we’d also be advised to understand just how much of our lives – personal and public – are ideologically driven. There are non-political decisions, but not as many as we like to imagine.

  6. To put your point in a different light, here’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about (and really ought to blog on in greater detail) – it is not possible to escape the influence of your culture, even if you change culture. And part of culture is ideology.