by Roger Koppl
President Obama seems to be setting himself up as the scientific President. He has a Nobel Prize winning physicist for his Secretary of Energy. Monday he reversed the ban on stem-cell research and issued an interesting memo meant, presumably, to restore scientific integrity to the Executive Branch of the federal government.
Obama’s attitude toward science is a vast improvement over the Bush attitude that, in Stephen Colbert’s brilliant satire, “truthiness” trumps science. I think the celebration of “science” has its risks, however. Obama gets it right, I think, when his memo says, “If scientific and technological information is developed and used by the Federal Government, it should ordinarily be made available to the public.” And he is right to say, in effect, that we don’t get to pick our facts. Right. But I fear the tyranny of experts, especially when their funding comes from one source, the federal government.
Obama’s memo says, “Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues.” What counts as science and what science counts? When the federal government dominates science funding, then we may not have enough cognitive diversity for error detection and correction. A monopoly funder may turn the process of scientific review into a kind of Keynesian beauty contest. Separately and together, William Butos and Thomas McQuade have done important work on this topic, as illustrated by their 2006 paper in The Independent Review available here. Science is better than truthiness, but it has its dangers too, I fear.