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Bush's science advisor: Misapplied reductionism

May 22, 2009

In the February 2009 issue of SEED (no. 20), there is an interview the Bush administration science adviser John Marburger.   Marburger is reductive at the wrong level–to the point of seeming to believe in fundamental relativism.  He fails to make meaningful epistemological distinctions between science, policy, ethics and opinion.

His [Bush’s] position on stem cells was attacked as a scientific position, when in fact it’s an ethical position.

This seems to convolve “what you can know” with “what you ought to do with it”.  Bush’s stem cell policy seemed to me to place significant restrictions on finding things out based on political/social squeamishness, rather than what one can do in the practice of reproductive or therapeutic medicine.  Science is about what we can know–ethics is about what we ought to do with it.

The biggest threat to that science is the inexorable growth of the mandatory budget for Social Security, Medicare, and other programs. The growth of mandatory budget is squeezing everything.  It is squeezing science, infrastructure, renewal.

This policy chip appears suddenly in the middle of an discussion of science policy. Is this the best forum for rolling out that discussion? Or is that an attempt to manipulate emotions? That statement is severely reductive.  It reaches straight to black and white bi-value thinking by positioning a stark opposition of science vs. society (cannot fund both!).  What about society vs. the military? Or any other reductive choosing of a single competing expense?  A more systemic approach would enable more workable policies.

Speaking of scientist Jim Hansen:

He’s a controversial person because he’s one of the few scientists who’s willing to state his opinion. It makes me a little nervous because of he authority as a scientist. Whenever science is recruited in the service of opinion, it makes me very nervous. Everybody wants to use the credibility of science to bolster their opinions.  And I don’t like that.  I try to avoid getting into that trap in this office.

What is he talking about here? Which scientists don’t express their opinions? Which scientists have not had their opinions informed by their science? Which scientists haven’t fallen into the natural pattern of allowing their opinions to dictate what scientific questions they find most compelling?  How does Marburger think science works?

Science is a human endeavor.  People have values.  People have creative sparks, some of which are born out through the process of science and some which are proven to be non-sense or un-falsifiable.  That is why the discovery-explanation-review process is vital to science. Open communication, sharing results, “arguing it out” is the only way to get science done.  This quote betrays a very naive model of the workings of scientific discovery, the nature of scientific creativity and a disappointing disregard for the people and process of science.

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