Blog Post from Salt Institute

Unbalancing the scales of scientific objectivity

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Our society -- and our government -- puts itself at a disadvantage when it substitutes political judgments for scientific evidence (on this see numerous posts on SaltSensibility).  In the areas of human and ecological health, we can certainly apply human judgments and expend lots of taxpayer resources, but, ultimately, nature has its own way, whether in human physiology or the natural laws governing the ecology of Mother Earth.

That's not to say we always understand why our bodies do what they do or how nature will respond to our interventions.  Sometimes there are unintended consequences.  Sometimes they're serious.  Often they're precipiated by the same kind of hubris as some judge has prompted American interventionism abroad:  a confidence that our policies can overcome all the world's ills (or all our bodies' infirmities).  And often the prescription is to take a step back, look at the problem at hand with the greatest humility we can muster and sort out fact from fiction about what we "know."  Painful experience has taught us that worse than a policy grounded on ignorance is a policy grounded on error because we employ our powerful resources and worsen the inintended effect. 

For that reason, the integrity of the process we employ to ascertain scientific truth in our public health and our environmental policies is of paramount importance.

And for that reason, we should give attention to the challenge announced in today's Washington Post, that Congressional leaders are probing the actions of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which removed as chairman of a science advisory committee a scientist accused of having pre-judged the evidence and openly advocating one of the policy options before her advisory committee.

Congressmen John Dingell (D-MI) and Bart Stupak (D-MI) have defended the principle of scientific objectivity and bashed the Bush Administration for heeding a complaint by the American Chemistry Council that the panel chair's activist agenda undermined the public interest in an objective scientific inquiry.  We should all embrace with enthusiasm the principle being articulated that science should be insulated from politics and the tyranny of conventional wisdom that so often cloaks its minions.  So, we should read beyond the headlines and try to understand what's going on.

If the Congressional overseers are taken at their word, their dedication is to scientific truth and their complaint is the interference of "politics" in the process.  Kudos.  On the other hand, the industry advanced the same arguments in its complaint of prejudice -- the ACC sought elimination of an crusader from a position that would seem well-served to preserve the neutrality of scientific inquiry.  So, strip away this veneer of rhetoric and look for other clues.  Surely, the industry group didn't like the advocacy position of the now-deposed chair; that's a given.  And, likewise, busy Congressmen don't have time to meddle into bureaucratic decisions they agree with, so Messers Dingell and Stupak are registering their views on the other side of the policy divide on this particular action.  But what of the process?  How can we create a process that elicits for the public good the best, most objective science to help us understand issues and fashion policy?

Beneath the veneer of the Congressional assault is a second justification that seems to illuminate the issue perfectly.  The Congressmen, joined by the activist Environmental Working Group, complain bitterly that other panelists (presumably those taking the contrary viewpoint) have had their research funded by private industry.  The implication is that the deposed chair didn't.  Since scientific stature is constructed on the foundation of published research and that costs money, the chair must have derived her research support elsewhere, probably from the federal government which is the other large funder of research.  So, if the thinking is to take the Wooodward & Bernstein approach of "follow the money" the agenda or policy bias of the funder becomes paramount.  But we should accept the principle that every funding source has an objective and interests.  The Congressmen apparently aren't bothered by the chair's source of funding, perhaps because it's the very funding source that they have provided as they authorize and appropriate.  So it's really THEIR interest, perhaps, or the bureaucracy's, that's behind "public" money.

The better solution is transparency and, even more, the integrity of the process.  We need standards such as those, in the medical science area, advocated by process-oriented watchdogs like the government's U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.  Industry funding and government funding are both facts of life, both have inherent potential bias.  The integrity of the process is assured by the quality of the science at the end of the pipeline.  That's why we've always embraced the Data Quality Act as a means to overcome politicizing science.