Political Oversight

The story begins as follows:

WASHINGTON — Republicans on the House science committee are making an unprecedented move to require oversight of the scientific research process, pushing a bill that would in effect politicize decisions made by the National Science Foundation, according to a draft of the legislation acquired by The Huffington Post. As part of the same effort, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, sent a letter to the NSF Thursday demanding that it provide supporting materials to justify research that its panels of independent scientists have approved.

The bill, titled the High Quality Research Act and authored by Smith, would require the director of the NSF to certify in writing that every grant handed out by the federal agency is for work that is “the finest quality, is ground breaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and … is not duplicative of other research project being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.” The bill has not been officially introduced, but HuffPost acquired a draft copy that Smith circulated among colleagues.

If you are having a problem getting your head around this it’s because it’s borderline crazy. Led by the Republicans — you know, the same folks who insist on teaching creationism as a science, who deny that DNA has anything to do with heredity, and who also think that climate change is a fiction — are going to insist that qualified scientists run their work past the expert eye of one or more of their members to make certain it warrants funding for research. That is to say, men and women who have spent 20+ years in school learning everything they can about their fields of expertise will now (if this bill becomes law) have to get approval from a group of ignorant no-minds whose only qualification is that they fooled a sufficient number of gullible voters into electing them to public office. As Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democrat from Texas who sits on the committee, noted in his response to Smith,

Interventions in grant awards by political figures with agenda, biases, and no expertise is the antithesis of the peer review processes. . . . By making this request, you are sending a chilling message to the scientific community that peer review will always be trumped by political review. . . . Your letter marks the beginning of an investigative effort, the implications of which are profound. . . This is the first step on a path that would destroy the merit-based review process at NSF and intrudes political pressure into what is widely regarded as the most effective and creative process for awarding research funds in the world.

This bill is merely in the early stages and one can only hope that it will be resoundingly defeated. But with this group of clowns presently in Congress one can never know for sure. Just when you think the country has sunk as low as it can possibly get it finds a deeper level of ignominy. I swear it is becoming an embarrassment to admit one is a citizen of this country. And don’t get me started on how far from the ideals set forth by the founders this group has managed to move us, from a Republic that nurtures public virtue to a country run by self-important, narrow-minded, professional politicians funded by wealthy special interests. One can only wonder what could possibly be next on the Republican agenda — aside from the Jim Crow laws they are pushing in various states, dismantling health care legislation, and their determination to rid the country of those pesky regulatory agencies that promote such things as good health.

Scientific Ignorance

The new chair of the House Science and Technology Committee is Rep. Lamar Smith. He’s a Republican from Texas so that pretty much tells you what you need to know about Mr. Smith. Texas is the state, you will recall, where a recent survey revealed that four out of ten high school science teachers think that humans and dinosaurs walked the earth at the same time. It’s also the state where creationism is routinely taught as a science.  So it makes perfect sense that we would want such a man to head up this science committee where the first order of business, we are told, will be to convene a hearing to determine whether or not the globe is in fact warming. The fact that these men might not know a fact if it bit them in the britches is apparently not to the point.

Heading up the House Science Subcommittee is Representative Paul Brown (R-Ga) who famously said “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell.” I wouldn’t know if this is true because I have never been to Hell, but I will take Mr. Brown’s word for it; I assume he knows whereof he speaks. But it still makes me nervous to think that men of this caliber are leading this country. Madison and Jefferson must be turning over in their graves.

In any event, I shall pass over the irony that stares us in the face to address the comment of Representative Brown which shows an alarming ignorance about just what science is. Because science, if it is properly understood, does not allow an intelligent person to accept or reject its conclusions at will. Those conclusions demand our attention and acceptance — whether we like them or not. And I assume that Mr. Brown would prefer to think of himself as an intelligent person — even if we find it difficult to agree with him.

Now don’t get me wrong: I am not a devotee of science. I am not a true believer. I think there are things science does not know and there are limitations to the scientific method. There are things in literature and poetry, for example, that are profoundly true but which cannot be known by science or reduced to scientific formulas. But this is because science relies on mathematics and it insists on quantifying data in order to measure and calculate. In its proper domain, however, when it follows the correct procedures and presents its findings to the scientific community — which then has the opportunity to test its findings — it makes no sense whatever to contend that science is “straight from the pit of Hell” (no matter how familiar we are with that part of the cosmos.)

Representatives Brown and Smith will be involved in the search for what they regard as truth with respect to the warming of the globe. This despite the fact that the government they are a part of recently completed a study involving 300 scientific experts (including NASA) who agreed overwhelmingly that the earth is warming at an alarming rate and that humans are very much a part of the cause. So the globe will continue to heat up, our weather will become more and more freaky with “events” like hurricane Sandy becoming more common, the drought in the Midwest will continue and crops will burn up in the fields while forests are increasingly engulfed in flames. At some point even people like these two men will have to admit there is a problem.

In the meantime they (and 74% of their fellow Republicans in Congress) continue to deny the obvious. They put me in mind of a group of morons sitting around a table in a cabin perched on the side of a mountain ignoring the increasingly loud noise from the approaching avalanche as they discuss whether or not they should (maybe?) shore up the roof.