14 December 2010

Rant, rare, no. 2 of 3, with a challenge to my readers--win a prize!

My apologies for such a pause in the conversation--I took some time to get some sleep, and still have not returned to my outside reading.  Yes, I traded reading cyberpunk and writing science for some sleep--what was I thinking?  It appears that I bit off a little more than I could chew through in one late evening of writing.

Anyway, continued from part 1 of my escalating rant, onward to the second item...

Two journalists at Slate published connected articles last week, one on politics in science and the other on President Obama's appearance on the Discovery Channel series MythBusters.  First, the more difficult topic. It's not more difficult because of the explanation, but rather the level of discourse required for effective communication with those who insist on putting forth a specious argument, especially in print.

On 8 December, Daniel Sarewitz stated plainly that "Most scientists in this country are Democrats. That's a problem."  Ummm...why, exactly?  Let me insert here a clear declaration of my own politics: I am a socially liberal, fiscally conservative, intellectually independent American, capable of evaluating candidates and issues on their merits (or failings) and casting my vote accordingly.  Fair enough?  I believe strongly that career politicians have no standing in the determination of funding and investigative priorities in science, but that career scientists have all requisite standing in providing fair and unbiased information to policy-making persons and groups in the political process.  What you consider yourself means everything in how you present yourself to the public, and consequently how others interpret your role in the public debate.  Are you a politician (or something else) first, and a scientist only second?  Science won't stand long for that...it insists on the primacy of the acceptance, the embrace, of non-bias in the work of its practitioners and advocates.  If you can't do that, just go be a politician, and leave the professionals to our work.

At first, the author starts with a simple observation based on a 2009 poll by the Pew Research Center:
"It is no secret that the ranks of scientists and engineers in the United States include dismal numbers of Hispanics and African-Americans, but few have remarked about another significantly underrepresented group: Republicans."
Let me state, right from the start on this one, that science does not pretend to demand equal representation of beneficiaries in the statistical demographics of its practitioners.  Being a Republican is an ideological choice, and has no direct causal connection to the workforce demographics of color, age, gender, national origin, etc. that Affirmative Action and (to a lesser extent) Equal Opportunity propose to correct in the workplace.  Parity in demographic representation is an inherently political construction, and does an injustice to those whose work has earned them a place at the table in the scientific community, which is inherently a meritocracy, inasmuch as that could be considered an organization.  Still, the author is paranoid enough to suggest that President Obama's appearance on MythBusters is not without an anti-Republican agenda:
"...he will be there not just to encourage youngsters to do their science homework but also to reinforce the idea that Democrats are the party of science and rationality."
So, why can't Republicans demonstrate that they are also a party of science and rationality?  What would be wrong with that?  It's not the foundation of the party, as it were.  Politics is based on perception, and we know well that perceptions are inherently flawed as subjective, by definition.  And still, the author clearly acknowledges that,
"...partisan politics aside, why should it matter that there are so few Republican scientists? After all, it's the scientific facts that matter, and facts aren't blue or red."
Just so.  Science is founded on impersonal and dispassionate investigation into the most fundamental questions of nature, oriented on objective outcomes and honest approaches to understanding better the world around us.  Scientists in the lab and in the field, in professional societies and organizations and published journals, really don't care what political party a co-worker and colleague has declared on their voter registration form.  For that matter, science is a global endeavor, not restricted to the United States and registered voters there.  To suggest equal representation, even just in the United States, is an artificial restriction on the natural evolution of science itself, and would result in a composite and compromised workforce as arbitrarily defined as political parties themselves.  And yet, that is exactly what the author proposes:
"American society has long tended toward pragmatism, with a great deal of respect for the value and legitimacy not just of scientific facts, but of scientists themselves. For example, survey data show that the scientific community enjoys the trust of 90 percent of Americans—more than for any other institution, including the Supreme Court and the military. Yet this exceptional status could well be forfeit in the escalating fervor of national politics, given that most scientists are on one side of the partisan divide. If that public confidence is lost, it would be a huge and perhaps unrecoverable loss for a democratic society...the issue here is legitimacy, not literacy. A democratic society needs Republican scientists."
Mr. Sarewitz bases his case for better representation of Republicans primarily on the political alignment of climate scientists in the controversial debate, one of the reasons for the demise of the UNFCCC and Kyoto programs over the years, as I discussed in detail in my first rant.  In a 2010 Gallup poll of registered voters, "66 percent of Democrats (and 74 percent of liberals) say the effects of global warming are already occurring, as opposed to 31 percent of Republicans." Turned the other way around in the Pew Center poll, climate scientists have apparently been found to declare their politics (again, only in the American political system) overwhelmingly as Democrats (55%) or, less so, as Independents (32%), and both far more than as Republicans (6%).  Even the "don't know" answers outnumbered declared Republicans in the Pew Center poll. 

Oh, wait, let's go back to that Gallup poll.  Did the author mean to suggest that there are liberals who are not Democrats?  Could it be possible that there are also conservatives who are not Republicans?  Could there be those seemingly endangered species, the liberal Republican and the conservative Democrat?  Could there also be those who claim "none of the above" as [gasp] Independents?  Perish the thought, lest I am attacked from all sides for my non-traditional views on the arbitrary nature of political affiliation!

One thing that the obviously-Republican author does not choose to recognize is that it's just a poll, not even close to an adequate statistical representation of climate scientists in the United States, let alone around the globe.  Does the poll include scientists declared Labour Party supporters in the UK?  Green Party voters in Germany?  Maoists in China?  X supporters in Japan?  Y voters in Australia?  Z affiliates in India, the world's largest democracy?  No, I didn't think so.  And for the record, I'm choosing parties at random here--there's no bias on my part for or against those parties.  I would no more likely choose not to work with a Conservative hydrologist from England or a neo-Maoist water resources engineer from China as I would choose no longer to think about hydrology itself.  As a scientist, I have a bias for working with fellow scientists from other countries--I'm glad to work with anyone, American or otherwise.  Science, like mathematics and music, approaches ubiquity as a global language.  If a scientist, no matter their citizenship, has something to contribute to the discussion, more perspectives can only improve the results.  In my opinion, the best conferences are international, as I've had the pleasure to find.  And as for collaboration, the number of climate scientists in the rest of the world, and thus without American party affiliation, far outweighs the collection of declared Democrats and Independents in the United States.  I would guess that I now know more scientists from Mexico, personally and professionally, than all of the American scientists I have met whose voting record, or even registration status, I also know.  Any scientist worth their salt recognizes that who you vote for doesn't make a damn bit of difference, as long as you can do the job and make a contribution to the results of your research.

The author poses a question that is, I think, poor in its intellectual basis:
"Think about it: the results of climate science, delivered by scientists who are overwhelmingly Democratic, are used over a period of decades to advance a political agenda that happens to align precisely with the ideological preferences of Democrats. Coincidence--or causation? Now this would be a good case for Mythbusters."
The scientific term you were looking for there is causality, as a principle, and not the more legal causation in its common use as leading to a particular effect.  And it's strange that the author should ask this question in particular, as causality is exactly the principle at issue.  Specifically, he brings up the idea of education:
"It doesn't seem plausible that the dearth of Republican scientists has the same causes as the under-representation of women or minorities in science. I doubt that teachers are telling young Republicans that math is too hard for them, as they sometimes do with girls; or that socioeconomic factors are making it difficult for Republican students to succeed in science, as is the case for some ethnic minority groups. The idea of mentorship programs for Republican science students, or scholarship programs to attract Republican students to scientific fields, seems laughable, if delightfully ironic."
I don't know what's so ironic about it--that isn't explained at all by the author.  It is relevant that he evoked the educational process, however.  Think about which you encountered first in school: science, or party politics?  If you yourself have grown up in a standard school system, and if you have watched your children do so, you recognize well that they have more opportunities (and reasons) to learn science in grade school than to join a political party.  Their opportunities to develop an inclination to a career in science, beginning in the early grades in most curricula, are far greater than any opportunities to form learned opinions on the basis of a limited education in politics and government (which begins well into the later grades) and then lock themselves into the ideology of an established political party.  I would suggest that a child's education in politics has far more to do with their parents talking about Election Day every year than with their limited experience of American Government in a 10th grade classroom...

The other thing that the author does not realize, but that is evident in our educational system even before science and politics enter the discussion, is that there is a danger in definition of Republicans as a group with the same standing as African-Americans, or women, or any other group addressed by the principles of Equal Opportunity.  A claim of poor representation of Republicans in the scientific community is tantamount to a claim of discriminationNo such discrimination on the basis of political ideology exists in the meritocracy of the scientific community.  The author's claim in the pages of Slate is, on the basis of faulty logic and circumstantial evidence, a specious argument.

So then, the easy one:  according to the author of the article on the President's appearance on MythBusters (since I have not seen the episode, though I am quite familiar with the premise of the series),
"Obama tasks the Mythbusters to take a stab, their second, at reconstructing Archimedes' heat ray, supposedly an array of bronze shields or perhaps mirrors that, reflecting and concentrating sunlight, incinerated approaching ships during the Siege of Syracuse.  Why did the White House and Discovery pick this myth to re-bust?  Is there a metaphor about national security in there?  A parable of collectivism?  Is this the light of the unum out of the pluribus?  Does the Pentagon think this technology might have practical applications?  Such questions do not trouble the lively minds of our likable hosts..."
If you, Mr. Patterson, had taken some time out of making fun of "this TV president," and the apparent bias of the climate-political twist in which you've put yourselves, to sit down with your colleague Mr. Sarewitz and actually read something literate about climate change science and the approaches to mitigation that are already underway, you might have recognized the origin and utility of President's Obama's request.  Do you need some clues? 

Okay, I'll allow a few clues, but that's all.  Consider it my first experiment in issuing a direct challenge, requiring an explicit response, on this blog.

Three shall be the number of clues, and the number of clues shall be three (sorry, old movie reference):
  1. It's not a parable, or the one that arises from our many, or any other sort of metaphor;
  2. It does have national security implications, if only by collective association with other such technologies;
  3. It does have practical applications--the technology is, in fact, already in use--but not yet (overtly) for the Department of Defense.  Wow, are avowed Republicans really that paranoid about military power too?
Commenters are welcome to answer too--President Obama, listen up, you're eligible too!  The first to get it right will receive, as recognition of your knowledge, one of my most curious possessions acquired during my near-decade of work in water issues.  Unless a commenter gets it right, I'll post the answer next Monday.  Either way, I'll post an explanation and reveal the prize!

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