Research, Politics and Working Less

In Friday's New York Times, Paul Krugman explains a bit about how science becomes misconstrued by opposing interests in "Design for Confusion". Krugman suggests that the same interests that conspired to craft "supply-side economics" in the soft sciences, are now chiseling away at "hard" sciences such as climate change research and evolution research. Following the political endgame to promote private sector interests, corporations, politicians and religious interests collectively erode the legitimacy of real science. He concludes that this cabal has just enough power to cast doubts on our faith of science research and that they might succeed in "banishing Darwin from the classroom".

Krugman cites several reasons why such doubts gain traction with people. He notes that people "don't know the difference between research and advocacy". Reporters often don't know either, he adds, and when they they do "the conventions of he-said-she-said" journalism get in the way... He also says: "Finally, the self-policing nature of science- scientific truth is determined by peer review, not public opinion - can be exploited by skilled purveyors of cultural resentment."

According to Krugman, people are to susceptible to suggestions that all the evidence for global warming might be a fluke. Flummoxed, they become convinced that the slyly named "intelligent design" suffices for understanding evolution through subjects like chemistry, physics, archeology.

Understanding a field of science in order to be able to evaluate original research can require intense study. "Findings" presented in a research papers can span pages of technical minutiae and reference dozens of other research papers. Research journals themselves are as challenged as they are flooded with data and embattled about their increasingly lucrative role in science or medical foundations. Despite these barriers, someone who wants to learn can get background information on the internet. Science is increasingly accessible to everyone.

It's not just knowing the facts and subtleties of a subject area though. Science knowledge like all knowledge, is subject to the mores of society. Evolution has always had a tenuous place in education, as religious leaders have historically challenged educators about what curriculum to teach. Likewise with politicians, and last week was no different, as the Financial Times stated, perhaps tongue in cheek in "Bush Wants Alternatives To Darwinism Taught in School" (August 3, 2005). The Financial Times added that his comments: "threaten to place him outside the mainstream of scientific opinion and align him more closely with social conservatives and with "creationists" who challenge Darwinism on religious grounds"

We have long recognized that corporations will dispute scientific evidence if it threatens their market, as they have with global warming, tobacco, chemicals, plastics, asbestos, etc. However, there are many legitimate and subtle reasons that controversy in science seems to be so easily generated and the facts so routinely obfuscated. It's much more then general confusion about what's "fake research" and what's real research. "Real" research can be just as confusing, misleading or off-base.

Furthermore, simple myths about science are perpetuated that distort understanding. For instance, peer review does not "determine" the "truth" in science, data does. Peers check the methodology used in a study and hopefully go over statistics to check for data validity and reliability- do the methods proposed to test the question actually test the question, are there controls, do the results generated answer the question...etc.

"Peers" are simply other researchers with complementary experience that enables them to critique the data. Rigorous peer review should also happen in the lab and with colleagues, not only during the publication process. This is not to say that peer review is perfect or that post-docs don't often bear the brunt of it, but the real process has an important purpose in science that could be better understood by non-scientists. Moreover the word "TRUTHS", is inappropriate, it unnecessarily freights science, scientists and research with a significance that distorts both the process and its place in society. Here's more information on peer research.

But who has time for these details? We all struggle under deadlines- if not for our jobs then to mow the lawn or help with homework. It isn't only science that we need to fact check, it's bills, diagnosis', and product ratings. If science is written through layers of history, funding shortages, select methodology, result sifting, journalistic and editorial review, politics, and economics, so is your bosses promotion and your health care plan.

Always pressed for time, we look to the media to fact check for us, to synthesize information. To understand how science knowledge is perceived, one must look beyond journalists to the role the media plays in the portrayal of science. Day to day science is commonly far from newsworthy. New technology may avail tools to to look at organisms, cells, reactions, or planets in a different light or an easier way. However while everyone hopes that their next experiment or serendipitous discovery will precipitate a sea change in the field, more often progress in science is infinitesimal if not glacially paced. This fact doesn't slow down the slew of "new" findings splashed across front page, often with no context for the studies that preceded them. Acronym Required has in the past month or two reviewed some of this reporting. Many newspapers do their best to be responsible, but the "he-said-she-said" that Krugman paints as problematic should be employed more rigorously in media to orient readers to the context of science.

At the same time, "fake science" should be presented as such. Why does the media present "fake" science as science? Are they simply confused as Krugman suggests, or attached to getting an opposing opinion? Or in addition is it a business decision - don't alienate the readers who believe in Big Foot? We suspect the latter. The largest news channels are always there, as they were recently when scientists in Calgary announced the DNA analysis of "Big Foots" hair.

Editorial decisions are just that, and can be very subtle. To illustrate, we'll digress with a simple example. Krugman's recent (August 1, 2005) article in New York Times, on the difference between the working hours the French vs. Americans and why Americans work more. Said Krugman: "I've been looking at a new study of international differences in working hours by Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser, at Harvard, and Bruce Sacerdote, at Dartmouth. The study's main point is that differences in government regulations". His editorial is interesting and leads one to believe that the European governments are more empathetic to family values and passing family friendly laws. But if one reads the Economist , one can get a different conclusion about the same article: "Rather than blaming culture or taxes, Messrs Alesina, Glaeser and Sacerdote instead credit trade unions."

One can verify the originating article's intention on-line -- briefly, the researchers assert that trade unions swept across Europe after the 1973 oil crisis chanting "work less, work for all", and that in the decade following, union pressure led to government regulations that accommodate fewer hours in Europe. The Krugman/NYT choice is subtle, but why did they completely omit the word "union"? It seems relevant, and Krugman has time and time again said things like: "And-dare we say it?-we should in general oppose privatization plans if they are likely to destroy public sector unions. After all, people on the right tend to favor privatization for exactly the same reason."

Who knows why Krugman or the editors chose the words they did but it altered the conclusion of the paper. You will gain something from the editorial, but not the study's true conclusion. If you know about supply-side economics history, the liberal contempt for unions, you could speculate that New York Times is averse to conflict in this area? Whatever the reason for that editorial slant, it wasn't because the authors of the original paper weren't clear or because the journalist misunderstood the facts. The direct influence of religion, politics, education, or corporate interest didn't change the words. We may never know why they chose the words they did, though admittedly we covet the time of French, are relieved to know we're not so lazy, and if we had the time ourselves, maybe we'd figure it all out.

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