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Should we let the clowns run the circus?

by Donald Prothero, May 22 2013

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The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom
—Isaac Asimov

A few weeks ago, we heard in the news the chilling and alarming statement that Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, wants to subject all the scientific research grants of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to political scrutiny. No longer was it sufficient that the NSF conduct peer review of grants by experts in the field to determine whether they are worthy of funding. No, the House Committee has decided that they are better judges of good science that the scientific community itself, and they ought to be able to override the decisions of scientists who work in the field.

We’ve seen this kind of political interference in science before, but never at such a high level. Even more disturbing, the GOP members of the House Science and Technology Committee are not the kind of people that most of us would want judging the quality of science. They are nearly all science deniers of one sort or another. This committee includes such luminaries as Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia (an M.D., even!), who said (in a recent speech at the Liberty Baptist Church Sportsman’s Banquet):

“God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist [note: Broun is NOT a real scientist] that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old. I believe that it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says. And what I’ve come to learn is that it’s the manufacturer’s handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually. How to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all our public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason, as your congressman, I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.”

In addition to several other creationists on the panel, they also include Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner from Wisconsin. He’s one of the loudest climate-deniers in Congress, with a list of quotes showing he’s absorbed nearly every lie from the climate denier lobby. Or how about Congressman Ralph Hall from Texas, who

was asked about climate change and said, “I don’t think we can control what God controls.” He also said he agrees with Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) that climate scientists are involved in a conspiracy to receive research funding. When the reporter noted that a survey published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that 97 percent of climate-science researchers agree that human activities have contributed to global warming, Hall responded, “And they get $5,000 for every report like that they give out,” adding, “I don’t have any proof of that. But I don’t believe ‘em.”

Or take Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, who still chatters on about the debunked idea that scientists were predicting global cooling in the 1970s. Or Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, from an extremely conservative district in southern California. He has said in recent months that

an earlier period of global warming may have been caused by “dinosaur flatulence.” Last year, after coming under fire for seeming to suggest that if global warming is real it could be addressed by cutting down trees (when in fact forests reduce global warming by absorbing atmospheric carbon), he issued a statement saying, “I do not believe that CO2 is a cause of global warming.”

These statements of scientific illiteracy and science denialism are appalling enough by themselves, but even scarier is the thought that they come from the members of the House Science and Technology Committee! Lamar Smith (another climate change denier) is the Chair, Rohrabacher is the Vice-Chair, and Hall, Sensenbrenner, Broun, and Brooks are all prominent members. Previous members included the infamous Missouri Republican Todd Akin, a creationist with rather peculiar views on human reproduction. How is it that the House Committee with the greatest influence over science funding and policy in this country is dominated by people with demonstrably false views about science? How is is that the clowns are being allowed to take over the circus?

[It's no surprise that most of these guys are climate deniers. In addition to climate denial being a party platform of the GOP, most of them received a major share of their campaign funds from the oil and gas industry. Lamar Smith received over $83,000 in 2012 alone from the oil industry, and over $342,000 from all energy industries since 1999. Ralph Hall's largest contributor by far was oil and gas, with $59,000 in the last year alone. Broun received $10,000 from oil and gas, even though he represents a district in Georgia with no oil resources. You can go to the website www.opensecrets.org to find a rundown on how many of the climate deniers in Congress are heavily subsidized by the energy industry.]

This is not the first time we’ve heard politicians making appallingly ignorant statements about the value of science. Last year, Sarah Palin made a fool of herself attacking fruit fly research that was actually essential to prevention of an infestation of important crops in the U.S. Or take the recent attacks on a project doing research on snails, which sounded trivial at first until the important benefits were explained. Nearly every time politicians target one specific proposal (usually amounting only a trivial cost), they are quickly schooled on the fundamentals of the science, and why the project was deemed worthy of support by people who actually know science (as opposed to the science deniers and science illiterates on the House Science Committee).

Perversely using the Orwellian name “High-Quality Science Act,” Smith and the other members of that committee are now proposing new criteria for decisions about funding NSF grants, specifically that they “advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science.” However, we already spend a huge part of our federal budget on national defense, and health is funded by the NIH, so there’s no need for the NSF (which funds pure, non-defense related, non-health related, non-commercial science) to do the same. Besides, NSF grants already have that criterion built into them. When I wrote my last few grant proposals, “intellectual merit” was no longer sole criterion for funding, but we also had to discuss the “broader impacts” to the scientific community and society in our grants. When I served on NSF panels that looked at all the reviews and made the recommendations for funding, those “broader impacts” on society made a lot of difference on what grants actually get funded. That’s not a trivial task, since most branches of the NSF fund at most 20% to 30% of the proposals they receive, and lots of excellent, world-famous scientists get turned down routinely.

But this raises a larger question: how are we to know which research will advance society? As I pointed out in a previous post, “pure” science which follows curiosity and doesn’t need to justify its benefit to society is where nearly all the great breakthroughs in science occur. Many of the greatest discoveries are made by accident, by serendipity, and cannot be predicted or anticipated by the researcher trying to justify their work in a grant proposal. When we fund pure research, we make unanticipated discoveries that have been shown to pay off at least 20 times as much as they cost. If we clamp down on pure research and only fund projects which have obvious practical societal benefits, we will choke all the creativity and sense of exploration from science, and guarantee that we will no longer be the ones who make the next great, unanticipated discovery or breakthrough. Members of the scientific community who do the grant review process know this—but its clear from their track record that politicians don’t.

In a Slate blog, “Bad Astronomer” Phil Plait put it clearly:

This is not a joke. Smith wants politics to trump science at the National Science Foundation. This prompted a brilliantly indignant letter from Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), who calls this idea “destructive” to science. She’s right. What Smith is doing strongly reminds me of Lysenkoism, when the Soviet government suppressed science on genetics and evolution that didn’t toe the party line. In these attacks on the NSF, a few lines of research have been highlighted that sound silly out of context. We’ve seen this before from those on the far right who attack science, from Sarah Palin to the Wall Street Journal. But when you look more deeply into the research you usually find it’s actually quite important, leading to new insights in biology, medicine, and more. While government funds science and should have oversight to make sure that funding is fairly granted, the best people to make the decisions about what constitutes good science are the scientists themselves, not agenda- and ideologically-driven politicians. And there’s a bigger picture here as well. The entire endeavor of science must be allowed the freedom to pursue ideas wherever they lead, and must have the flexibility to pursue ideas that may not pan out. From a financial view, the ones that work invariably subsidize the ones that don’t. We can’t know in advance what lines of research will yield results, but the ones that do succeed benefit us, increasing our knowledge vastly and leading to a better understanding of the world. That’s a critical human endeavor, even ignoring the vast, overwhelming material benefit we get from scientific advances. And the huge return on investment we get as well. What Smith is advocating is incredibly dangerous. When a society’s government starts dictating what can and cannot be investigated, scientific and creative progress stalls. Lysenko’s work, advocated by Stalin, led to the USSR falling almost irretrievably behind other, more progressive countries; ones like the United States. That was a hard-won lesson in history for the Soviets, but apparently lost on many current American politicians.

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73 Responses to “Should we let the clowns run the circus?”

  1. Other Paul says:

    I know it happens in the UK too, and it’s both obvious and prevalent, but the ease with which your politicians can be bought makes my head all explodey.

    • markx says:

      Much more common than we expect – now is part and parcel of democracy – poliical donations for favours:

      This from Australia:
      http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/a-fistful-of-dollars-20130304-2fgr8.html

      In 2011 and 2012, a small select group of developers paid a fund-raising arm of the Liberal Party $10,000 to attend exclusive dinners with Guy and a few other party events. In August 2012, the man Guy appointed to head the government’s urban renewal authority, former Liberal City of Melbourne councillor Peter Clarke, also attended.

      That some of those developers had projects still awaiting planning approval could be seen as presenting a real or potential conflict of interest risk for Guy and Clarke.

      That some of the projects would require Guy’s direct intervention – either through his special ministerial powers or referrals back to councils – raises other significant questions.

  2. Max says:

    What’s been the broader impact on society from studying dinosaurs?

    • You talking about ME, Max? I don’t study dinosaurs, I study fossil mammals.
      I heard Brian Switek talk about the importance of studying dinosaurs a few nights ago, but really the motivation to study them is purely intellectual: understanding our past, appreciating these amazing creatures and the world they lived in, trying to fathom how such incredible beasts with no modern analogue could even exist, etc. That’s a big reason why there is no grant money for vertebrate paleontology (VP) (all my NSF grants were for doing paleomagnetism), and almost no funding from any other source–and jobs are extremely scarce. Those of us who have chosen it as a career have made this choice to struggle for ANY job that allows us to pursue our dreams, and we have to work TWICE as hard as others to survive. Most of the students who get hooked on dinosaurs at a young age don’t make it to grad school, and only a small percentage of Ph.D.s in VP ever get a job…

      • tmac57 says:

        It does seem as though the fascination that children have with dinos does have a value in drawing them in to study or learn more about them,and thus more about science in general.

      • I agree–but try explaining that to an NSF panel

      • Max says:

        Yeah, but you don’t need the latest scholarly papers on the subject just to get children interested in it.

      • Sorry, Max. I guess you haven’t been paying attention. If you read Brian Switek’s new book, dinosaur research has changed things RADICALLY since our childhood, and is hugely influential on their popularity. Jurassic Park I-3 were successful in part because they captured the new view of dinosaurs from cutting-edge research that showed they were smart, fast-running, and complex. Now the outcry is that JP4 will NOT show the latest research: that all dinos had fuzz or feathers of some sort, which is one of the latest discoveries. JP would not have been nearly as interesting to Crichton (or to us) if they had been the sluggish classic movie monsters of the old days…

      • Max says:

        That’s one of the sillier reasons for new research.
        I suppose it rules out R-rated research about mating, and research that upsets children, like demoting Pluto’s status as a planet.

        Who’s crying about no feathers in JP4? Children and movie critics or scientists?
        Weren’t you fascinated by dinosaurs when you were a kid, before the radical changes?

  3. Max says:

    From Richard Feynman’s address on Cargo Cult Science
    http://www.lhup.edu/~DSIMANEK/cargocul.htm

    I was a little surprised when I was talking to a
    friend who was going to go on the radio. He does work on cosmology
    and astronomy, and he wondered how he would explain what the
    applications of this work were. “Well,” I said, “there aren’t any.”
    He said, “Yes, but then we won’t get support for more research of
    this kind.” I think that’s kind of dishonest. If you’re
    representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to
    the layman what you’re doing–and if they don’t want to support you
    under those circumstances, then that’s their decision.

    • kraut says:

      Just because it was said by Feynman doesn’t make it a non stupid comment.
      Who really would have given a hoot about his contributions to physics when it comes down to it except his ivory towered peers? Who gives a flying fuck about the Standard model? Does it give us cheaper oil? Cheaper electrical power? Does it eliminate Measles or the Whooping cough? So, why fund it?
      Feynman was lucky to live at a time when politicians in the US – other than in those nations of high democratic culture where politics always controlled science, i.e. China, Russia, Eastern Germany and Nazi Germany – had limited direct influence on the funding of science projects and afaik he was tenured anyway, so no need to worry (in an emergency he always could have survived by playing the bongos in some band).

      I think you are right – who needs science unless it can be proven to directly benefit the economics of the US – we in Canada dropped already off the list of the top 20 countries contributing to research, our wise leaders have seen to it that such stupid research like climate change, acidification of lakes and the influence of fish-farms on wild salmon stock are no longer worth pursuing, that further cuts into basic research are deemed necessary because we rather fund some expensive fighter jets that we urgently need to defend our borders from some yet to dream up enemy.

      We should leave that kind of worthless science to countries who can afford it – Germany, China, France, England, Switzerland etc.and laugh at them at their money spendt at foolish thing like a large hadron collider, a piece of costly junk science without any benefits to be sure.

      • kraut says:

        Let me elaborate further why I completely support your stance to defund all non essential science. Who for fuck sakes needs cladistics? Who needs to know how many species and what species are out there? Nonsense, say I. We do not need to know what we eliminate in the course of economic progress, who needs a fucking ecosystem? We are humans, we make our own.
        Who needs to know what about palaeontology? what good is it for? Does it make the butter cheaper on my bread? Away with rubbish says I, close the fucking museums and let the kids read the bible, all they need to know about palaeontology is right there. And then the pinnacle of nonsense – human evolution. Who needs it, it only disturbs the peace of the religious majority, so it is sociologically divisive – away with that rubbish.

        What we need is the best way to cheaply extract and transport oil and gas from shale resources (now that is practical science for sure, full support here) and lets not worry about so called environmental impact, a theory part of a socialist muslim anarcho nazi conspiracy to prevent the oil companies to bring to market their product with no restraints, permitting all of us to get back to our beloved Hummers and other assorted SUV’s..that is science for the people I say, that is why we should support to the fullest the wise politicians who know what is good for us and kick any scientist not involved in those projects to the curb..
        A round of applause is due to the staunch defenders of economics based science under rigorous political control.

      • Max says:

        Is this supposed to be mocking Feynman?

      • kraut says:

        You figure that one out.

      • Ed Graham says:

        You’re kidding, right?

      • kraut says:

        About what? Feynman, that some take critiquing a stupid comment by him as an insult to his godliness? that because he says the pursuit and funding of science should be dependent on public opinion we have all agree to that? Why don’t we consequentially stipulate that the validity of scientific findings is pending democratic public approval? is that request really more stupid than Feynman’s suggestion?

      • Max says:

        Scientific validity isn’t dependent on public opinion, but the funding is, because it’s the public’s money.
        Feynman’s suggestion to scientists is to be honest with laymen.

      • Daniel says:

        @kraut:

        Referring to “funding of science” in the passive tense is telling. The real issue is WHO is doing the funding. I don’t want to sound like Ayn Rand, but the people who are paying for a scientific, or any particular endeavor, have the final word on how the money gets spent. If you don’t want a bunch of anti-reason troglodytes interfering with scientific research, don’t demand their money. It’s the same as if someone came to me personally and asked to make a donation for particle research. It’s no business of yours if I decide to spend my money on a pet rock instead. This is the quite reasonable point that Feynman was making. That, and that you ought to be completely open and honest about the potential practical applications, or lack thereof, of the scientific endeavor that you want funded.

        And btw, the people standing in the way of this are often not the anti-science types. There were anti-poverty activists that vocally protested the Apollo program.

      • Daniel says:

        You’re off about a few things:

        There was never this golden age of “pure” science, at least from a taxpayer funding standpoint. Much of it was a product of military endeavors, building a nuclear arsenal/ICBMs, and the space race, which is somewhere in between. (I’ll also add that it was a Democrat controlled Congress that nixed Reagan’s proposal to have the equivalent of the LHC built in Texas).

        Also, the nation’s taxpayer science funding budget, like virtually everything else, increases virtually every year. R&D spending, both private and taxpayer supported, dwarfs any other country in the world. For all the hysteria about creationists or “war against science”, people from all over the world still flock to US universities to study science applied, “pure”, or otherwise. (They go to other countries too of course, but you would not see foreign students coming to a country to study science if it were all going down the tubes).

        Ultimately, you might not like where the money gets spent. But creationists, climate deniers and whoever else the Prothero’s of the world feel are plotting the overthrow of all scientific iquiry pay taxes as well. If you don’t want them to have any input into your scientific endeavors, don’t ask for, or more precisely, don’t demand their money.

  4. Alexis Lopez says:

    It happens in Spain, too.

    We are in the hands of a Conservative government supporting policies very similar to those of the GOP.

    Just yesterday, a representative of the Spanish Catholic Church, announced without blushing or faltering that, from an intellectual point of view, Catholic Theology is the equal of Science. Thus, it should be compulsorily taught in all Spanish schools.

  5. Canman says:

    In one of your links Phil Plait says:

    There are simple technological reasons for space exploration as well. Some estimates say that for every dollar invested in the Apollo program, more than 20 have been returned.

    I take that quote with a huge grain of salt. I don’t think that if we had gutted the Apollo program, today we would be without teflon, velcro or cell phones. Don’t forget that both the US and the USSR had extensive innovative space programs. Our economy flourished while theirs stagnated.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t have basic research or a space program, but just because something is invented here, doesn’t mean that those who invest to develop it, won’t go somewhere else where they will have less regulation to fight and be better rewarded for taking their risk.

    • madscientist says:

      I overdose on salt whenever I read that one. It’s just more propaganda. Of the huge number of projects undertaken by NASA, many have useful applications elsewhere and that’s really all that matters. It makes no sense to make up magic numbers about how $1 spent by NASA = $20 elsewhere. This justification based on cost is all nonsense and it is the sort of nonsense that politicians and managers have been trying to push for over 60 years: “directed research”. The demonstrably wrong premise is that you can somehow select the projects which will lead to important developments. The peer review process in grant applications already discards a huge number of the obviously faulty suggestions, though in my opinion some bullshit projects still get big bucks – however with politicians running the show I’d bet only the bullshit projects get funding.

      • tmac57 says:

        however with politicians running the show I’d bet only the bullshit projects get funding.

        This pretty much is the bottom line.No one can predict the future,they can only make informed decisions.Now given a choice to put your trust in the wisdom,integrity and education necessary to make an informed decision,who would you choose: A politician,or a working scientist?

      • Max says:

        Good point. Who should decide how the Pentagon spends its money, politicians or working officers?

  6. tmac57 says:

    Maybe it’s time to organize a ‘Million Scientist March’ on Washington.
    I routinely write my congressman when issues like this come up,but being as he is Jeb Hensarling of Tx.,I feel that I am just wasting my time (but I do it anyway).
    Most voters don’t even know this is going on,and why it should concern them.That’s a major stumbling block.

  7. KLG says:

    Science illiterates with their heads full of stupidity gleaned from the denial-sphere determining the fate of the sciences. The problem with them isn’t their ignorance – it’s the vast repository of incomplete and false knowledge and poor reasoning between their ears.

  8. markx says:

    Well, I’d better state my opinion here:

    Certainly many of the clowns discussed above in the article should play no part in deciding on directions of scientific research, the running of circuses, and most importantly, they should not be running a country.

  9. michael says:

    Can’t we just apologize to Mexico and give Texas back?

  10. d brown says:

    They have to sell BS to be in power. In the end scientific research stops BS.

  11. BillG says:

    I agree with Rep. Smith and to a degree it’s healthy to have additional review(s) concerning any allocation of tax revenues. It needs to be conceded that some grants under the banner of science are run without any regard of thift, if not blantly wasteful.
    (See NASA bloated history of such waste.)

    Ironically, the first act of such thrift is to replace Smith and the clown exhibition – aka, HS&T Committee.

  12. Old Rockin' Dave says:

    Why are the clowns running the circus?
    Just take a look at the Republican party, which for a long time described itself as a “big tent”. When you see a big tent with elephants under it, you know the clowns are about to come out.

  13. TexasSkeptic says:

    Sometimes, (well most of the time) I am ashamed of the way our state is run and the way the runners act.

    I didn’t vote for any of the above Texans and when I write letters to any politico about any subject, I always get a form letter explaining why they did what they did. I usually include in my mail that they are IDIOTS, maybe that’s the problem.

    I say make all science deniers give up everything science has given them and go back to living in the pre-industrial world they belong to.

    farking Luddites all of em.

    • Nyar says:

      You should move then, retard.

      • tmac57 says:

        Another well reasoned and edifying comment Nyar. Well done!!!

      • Nyar says:

        Thanks, douchenozzle.

      • tmac57 says:

        My goodness I am devastated by your rapier wit and rhetorical skills. I bow to your superiority.

      • kraut says:

        is that a Texan responding with what he perceives to be intellectual profundity?

      • Nyar says:

        Yeah, I am just trying to get into the spirit of the conversation. Um,… t’aint pusstule.

      • Max says:

        Congress’ disapproval rating is about 79%, and probably higher among Republicans. Guess they should move then.
        http://www.gallup.com/poll/159812/congress-begins-2013-approval.aspx

      • TexasSkeptic says:

        There are too many other things here I like.
        And the ‘r’ word was uncalled for, inappropriate, and may I say, possibly from a mind that might have those particular traits.

        Thanx and have a GREAT DAY.

        ESEL !

      • Nyar says:

        Could you please elaborate for me why your use of the word “idiot” is ok, but my use of the word “retard” is not?

      • TexasSkeptic says:

        One is a bit more polite and acceptable in a social context.

      • Nyar says:

        Really? Idiot means a person with severe mental retardation. If anything, it is less polite and acceptable, assuming that one knows the actual definition of the word.

      • TexasSkeptic says:

        tmak57 said it first and best.

        My goodness I am devastated by your rapier wit and rhetorical skills. I bow to your superiority.

      • Nyar says:

        That’s ok. Not everyone can think for themselves.

      • Student says:

        And I’m sure your response to everything is that everything is perfect, and that trying to change things or disagreeing is bad, including participating in an active democracy.

        Goddamn, how fucking stupid can you get?

        You’re not even mildly skeptical, you’re an illogical intractable jackass who doesn’t know the slightest about science, skepticism, or even proper argumentation.

    • Phea says:

      Do you think if we apologised, we could get Mexico to take back Texas?

      • Nyar says:

        I don’t why this is hard for you guys, but no you can’t give away what is not yours to give, scrotum scab.

  14. Lisa says:

    Eppur si muove.

  15. Max says:

    Be careful with that analogy. What’s the circus, the NSF? And if so, doesn’t that make the peer reviewers the clowns?

    • @blame says:

      Check the tense.

      >>How is is that the clowns are being allowed to take over the circus?

      OP is talking about this proposal; politicians taking over the decision of which researchers receive public grants/funding.

      The key problem being; elected officials are yet to demonstrate to us their superior fortune-telling skills.

      On economic matters they lost all credibility circa 2007/08.

      On scientific matters the State is yet to earn much public trust.

      • Daniel says:

        “On economic matters they lost all credibility circa 2007/08″

        Economics is perhaps the only discipline where two people can win the Nobel Prize a few years apart and say the exact opposite thing from one another.

  16. Trimegistus says:

    Once again Mr. Prothero strains at the gnat of a Republican wanting to review science spending because (maybe you haven’t noticed) we’re running huge deficits. Yet Mr. P. cheerfully ignores all the anti-vaxxers, anti-GMO nuts, anti-nuclear activists, alternative medicine freaks, and dodgy environmental “science” on the Democratic side.

    Science is only under threat from Republicans. Democratic support for crooks, crackpots, and lunatics is defended, and anyone trying to point out the waste and corruption is attacked by good little loyalists like . . . Mr. Prothero.

    Did Ronald Reagan run over your dog when you were a kid, Mr. Prothero? Because this goes beyond mere lazy unthinking political hackery. There seems to be some kind of personal psychological need on display here.

    • Ed Graham says:

      Science is apolitical. Only those who attack science have a political agenda.

      There are some strange comments in this thread.

    • tmac57 says:

      There seems to be some kind of personal psychological need on display here.

      That is so deliciously ironic :)

      • Student says:

        If only the xkcd comic about reading the comment back to the writer was a reality.

  17. kraut says:

    “Yet Mr. P. cheerfully ignores all the anti-vaxxers, anti-GMO nuts, anti-nuclear activists, alternative medicine freaks, and dodgy environmental “science” on the Democratic side.”

    name that fallacy 1.

    “Science is only under threat from Republicans. Democratic support for crooks, crackpots, and lunatics is defended,

    Name that fallacy 2.

    “and anyone trying to point out the waste and corruption is attacked by good little loyalists like . . . Mr. Prothero.”

    name that fallacy 3.

  18. LREKing says:

    The above exchanges are worthless and reading them was a waste of time. I will check in occasionally to see whether someone has started moderating the comments. Until them, hasta la vista.

    • tmac57 says:

      Kind of went off the rails,didn’t it?
      Who would have guessed that this subject would spark such hostility? ;)

  19. d brown says:

    In 1927 Hitler wrote that “people will not believe small lies because they tell them all the time. but “they will believe a really big lie “such as the completed reversal of the truth. They do not believe any one would tell that big a lie.” And its now right wing tactics. How do you think Ronald Reagan won. And yes I did look at the real facts. The far right looks only for things that back what they the want to be true.

    • Max says:

      You keep repeating this. Maybe if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.

      • d brown says:

        Look it up. its true, you don’t like its. but its still true.

      • Daniel says:

        People who believe in evolution have just repeated the “big lie”, and now, a lot people believe it. I looked at the facts, and it’s clear that the world is only a few thousand years old. The atheists of the world just ignore what they don’t want to hear. Look it up if you don’t believe me.

        It’s just as logical as your assertion.

        Guess I’m not making much headway on this pet peeve of mine, but we’d all be better off if people stopped using this particular brand of circular logic. Once this is conquered, maybe we can move on to holocaust denier comparisons as a line of argument.

        Until the next time.

  20. Max says:

    Biologist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci recently said the following:

    Quite frankly a lot of science itself is not particularly useful. A lot of scientists spend their entire career focused on a very tiny little component of understanding — my favorite example tends to be the sexual habit of an obscure moth in the middle of Panama or something like that — which really has very little relationship with anything else. They do it just because they like it. It doesn’t produce any interesting durable knowledge.
    There’s a famous paper… in how to do scientific inference, but it starts out by saying, “We’re all so proud of contributing individual bricks to the edifice of knowledge.” What we do not acknowledge very readily is that most of those bricks lay unused in the back yard.

  21. Alan(UK) says:

    I am a bit late – the thread has already been Godwined. But here are a few thoughts anyway:

    1) The World is (over) dependent in the Global Positioning System. There are many aspects of science behind it: Electromagnetism, Quantum Mechanics, Special and General Relativity; before you start on the nuts and bolts of how you are going to get it all up there. How much money would your Congress have voted to Maxwell, Planck, and Einstein before they started their work? And how much to those scientists who had gone before: Galileo, Newton, Faraday et al.

    2) There is little relationship between cost and benefits in research. Apollo is supposed to have given us the non-stick frying pan (I jest). But of course Apollo was politically motivated science pure and simple. The ISS is another example.

    3) Should your Government be spending tax-payers money on science that has a utilitarian, commercial, objective? Is this not just a way of handing companies free Government subsidies? Was the Space Shuttle not an instrument to give United States telecommunications companies an advantage in the world market? It is an ironic accident of history that it became an instrument of science because it failed in both its military and commercial roles.

    4) Real science depends on the free flow of information between, not only workers in the same field, but workers in other, currently unrelated, fields. Utilitarian science is about commercial secrecy. There is a close connection between radiometric dating, oil prospecting, and the realisation that tetra-methyl lead in petrol was contaminating the environment with toxic levels of lead. But then your present Congress would never have voted money for the development of radiometric dating in the first place. But then the oil industry would never have given money to investigate lead in ocean sediments if they had realised where it was going to take them.

    5) The real strength of science is not just in the ideas of brilliant people like those mentioned, nor it is in the experimental testing and the subsequent confirmation of those ideas, but in the demonstration of the consistency of those theories with the rest of scientific knowledge. Hawking Radiation adds enormously to our confidence in the Second Law of Thermodynamics despite the fact that experimental confirmation seems impossible and the exception to the Law which it eliminates is of no practical consequence to the human race – nobody is going to throw a hot cup of tea into a black hole. A purely intellectual endeavour? Yes, and one could have said the same thing about black holes at one time, in fact one could have said the same thing about electromagnetism, quantum theory, and relativity. Don’t forget that at the end of the 19th century, a respected scientist could say, ‘I don’t believe in atoms’ and be taken seriously by the scientific community even if they did not agree.

  22. Loren Petrich says:

    I notice that Trimegistus’s post here contains no actual *evidence*. Can he (she?) point to evidence of Democratic politicians out-Lysenkoing Republican ones?

    • Max says:

      The Mansfield Amendment led to cuts in basic research in Artificial Intelligence, as Congressmen asked what’s the use of teaching computers to play chess.

      http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/documents/2000/nsb00215/nsb50/1970/mansfield.html

      “In FY1968, NSF’s budget grew to $505 million but inflation was such that, in constant dollars, the amount awarded was less than the year before. The next year was no better. Late in 1969, an amendment to the Military Authorization Act, introduced by Senator Mike Mansfield (D-WA), confused and alarmed both the defense and civilian research enterprises. The amendment barred the Defense Department from using its funds ‘to carry out any research project or study unless such project or study has a direct and apparent relationship to a specific military function.’ The impact on the Foundation was potentially enormous, since Mansfield estimated that certain research projects, which amounted to $311 million, could be dropped or picked up by other agencies, mainly by NSF.
      Board member Norman C. Hackerman, chemist and president of Rice University, recalls that the Board debated objecting to ‘the intrinsic philosophy’ of the Mansfield amendment, but decided instead to simply restate its long-held view that many federal agencies should support basic research, not just one. In the end, the Foundation took over sponsorship of some major materials research laboratories, but did not otherwise expand.”

    • Max says:

      William Proxmire was known for issuing Golden Fleece Awards for research he considered wasteful, but he was also recruited by the vitamin industry to introduce a bill preventing the FDA from regulating megavitamins. It became law in 1976.

      http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/09/opinion/sunday/dont-take-your-vitamins.html?pagewanted=all

  23. Bob says:

    Sorry, but the notion that the representatives of the taxpayer shouldn’t have some say in regards to funding is just plain ridiculous, and no amount of breathless fear-mongering on the issue will change that fact. There is a boat load of wasteful funding that needs to be stopped and no amount of “well, they aren’t expert enough to judge the scientific merits” will change that fact.

  24. Beelzebud says:

    For the record, (because someone made the claim) the anti-vaccine nuts all reside on the tea-party / libertarian side of the spectrum at this point. The tea party gets the science totally wrong on all of it, and the libertarians attempt to turn it into some argument about forced vaccines and big government tyranny.

    You’ll find no support for anti-vaccine bullshit in the Democratic party, meanwhile teaparty darling Michelle Bachmann tried to use an anti-vaccine argument during a Republican presidential primary debate.