Scientific Integrity, Statistical Evidence, and Public Policy
Statistics has a long and proud role in quantifying scientific
certainty arising from measurements that do not provide absolute
proof, such as demonstrating the health effects of smoking, in the
face of attempts by cigarette companies to cast doubt.
It is therefore incumbent on statisticians to fight trends
in Washington during the Bush administration, where scientific evidence was
in an unprecedented number of areas, and the whole process by which
scientific input is collected was changed in favor of political bias,
and to work toward restoring accurate scientific input during the Obama
Areas of Abuse
Areas in which scientific input was disregarded or
suppressing reports and publicly misrepresenting scientific consensus,
suppressing information on the effect on public health,
removing science-based recommendations from reports,
manipulating scientific input,
suppression of information,
FDA appointees overruled staff scientists and two independent advisory panels to deny access to emergency contraception,
obscuring scientific evaluation of education programs pressuring scientists to promote abstinence,
distorting the CDC website information on the effectiveness of condoms against HIV/AIDS,
prohibiting publication of research on airborne bacteria originating from farm wastes,
making up a link between abortion and breast cancer on a NCI website.
This picture won the 2008 Union of Concerned Scientists "Science Idol" contest.
and other finalists
Scientific Input in Congress
Furthermore, the whole process by which scientific input inform
policy changed, in Congress and the Bush administration.
Congress shut down the non-partisan and highly regarded U.S. Office
of Technology Assessment (OTA) in favor of
courtroom-style hearings with adversarial witnesses
chosen by the majority party to give the
impression they choose.
The OTA was disbanded by a Congress upset by the OTA's summary
of the scientific evidence against Star Wars.
For more on the OTA see the
June 2005 Scientific American.
The OTA has been replaced with kangaroo courts like the Bush-era congressional
hearings on global warming, in which two climate
research contrarians with industry ties were invited to challenge one
researcher (University of Virginia's Michael Mann),
whose work has contributed to the overwhelming global
scientific consensus on the issue. Naturally, the hearing did
not convey the overwhelming consensus, but rather the impression of
uncertainty and disagreement, and a score of 2-1 against climate change;
The Republican War on Science.
Politicization of Scientific Input in the Bush Administration
The Bush administration used political criteria in
place of scientific merit in creating scientific bodies:
Fogarty International Center Advisory Board:
qualified scientists (including a Nobel Laureate) rejected after political litmus tests,
President's Council on Bioethics:
two leading scientists dismissed for dissenting opinions on biomedical research ethics,
Arms Control Panel:
scientific committee dismissed,
Army Science Board:
engineer rejected for a contribution to McCain,
National Nuclear Security Administration Panel:
scientific advisory committee dismissed,
NIH Drug Abuse Panel:
potential panel members were asked if they voted for President Bush,
Lead Poisoning Prevention Panel:
Staff-recommended scientists rejected, replaced by appointees with financial ties to the lead industry,
Workplace Safety Panel:
Well-qualified scientists were rejected due to their support for a workplace ergonomics standard,
Reproductive Health Advisory Committee:
underqualified and highly partisan nominee was suggested as chair.
Industry Control over Scientific Input
The administration used the "Data Quality Act" to let industry
prevent scientific evidence from being used:
The Bush administration and its allies in Congress and elsewhere
systematic use of the term "Junk Science" for scientific information
in environmental or public safety realms that might be used to support
increased regulation, and the term "Sound Science" for contrarian work.
Speak Out - make it 15,001!
It is important for all scientists, and statisticians in particular,
to speak out for the use of objective scientific information
and statistical weighting of evidence in public
policy, and to speak against those who attempt to give the impression
"considerable controversy" on issues such as global warming or
health effects of second-hand smoke in the face of
statistical significance and scientific consensus.
The Union of Concerned Scientists
Scientific Integrity site
includes a statement signed over 15,000 scientists, including
49 Nobel Laureates, 63 recipients of the National Medal of
Science, almost 200 members of the National Academies.
Scientists and Engineers for America,
is a new group working to promote scientific integrity,
and highights tight political races where there is a clear
distinction between candidates who care about science and those that
have an anti-science agenda.
For additional information, see
The Union of Concerned Scientists website on
Okay, we give up
The Fossil Fallacy
(Nov 04), and
The Republican War on Science 2005, Basic Books, New York.
Scientists and Engineers for America,
I close with mention of another spoof of Intelligent Design,
Flying Spaghetti Monster
movement, which states that the
Universe was created by an invisible and undetectable Flying Spaghetti
This brings us back full circle to statistics;
open letter to the Kansas School board
demands equal treatment of FSMism with evolution and ID, and
notes the "statistically significant inverse relationship between
pirates and global temperature",
complete with statistical graphics!