Friday, March 09, 2007

Science, Polar Bears, and Politics

In this blog, I've tried to steer clear of discussions involving politics. This is because such discussions are rarely scientific (by which I mean involving more emotion than fact), and discussing politics is a good way to alienate at least half of you very quickly. Besides, we are innundated with political discussions on TV, in the newspaper, over the radio, and throughout the internet. Adding my voice to the cacophony will accomplish little other than to waste my time and breath.

But, today, I will briefly stray into the political arena before turning tail and running back to my science discussions in future blog ramblings. Yesterday I happened across this news story from Reuters discussing the contents of a memo sent to some U.S. scientists regarding the appropriateness of discussing climate change in foriegn meetings. Specifically, the memo appears to require the scientists to avoid discussing certain topics (such as the impact of global warming and melting sea ice on polar bears) when at meetings overseas.

I find this news article quite disturbing, although I must admit I have not seen the full memo. In politics, it is quite common to have discussion topics limited and for participants in those discussions stick to well-defined talking points. We see this, for example, during presidential debates. The moderator will ask a question about a politician's position on strains in relations with the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, and the politician "answers" with some statement about supporting freedom fighters in Freedonia. Control of the "message" is of primary importance in politics.

In scientific debates, such tactics go over like a lead balloon. Although scientists will argue passionately and emotionally for their favorite theory or interpretation of data, the vast majority of scientists are willing to listen to a well-argued opposing viewpoint. In scientific meetings, the vital component is a free exchange of ideas. Asking a scientist to refrain from discussing topics that might come up from a meeting is an affront to the scientific process, especially since the ideas in this case (polar bears and global warming) are not secrets key to national security. Not to mention that, as citizens of the United States, we are guaranteed the right to free speech.

One could argue that, since the money these scientists are paid comes from the federal government, that the government should be able to retain some veto power. But this is not how science has been done in the U.S. since at least World War II. Goverment agencies award money to scientific researchers for the purpose of a specific research project. These projects do have to obey some pre-set, sensical rules (such as obeying ethics rules, meeting minimum scientific standards, and so on). But the agencies awarding the funds do not attempt to influence the outcome of the research, and for good reason (just look into the history of the so-called "scientific" research of the Tobacco Institute).

U.S. scientists who are attending scientific meetings on global warming, climate change, or polar bears are not rushing off overseas to burn american flags and shout anti-U.S. slogans. They are partaking in the normal scientific process trying to understand issues. If we cannot freely debate questions such as how much of the polar ice caps will melt, we cannot understand what impact global warming will have on our society. Preventing discussion of polar ice melt does not prevent the melting itself. The only thing it inhibits are discussions on what the impact on humans will be, and what, if anything, we can do to minimize or reduce those impacts. And that is an issue of national security.

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