Wednesday, May 01, 2013

For Americans in particular and global enlightenment in general

If human beings are basically tradition-bound, irrational creatures, how did science ever develop in the first place? The short answer is, “With difficulty.”
(Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science, by Alan Cromer)

A state of bliss

Buffoonery has become a pervasive condition in America, as observed on an almost daily basis, especially among the political class. The latest example is a relatively obscure Republican congressman from Texas, Representative Lamar Smith. Mr. Smith, with no scientific expertise and apparently no understanding of the basic scientific process, happens to be the Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Representative Smith has drafted a bill that, while directed at The National Science Foundation, one of the premier scientific institutions in the world, wants to set in motion a process for all federal science agencies. His goal is to replace peer review and reduce the importance of scientific replication with some kind of “criteria” chosen by Congress, a criteria that seems to have less to do with science than it does with politics and what Mr. Lamar and some of his colleagues like or dislike.

The chairman of the committee wants to be certain that any grant given out by the NSF has “intellectual merit.” He claims to want to halt “frivolous” and “wasteful” research being funded and insure that any research that is funded be extremely important to “society at large.”

Now how could anyone be against good governance and saving taxpayer money? ( The proposed 2014 science budget is approximately 0.2 percent of the $3.77 trillion federal budget.) After all, U.S. Senator James Inhoff has made a career promoting climate change as a hoax. It's about greedy scientists wanting research grants, as Inhoff will tell anyone who will listen. For details on this dismal and ideally short-lived episode see “Additional Reading.”

The expanding universe

What we refer to as modern science began more than 300 years ago and it has met with resistance of one kind or another the same length of time. Yes, there have been some eureka moments but mostly knowledge was built on what went before. Scientists always owe a debt to those who came before them.

Over the same period of time the scientific method was developed and improved upon. It didn't matter if you didn't like the outcome of the experiment or that your familiar world view turned out to be wrong. The Earth really does go around the sun and it can be demonstrated by a lot of people. Our planet is more than 4 billion years old, and best of all it's not a closely held secret known to only a chosen few.

Scientific research, both public and private, must be robust and intellectually honest. It can be hypothesis driven (to answer a specific question) or discovery based (no specific hypothesis in mind). Above all, none of us--anywhere--can be complacent whenever the usual suspects attempt to turn science into something it's not. It is time to once again confront the usual buffoonery. Make it loud and persistent. It's in the self-interest of all of us.

Additional Reading:

National Science FoundationMerit Review (The NSF process for reviewing a grant application)

The Scientific Method: AnOverview (An explanation of the scientific method for high school and junior high school students)

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