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Inside Politics: Science, pseudoscience, politics and propaganda

From 1970 until retirement in 2008 I was a working scientist. I still view reality largely through that intellectual lens. I was honored to work with luminaries of my own discipline, like my Major Professor Dr. Louis Stolzy, and among the research team of Nobel Laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug (1970 Peace Prize).

These wise honorable men taught me that few pursuits are nobler or more essential to humanity than science, a human endeavor utterly devoted to determining and honestly reporting new knowledge.

Scientists hold a single value as supreme in every aspect of their research and reporting. That value is TRUTH.

About mid-career I was assigned to my agency’s ethics committee, responsible for protecting the organization’s scientific integrity. I ultimately became lead author of its code of scientific ethics and protocols for investigating and adjudicating allegations of scientific misconduct. The code and protocols became a model for standards in several federal science agencies, universities and NGOs.

I can attest that science holds honesty sacrosanct. It scrupulously and vigorously safeguards that core value. In recent decades, the misrepresentation of valid science by those serving hidden economic and political agendas has fomented unwarranted distrust in legitimate science. Lamentably the lay public is unaware how easily pseudoscience poisons public discourse and manipulates people to think and act against their own self-interest. Consumers of information must be wary of pseudoscience and recognize its telltale signs.

Let me state categorically that science is not perfect. But science is by definition a pursuit that recognizes its own imperfection, including possible dishonesty by scientists or institutions willfully misinterpreting scientific data. Redundantly replicated experimentation among independent researchers and organizations make it essentially impossible for fake science or misleading interpretation to go undetected for long without being ultimately discredited. Shamefully, fraud is often propagated faster by disinformation specialists that profit from the deceit than the public catches up with the trickery.

The greatest misconception held by science deniers is that science is just another belief system not unlike religion. Science actually functions as almost the exact opposite. It is, in fact, a disbelief system. No assertion about reality is accepted on the basis of authority, but instead must earn its qualified respect by a harshly rigorous investigative protocol. I say “qualified” because every theory or “law” of science is always open to re-evaluation and reformulation when it fails to meet the test of Occam’s razor or adequately explain new data using known principles to clarify variations.

Identifying pseudo-science involves investigating the scientist, the sponsoring institution, where the research (assuming they’ve even produced research) was published, and what conflicts of interest each of these may have.

Proficient scientists have searchable credible résumés. They have multiple research accomplishments published in multiple acknowledged refereed journals (journals where several independent qualified scientists evaluate soundness of methods and results). “Current Contents” is the internationally renowned database from the Institute for Scientific Information that lists the foremost journals across the vast spectrum of scientific disciplines. If a citation can’t be found there, odds are the source is questionable. A journal’s standing is represented by its citation index. Journals with high citation indices nearly always require disclosure of institutional and author funding sources and other potential conflicts of interest. If a cited scientific paper has no such disclosure, odds are the source is questionable.

Different disciplines have different publication expectations, but a successful mid-career scientist in almost any field typically has a couple dozen senior-authored refereed journal research articles in their résumés (not book chapters, not opinion papers — research papers). Weigh the track record when weighing the opinion.

Despite all I’ve said to this point, the greatest danger to science has nothing to do with the scientific endeavor itself, but rather from the intrusion of politics and special interests politicians represent. The more a politician accepts funding from an endeavor at odds with science the more likely the politician will be at odds with science. And, in my personal opinion, politicians that rationalize science denial for campaign funding engage in egregious betrayal of their oath of office.

The relationship between science and politics should be simple: Science belongs in political decision making, but politics should be excluded from the exercise of scientific enquiry. Politicians who defund science because its findings make an industry or other special interest (that donates to them) uncomfortable are betraying honesty, ethics and the public interest.

The most timely examples are political pandering to fossil fuel industries and creationism. Our nation should be moving toward solar, geothermal, wind and tidal power, for numerous long- and short-range economic and environmental reasons, regardless of anyone’s acceptance of climate change, making the assault on the science even more reprehensible. I’ll leave creationism for another section of the paper by a different author.

The argument is often made that scientists have mounted a conspiracy to pursue climate change research funding. Frankly, that’s hogwash. The reality is the fossil fuel industry’s effort to defund climate change research and make the public complacent. NPR recently reported that nearly a billion dollars was spent since 2000 by fossil fuel interests to fund alt-science and disinformation. Decisions are influenced by mega-donations to politicians. Politicians don’t receive ginormous campaign donations from scientists. They don’t make that kind of money.

It’s in your self-interest to put elected officials on notice to quit playing Machiavellian games with science policy and science funding. In Idaho start by contacting the state’s education department and insist that the five highly reasonable science-based Performance Standards and Supporting Content targeted for deletion are left intact and not deleted from our Curriculum Content Standards. You can do this online at

Regarding climate change denial, I refer you to the excellent article “How to talk to a climate change denier” by Dr. Nyssa Silbiger It describes in layman’s language how to recognize misinformation and logical fallacies commonly used by climate change deniers. Don’t expect to change their minds, but you’ll probably at least truncate their misinformed rants.

Idaho View: Why take Idaho’s legislators so seriously? We don’t

This appeared in the Lewiston Tribune:

Another national publication has taken Idaho’s Legislature seriously.

The fools.

This time, it’s the Weather Channel, which contends Idaho lawmakers stand alone among their colleagues in deep-sixing the teaching of human-caused climate change in the public schools.

Elsewhere, legislatures in six states—Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Wyoming—were less successful.

The Weather Channel adds that state boards of education in Texas and West Virginia had some success in watering down criteria for teaching climate change science, however.

Only in Idaho will you find a freshman legislator, state Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell—a real estate broker, farmer and retired Army veteran—empowered by a state constitutional amendment that enables him and the House Education Committee to substitute their judgment for a panel of 19 scientists, science teachers and educators as well as the State Board of Education.

House Education Committee members dropped five sections about climate change from a temporary updating of the public school science standards last adopted in 2001 and updated in 2009. Nothing could dissuade them—not an informal forum on climate change that drew the largest audience of the legislative session nor their counterparts on the Senate Education Committee.

Now the process to craft a final rule is underway. And in just about every Idaho community where the public has been consulted—including Lewiston, Coeur d’Alene, Boise, Idaho Falls, Twin Falls and Fort Hall—the feedback has been virtually unanimous in favor of science and in opposition to ideological infiltration.

Of course, the same group of lawmakers will get the final word come next January.

But here’s a little secret about the way Idaho handles these things:

Nobody much cares what the legislators say.

Remember when a few of them got the bright idea to nullify the federal Constitution?

Or when they threatened to dismantle child support enforcement, contending it might trigger Sharia law?

How about the periodic attempts to claim title to millions of acres of federal property within the state?

After they rattle their legislative sabers, they retreat. What other choice do they have? It’s not as if they have the ability to make any of these things happen.

Here, we’re talking about something that is less than meets the eye. This so-called rule involves minimal science standards. With or without it, local educators are free to do whatever they want. They can strive to do more than the minimum.

In other words, there is no rule coming out of Boise that will prohibit a science teacher from doing her job.

Nothing can stop her from conveying to her classrooms current scientific knowledge about climate change and what’s causing it.

Likewise, there is nothing the state Legislature can do to stop a school board from making certain the students attending science classes are being taught science, not science-lite.

And when it comes time to purchase science textbooks, good luck finding one reputable publication that fails to note climate change—and the human role in creating greenhouse gases—is established science.

True, political mischief in Boise opens the remote possibility of perhaps one of Idaho’s 115 school districts or a few of its some-odd 40 charter schools may be tempted to distort climate change curriculum. No student deserves to be victimized by a deliberate misinformation campaign.

So the same parents who sounded off to the State Department of Education last week need to maintain vigilance with the people running their local schools.

Still, the fact of the matter is Idahoans should pay no more attention to legislative directives about the teaching—or the lack thereof—about climate change than if those same politicians decided to interfere with lessons about slavery in the United States or the history of the Vietnam War.

Virtually all of Idaho’s kids are going to learn where climate change comes from—and what to do about it.

And all those ideologically driven and uninformed lawmakers? What about them?

Ask a veteran educator and here’s what you’re likely to hear: “We’ll just teach around them.”