Bob Sojka

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.

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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 https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/NKWY556.

Regarding climate change denial, I refer you to the excellent article “How to talk to a climate change denier” by Dr. Nyssa Silbiger http://uproxx.com/life/how-to-talk-to-a-climate-change-denier/. 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.

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Bob Sojka is chairman of the Twin Falls County Democratic Party.


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