July 19, 2020 | David F. Coppedge

Political Science Swallows Empiricism

Big Science is recognizing its political bias and lack of integrity. Sometimes they worry about it; sometimes they just rationalize it.

As we have noted previously, the leaders of Big Science (i.e., the journals, lobbyists, and academic institutions who presume to “speak for science”) have a decidedly leftist bent (13 July 2020). As we have also noted, they are worried about lack of integrity and loss of public trust (9 July 2020).  Here are some recent headlines on those topics.

Science has always been political (Science Magazine). In his latest commentary, AAAS President H. Holden Thorp tries to pre-empt accusations that Big Science is political by claiming it has always been political. His key evidence is the essay “Science—The Endless Frontier” by Vannevar Bush, written 75 years ago at the end of World War II. Vannevar Bush presented the need for a national academy of sciences to take the scientific discoveries that won the war forward into a new era of government-funded basic science.

Bush shrewdly recognized that it was a high-water mark for American trust in science. He used this political capital to create the federally funded scientific establishment in the United States.

Bush’s document is widely celebrated by U.S. scientists, because it sets out many of the nation’s most cherished principles. It is fundamentally based on the idea that professors should conduct basic research with federal dollars because universities offer a home for free inquiry and students can be trained in this environment of knowledge creation. It is one of the earliest and most persuasive cases for professors as teacher-scholars.

Far from making an appeal to keep politics out of science, Thorp argues, Vannevar Bush made a strong political statement in that essay. It was “first and foremost a masterwork of political persuasion,” Thorp says. But if he is right, it sounds like a very self-serving type of appeal. Basically, Thorp continues, it essentially amounts to a call to give scientists money, but don’t tell them what to do with it. To keep that funding flowing, Thorp argues that scientists need to be better at politics than non-scientists! That sounds like a classic setup for corruption, especially when universities now have strayed far from the ideal of “a home for free inquiry” (see 27 June 2020).

Opinion: At a Crossroads: Reimagining science, engineering, and medicine—and its practitioners (PNAS). Anything needing to be “re-imagined” presupposes that it is useless, never worked, or is out of touch with reality. In this Opinion piece, Freeman A. Hrabowski III, J. Kathleen Tracy, and Peter H. Henderson launch from the coronavirus response into an apologetic for Big Science. But first, they perform some obligatory self-shaming about Big Science’s lack of appropriate practice for “equality” in light of the race riots going on. They take on the Leftist talking points about “systemic racism” justifying the riots.

Elderly and low-income Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics are infected by and dying from the virus in disproportionate numbers. Ibram Kendi has shown that the African American community has been particularly hard hit because of structural racism, economic inequalities, and health disparities. To paraphrase others, these differences provided the kindling and police brutality the match for the widespread fire of racial protest that has called for broad policy changes to address structural racism in America.

Like Thorp at the AAAS, these authors from the NAS retreat back to Vannevar Bush’s essay “Science—The Endless Frontier” for guidance. The answer, they feel, is a kind of affirmative action to recruit more under-represented minorities into science careers: more “diversity and inclusion” within their ranks.

To paraphrase Aristotle, choice, not chance, determines our destiny. In the end, progress depends on the choices we make. If we take advantage, now—of the COVID-19– and antiracism-driven energy in our social dynamic—seizing the opportunity to reduce underrepresentation in science, engineering, and medicine, and take responsibility for the work that needs to be done, then we can finally make real progress in creating and sustaining an inclusive enterprise that delivers benefits to America.

They say nothing, however, about Big Science’s long history of racism and eugenics. And they say nothing about research integrity. If Big Science fails to deliver truth about the natural world based on evidence, no amount of diversity and inclusion will make “science” worth the reputation it presumably holds.

The Hong Kong Principles for assessing researchers: Fostering research integrity (PLoS Biology). Unlike the prior two essays that dealt with politics and social justice, this one deals directly with integrity. The nine authors call their five statements the “Hong Kong Principles” based on the 6th World Conference on Research Integrity (WCRI) that was held at Hong Kong.

The timing of the name is ironic, coming right when communist China is restricting the rights of Hong Kong citizens. The Beijing Marxists are violating a treaty with the UK less than halfway into a term that agreed on “one China; two systems” that would have allowed substantial independence of Hong Kong for 50 years. Last year’s citizen protests against the communist government’s threats did no good. Like most communist regimes, they resulted in more exercises of authoritarian, totalitarian rule.

The authors “propose five principles, each with a rationale for its inclusion.”

The principles target exploratory and confirmatory types of research and analysis. Similarly, the principles are also applicable for quantitative and qualitative research, although there is more of a focus on assessing researchers who engage in empirical research. The principles were formulated with a focus on rewarding behaviors that strengthen research integrity that have an emphasis on responsible research practices and the avoidance of detrimental research practices.

The principles are stated succinctly in a box within the article.

  1. Principle 1: Assess researchers on responsible practices from conception to delivery, including the development of the research idea, research design, methodology, execution, and effective dissemination
  2. Principle 2: Value the accurate and transparent reporting of all research, regardless of the results
  3. Principle 3: Value the practices of open science (open research)—such as open methods, materials, and data
  4. Principle 4: Value a broad range of research and scholarship, such as replication, innovation, translation, synthesis, and meta-research
  5. Principle 5: Value a range of other contributions to responsible research and scholarly activity, such as peer review for grants and publications, mentoring, outreach, and knowledge exchange

How would these principles relate to research and teaching about evolution? #1 would require stating the assumptions behind the conception of a research project. #2 would reduce some of the hyper-optimism about what the results mean. #3 might allow for more debate among scientists about the findings. #4 would allow (to the extent implemented) more voices to be heard than only the pro-Darwinist voices. #5 should encourage more transparency in how findings are covered. Whether any of these principles would change anything about the 100% pro-Darwin establishment depends not only on the integrity of the researchers, but the integrity of the Big Science institutions signing on to the principles.

Open-access Plan S to allow publishing in any journal (Nature). The push for open publishing without having to pay high journal fees continues apace. Reading between the lines, Nature appears scared to death of this trend. It could mean the end of their giant publishing empire. But it raises the question, who owns science? Will scientific integrity increase if it becomes less and less subject to the censorship of Nature’s editors, and other journal owners, who decide what is worth printing or not?

An optimist takes the helm at NSF (Science Magazine). Jeffrey Mervis takes a somewhat dubious look at Trump’s appointment of an “optimist” to run the National Science Foundation. The liberal bias is evident in Mervis’s focus and choice of words: e.g., budget cuts are “dark clouds”.

The new director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, knows that dark political clouds are hanging over the agency.

His boss, President Donald Trump, keeps proposing big cuts to NSF’s budget. In Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike have lambasted NSF for not doing more to stop the Chinese government from harvesting the fruits of U.S.-funded research. New reports of sexual harassment, including some involving NSF grantees, seem to pop up weekly, and the national outcry over racial inequities has highlighted the chronic underrepresentation of minorities and women in science.

Yet the Indian-born computer scientist was unabashedly upbeat about the future of the U.S. academic research community—where he has spent most of his career—and NSF’s role in supporting it during a 2 July remote interview with Science.

Mervis assumes that immigration restrictions are always bad, funding cuts are always bad, and “inclusion” is always good. Those have little to do with research integrity, which should be the primary goal a head of the NSF should bring to an agency operating with federal funds. Are members of the public getting a good return on investment? All other issues are secondary. Private funds can be used for those, if institutions want to make those the priority. Science, though, is supposed to be a pursuit of truth. The AAAS motto is “Facts Are Facts.” Facts by nature must be color-blind and politically neutral.

If facts are the domain of science, they should supersede other values. Would you rather have an oncologist who really understands the facts of cancer treatment work on you, even though he had racist tendencies, or a doctor who didn’t understand the subject, even though she scored high on “diversity and inclusion”? If those were your only choices, what would matter more if your life is at stake? Big Science needs to keep its core principles and values at the top and not be pulled this way and that by political advocates and cultural pressure groups. A vaccine for COVID-19 that works will not be a “racist” thing.

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