Monday, October 04, 2010

Rush to judgment

“The four corners of deceit: government, academia, science and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That's how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.” Words by the world's richest and most popular pundit, Rush Limbaugh. (OK, I don't know that he is the richest and most popular, but he's surely the loudest.)

I will let others deal with his indictment of government, academia and media (although not here, please). Let me confine myself to science.

We live, of course, in an imperfect world. All of us in government, academia, science and media are human. All of us are afflicted, consciously or unconsciously, by varying degrees of greed, ambition, and poor judgment. We spread ourselves out across the political spectrum from liberal to conservative. And most of us, I would argue, are motivated more by sincerity than deceit.

A democracy only works when we give our fellow citizens -- of all ideological stripes -- the presumption of virtue.

So does science exist "by virtue of deceit"? What can the man be talking about?

Evolution -- or "Darwinism," as the Creationists call it? Oh, come on, Rush. Are you really suggesting that virtually every important biologist in the world -- who presumably know a bit more about these things than you or I do -- is motivated by deceit?

Maybe it's those embarrassing climate-change e-mails hacked from the computer server at a British university? Stupid and tactless, yes. But the brouhaha prompted a self-study on the integrity of the data that left standing the majority consensus among scientists that anthropogenic global warming is a credible threat. The debate will continue, within and without the scientific establishment. My daughter, a paleoclimatologist, is part of the debate. She spends all her time immersed in the data. I've detected no impulse to deceive.

Is science perfect? Of course not. It is made up of humans. But since the 17th century it has striven mightily to create protocols to minimize the effect of human idiosyncrasies, including deceit: reproducibility, double-blind experiments, peer review, quantification, and so on. Is there occasional fraud? Yes. Which is why all important work requires replication. If Rush has a better way of conducting affairs, let's hear it.

In the meantime, Mr. Limbaugh, cut your fellow American's some slack. It is hardly possible to have civil discourse when one believes everyone but himself is part of a deceitful conspiracy.