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NYT's Tierney Concerned About Use of Science -- In the Obama Administration

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Monday, President Obama issued a memorandum ordering the Office of Science and Technology Policy to, in Obama's words, "develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making." While many will no doubt see the memorandum as proof of Obama's commitment to value science, others, such as the New York Times' controversial science reporter John Tierney -- American Progress' Joe Romm called him "easily the worst science writer at any major media outlet in the country" -- may be more skeptical.

You see, Tierney is concerned about the politicization of science under an Obama administration. In fact, he began writing about Obama receiving "flawed science advice" back on December 19, 2008. Since then, Tierney has written a column and two blog posts -- under the headlines "Politics in the Guise of Pure Science," "Honest Science in Washington," and "Politicizing Science" -- expressing reservations about the kind of advice Obama might receive from John Holdren (Obama's pick for science adviser) and Steven Chu (Obama's secretary of energy).

If you find it odd that a journalist who did little to no reporting on the widespread and well-documented distortion of science and the scientific process during the George W. Bush administration would suddenly find it important to write about the politicization of science in Washington now that a Democrat is in office, you're not alone.

After his January 23 column critical of Chu and Holdren, Tierney noted on his TierneyLab blog that he was asked by critics "[w]hy start worrying now about scientists pushing a political agenda" and isn't it disingenuous "to worry about the politicization of science now instead of during the Bush administration?" His response begins: "I agree that there were lots of attempts to use science for political ends during the Bush years. I wrote about some of the questionable claims by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the White House drug czar's office."

So, while the Bush administration was busy placing unqualified political appointees in scientific positions, muzzling agency scientists, ignoring scientific findings when making federal health and environmental rules, manipulating the scientific advisory system in favor of ideology and industry, and editing reports in way that distorted scientific data, Tierney wrote about some "questionable claims" by the DEA and the White House drug czar. Got it.

But what exactly has Tierney so concerned about the politicization of science now? Have Holdren or Chu been accused or found guilty of distorting scientific evidence or manipulating the scientific process for political purposes? No -- Tierney is "concern[ed] about some of the debating tactics used by Dr. Holdren and his allies" and a bet Holdren lost with resource economist Julian Simon about the future price of metals more than 25 years ago. Tierney also claims that Holdren has a "tendency to conflate the science of climate change with prescriptions to cut greenhouse emissions." According to Tierney, "There are other ways to cope, and there's no 'scientific consensus' on which path looks best."

By contrast, Joe Romm -- an actual scientist, as opposed someone like Tierney, who "always wanted to be a scientist but went into journalism because its peer-review process was a great deal easier to sneak through" -- argues that the idea that climate change science does not suggest the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions is just absurd.

As for Chu, Tierney cites one comment that Chu made in an interview reported by the Los Angeles Times in which he suggested that the effects of climate change could reduce the snow pack in the mountains of California to such an extent that there could be "no more agriculture in California," making it difficult to "keep their cities going." While Chu's comment may strike some as going beyond what the available science makes possible to predict with any degree of certainty, Tierney failed to mention that Chu was reportedly describing a worst-case scenario and that the Los Angeles Times report of Chu's comments cited by Tierney noted that "[a] pair of recent studies raise similar warnings."

According to Tierney, "The politicization of science is clearly a bipartisan affair." Oddly, he added, "I don't think Republicans are any less prone to this problem than Democrats." Given the events of the last eight years, shouldn't the order of the two parties in that sentence be reversed?

Indeed, Tierney's explanation for his underlying concerns about the use of science in an Obama administration is troubling:

But I do think this problem [the politicization of science] may be more difficult to spot when the Democrats are in power, simply because so many scientists are personally sympathetic to Democratic policies. Surveys and exit polls have found a preponderance of Democrats among academics and Ph.D.s. However much they try to be impartial, they're prone to the confirmation bias, which makes them less skeptical of results and statements that jibe with their own beliefs.

But the surveys to which Tierney refers (he doesn't actually cite any exit polls) are not only old, they have limited explanatory power. Not all academics and Ph.D.s are scientists, and one of the studies Tierney cited evidently surveyed academics in "the humanities and social sciences," not "hard sciences." The other survey that did include "professors from the hard sciences" looked only at the faculties of Berkeley and Stanford. Further, while Tierney noted the studies were published by the National Association of Scholars, he neglected to mention that NAS is a conservative organization that believes there is a liberal bias in education and receives extensive funding from conservative philanthropies.

Finally, Tierney asserts that "However much they [Democratic academics] try to be impartial, they're prone to the confirmation bias, which makes them less skeptical of results and statements that jibe with their own beliefs" -- while providing absolutely no evidence to support the claim.

Tierney claims his Times blog is guided by two founding principles: "Just because an idea appeals to a lot of people doesn't mean it's wrong," and "But that's a good working theory." While skepticism is a virtue for any reporter, you'll have to excuse me if Tierney's skepticism about the potential politicization of science under Obama seems oddly misplaced.