More science in our policy making, please

Olivia Judson has a nice Op-Ed piece in the NYT today.  She references a book called “Undermining Science: Suppression and Distortion in the Bush Administration” by Seth Shulman that I’d like to read.  She also makes a couple of great points.  Many scientists have been dismayed by the Bush administration’s efforts to suppress the role that science plays in public policy (especially, for me, regarding climate science).  However, I’ve never been able to articulate succinctly why science and the scientific method are so valuable.  Judson does this as well as I’ve ever seen:

In schools, science is often taught as a body of knowledge — a set of facts and equations. But all that is just a consequence of scientific activity.

Science itself is something else, something both more profound and less tangible. It is an attitude, a stance towards measuring, evaluating and describing the world that is based on skepticism, investigation and evidence. The hallmark is curiosity; the aim, to see the world as it is. This is not an attitude restricted to scientists, but it is, I think, more common among them. And it is not something taught so much as acquired during a training in research or by keeping company with scientists.

Now, I don’t want to idealize this. To claim that scientists are free of bias, ambition or desires would be ridiculous. Everyone has pet ideas that they hope are right; and scientists are not famous for humility… Moreover, to downplay evidence that doesn’t fit your ideas, and to place more weight on evidence that does — this is something that human brains just seem to do. Worse, such biases become stronger under certain circumstances.

However, the beauty of the scientific approach is that even when individuals do succumb to bias or partiality, others can correct them using a framework of evidence that everyone broadly agrees on.

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