Virulent Word of Mouse

December 16, 2010

Cheap Shots Aimed at Scientists: A Political Movement?

Filed under: Editorial,Short observations — Shane Greenstein @ 5:28 pm

In a prior post I described a politically motivated cheap shot aimed at a computer scientist at Northwestern. I looked closely at the circumstances that fed the situation. I concluded that the charges lacked merit.

Was that an isolated example? No, it was not. In this short post, I point towards another recent example with many similar features.

Look, people differ in their priorities, and that is why governments have policy issues to debate. What we observe here, however, is not a rational policy debate about the governance of science. Rather, we are observing a debate characterized by cheap shots, misleading headlines, and juvenile argumentation.

This is bad news for anyone who values the contributions of science to the US economy.

The origins of the first cheap shot

Let me provide a brief outline of the prior example. The first cheap shot arose because:

* A couple politicians lost their sense of class and found it useful to mischaracterize an innocent professor’s research. These politicians used the mischaracterization to gain a headline.

* The mischaracterization involved deliberate and juvenile misreading of the research. Even a cursory amount of homework revealed the error of the mischaracterization. This was not an innocent mistake.

* A number of online sites merely repeated the misleading characterizations instead of investigating their veracity. Even though such investigations were easy to do simply by following the links and footnotes. (I was able to discern the truth in a short period of time, so why doesn’t an online site?).

* A major newspaper went with a front page headline that implied a scandal, even though the carefully written story by the reporter actually pointed toward the simpler truths. This was a disdainful manipulation of the norms of investigative journalism. The headline implied “gotcha” when, in fact, the story said otherwise.

You might have gotten the impression that such cheap shots cannot survive except in special circumstances, when classless political charges go unchecked by lazy web reporters and news media headline writers. In my optimistic dreams I might have held such a naive thought.

Ah, but that would be too optimistic, as it turns out.

More of the same?

They are at it again. Yet another cheap shot has been aimed at a Northwestern researcher who does not deserve it.

No, really. I am not kidding.

It is explained rather well in this article. The attack contains many of the same elements of the prior attack. A politician has made a deliberate mischaracterization of the research.

Moreover, anybody can easily verify information demonstrating the contrary. Yet, it seems not to matter to the politician.

The researcher who became a target for this classless attack also posted a very classy response on his web site. I recommend it.

Worse, however, this attack is part of a general movement. No sensible observer would forecast that we are near the end.

The incoming Speaker of the House of Representatives, Eric Cantor, features a web site where citizens vote on which research to cut. This scheme is described well here.

(Notice: there is no place to vote for keeping any research. And there is no recognition that scientific panels chose these projects over scores of others.)

Look, I understand the role of gimmicks in making political points, but this has gone beyond mere symbolism.

This is taking us away from any thoughtful review of federally funded research, and the full accountability of researchers for their actions, as well as a thoughtful review of where the costs of research do or do not exceed their benefits.

Instead, these are stunts, cheap shots, and close to witch hunts, all aimed at research.

Do you find this troubling? I do. This is no way to have a sound policy debate about the funding of research in the United States.

In fact, it is no way to have a debate about any policy matter.


  1. Let the ignorance of Americans wrt real science drop into caveman dwellings and the burning of witches to satisfy their depravity. Maybe world leaders such as South Korea and Japan in robotics and their implementation will inherit the landscape in America hunting down the depraved and ignorant,

    Comment by ECON — December 17, 2010 @ 1:34 pm | Reply

  2. At issue also: earmarks, sources of funds for grants, the use of university endowment funds for research, and what the roll of the federal govt in funding research really ought to be.

    Comment by Dick — January 7, 2011 @ 11:15 am | Reply

  3. Shane, if you remember me from your class, then you know that I am a huge fan of science and technology as a means to improve human lives. But the scientists desereve at least partial blame in this matter. If taxpayers are to be a constituency, then the scientists must do a better job of marketing their actvities as competition for this constituency’s dollars increases. In the private sector, my computer company’s competitors attempt to mischaracterize and belittle our R&D’s team advancements as we compete for customer dollars. If the scientists cannot make a strong case for their efforts to those funding it, then why should they expect funding from this same group? Maybe scientist as a whole could get some pointers from the nano-technologists who seem to have created general public enthusiasm for their work.

    Comment by Dion — January 17, 2011 @ 12:20 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for the comment!

      Certainly there are some professors who lack skills in PR. Any who issue cheap shots deserve them in return. Substantive critiques also are fine if they deserve it. And, as you said, there is nothing wrong with Congress making budget priorities.

      But the two Northwestern Professors I focus on these two posts did not issue a cheap shot, and they faced critiques that contained less thought than your comment. I think such thoughtless comment needs attention. It is not too much to ask our leaders to do better.


      Comment by Shane Greenstein — January 17, 2011 @ 3:04 pm | Reply

  4. Muy buen post, me ha gustado, gracias. Good Post. Thank you.

    Comment by Tenerife69 — September 22, 2011 @ 11:34 am | Reply

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