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.