Sunday, May 3, 2015

Irrational political assaults on research

In 1972, Congress created the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) to provide objective and authoritative analysis of complex scientific and technical issues. The world was becoming much more complex and Congress needed objective analysis to help understand issues and to guide policy debate and choice. In 1995 under Newt Gingrich's leadership, Congress de-funded the OTA, arguing it was wasteful and therefore ineffective because it was redundant over other research and analysis centers in the federal government. As usual with anything in politics, there were at least two completely different versions of events. 

One explanation for OTA's shutdown was the argument about irrelevance and waste. The other is the argument that the analyses the OTA was generating were interfering primarily with conservative ideology and policy arguments. OTA's version of unspun facts, unbiased science assessments and policy implications tended to undermine what conservative ideology wanted the world to be. Unfortunately for ideologues and the rest of us who are governed by ideologues, the world and reality just is what it is without regard to what any ideology might want it to otherwise be.

Dissident Politics (DP) believes the second version is much closer to the whole truth than the first. That opinion is based partly on direct personal experience with OTA's work product at the time, which was excellent. It is also based on how DP sees modern politics as an enterprise grounded mostly in ideology, false facts, spin and corruption by cash from powerful special interests. Those special interests prominently include both political parties and their politicians. OTA's analyses tended to undercut the rationales for policy choices that many powerful people, businesses and some federal bureaucracies wanted to put into place.[1]

That's just DP's opinion
It is fair to ask if there is any contemporary evidence to support DP's assertion that the American two-party system of politics, or conservative politics and ideology in particular, could do something that arguably amounts to an irrational assault on unbiased research? There is. Lots of it.

Gun violence research: For example, conservatives in Congress and the National Rifle Association have been blocking federal research on the public health effects of gun violence since 1996. Gun owners and manufacturers and Second Amendment ideologues suspect bad news. The best way to deal with that possibility is to simply prevent the research that would prove how good, bad or indifferent gun violence is for public health.[2] A 1993 study showed bad effects of guns on public health, "guns kept in the home are associated with an increase in the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance". More research is needed to fully understand the situation. Barring research on this topic is irrational partisan politics. Calls to restart gun violence research are unlikely to succeed, given the intense ideological gridlocked barrier to doing so.

Earth science research - global warming (yet again): In another example, Republicans in the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology voted on April 30, 2015 to severely cut NASA's research budget for earth science research. It was a straight party-line vote. No democrat supported this particular research budget cut. Republicans argue that (1) the cut was needed for fiscal responsibility and (2) study of the Earth itself wasn't part of NASA's mission. The other version is that earth science study always was part of NASA's mission, which is true, and that NASA's climate science research continues to add to evidence that anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change is real and an urgent problem.[3]

Psychoactive drugs, social science: More or less the same situation applies to irrational conservative opposition to research on psychoactive drugs, including marijuana, and social science[4], with arguments about waste and/or irrelevance being applied to rationalize the cuts. Arguments to make research cuts are based on ideological grounds and anecdotes about waste. Anti-research arguments are not grounded in a clear, direct cost-benefit analysis that comes from unspun fact and unbiased logic. That is the epitome of irrationality.

Where's the beef? What is the cost-benefit ratio?
DP is not arguing that there is no waste in taxpayer-funded research. There clearly is some. That is no different than waste or inefficiency in any federal spending. Human endeavors, especially ideologically-grounded ones, are not perfectly efficient. What is missing from attacks on research, including de-funding the OTA, blocking gun violence research, cutting NASA earth science research and everything else, is an honest, transparent cost-benefit analysis. Yes, it saves money to not fund research. But, that half of the argument is never accompanied by an unbiased assessment of how much money the lost research would have saved, i.e., an unbiased, fair cost-benefit analysis is absent.

In DP opinion, for every research dollar that is cut in the name of fiscal responsibility, waste or whatever excuse is applied, it costs (i) taxpayers about $5 in lost efficiency and (ii) the U.S. economy or GDP about another $5 in lost business activity. Obviously, the DP cannot prove that a 1:10 cost-benefit ratio is real. But, can people who advocate research budget cuts prove the 1:10 ratio is wrong? No, they cannot prove 1:8, 1:10 or anything else positive is wrong. They fear that a 1:10 ratio just might be about right. Given that, blocking or cutting research keeps the illusion alive. It's called plausible deniability. Research budget cutters won't do the analysis needed to make their point in terms of cost-benefit. That too, is the epitome of irrationality.

1. Some organizations have called for restarting OTA. However, with the current climate of partisan ideological gridlock and widespread conservative contempt for science and unbiased analysis, the chance of that happening any time soon is nil. Two knowledgeable observers, Ornstein and Mann described the modern Republican Party's knowledge intransigence like this: ". . . unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science". Equivalents of the OTA have been established in some European countries and those entities are highly valued for providing enlightened information to help guide intelligent, cost-effective governance with little or no ideological bias.
2. The logic here is simple. If gun advocates truly believed that research would show that more gun ownership and fewer gun restrictions was good for public health, they would jump at the chance to have that proven by science. But, since gun advocates prevent the research, one can reasonably conclude they fear powerful ill-effects of gun ownership on public health. That is just common sense. If there is a flaw in that logic, what is it?
3. There is no need to argue anthropogenic climate change. The battle lines are almost exclusively ideological and crystal clear: Many or most conservatives deny anthropogenic climate change exists and/or that there is anything humans can or should do about it. Many or most liberals and moderates argue otherwise. A large majority of climate scientists decided this years ago and no longer debate this point. Only conservatives politicians, self-serving special interests argue it, which is to the great detriment of the public interest. Climate scientists now argue over the fine points of their models, how to refine them and what they may be missing in their research or models. Logic argues that conservatives fear that they are wrong about anthropogenic climate change and continued research will continue to support that. The logic here is the same as the logic behind blocking research on gun violence.
4.  Social science merits separate mention. The rationale and ideology that this blog espouses is based almost entirely on findings from social and biological research, mostly from the 1980's to the present. The study of human cognition, how people perceive reality (facts) and apply logic to their perceptions, can now give a solid explanation for why there are vast differences in perceptions and logic, especially between warring ideologies. The research provides a good explanation of why the two-party political system is as corrupt and incompetent as it is. It also explains why the public interest is routinely abused in service to special interests, including both political parties, their politicians and major campaign contributors. In DP opinion, there is far more value to modern social science, especially psychology, political science, history, economics and anthropology, than most of society knows and/or is willing to believe, especially ideologically conservative society. Unfortunately for their own professions, social scientists are far too academic and inept at communicating and translating their knowledge from the ivory tower to the general public - politics is relevant there too. There is some effort to explain things and establish rational politics, but it is far too small and astoundingly obscure. Forces supporting establishing rational politics, mainly social scientists and, as far as DP knows, DP and a few others, has essentially no impact on policy or public perceptions. Irrational as it is, that is the way the two-party system wants it.

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