by Andrew Fillat
“Science, at its core, is a social phenomenon.” This observation, from Alondra Nelson, the newly appointed deputy director of President Biden’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), certainly qualifies for a prominent place in the Pantheon of Inane Statements. The core of science, in fact, is the scientific method—posing and testing hypotheses; carefully gathering, examining, and generating experimental evidence; and finally, synthesizing all the available information into logical conclusions.
Dr. Nelson’s assertion is inauspicious, but perhaps we should not be too surprised by a “squishy” statement from someone whose undergraduate degree was in sociology, while her doctorate is in “American Studies.” What, we wonder, qualifies her to be deputy director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy? And how does it comport with President Biden’s commitment to always rely on “science and truth.” We suspect it is an example of how lip service to science has invaded the domain of real science.
“Hard” sciences are a framework for understanding physical, chemical, subatomic, biological, and other natural or even man-made phenomena. The disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology, and especially mathematics, have nothing to do with society as such, because the phenomena they characterize exist independently of humans. Mathematics is typically the language of this framework, whether it is arcane calculus, probability theory, combinatorics, topology, or some other branch well understood by only a very select group.
The presence of uncertainty or unresolved questions in the hard sciences does not make them soft or diminish their rigor. In fact, scientific findings incorporate statistical uncertainty, but without ascribing motives or a social context.
As an example of the evolution of science, Newton’s laws of physics were once believed to be immutable. Centuries later, Einstein hypothesized mathematical principles that questioned the validity of certain of Newton’s laws in extreme conditions—seminal speculations that were unusual and daring but amenable to the process of hypothesis and experimentation. In fact, subsequent experiments—the essence of science—have validated most of Einstein’s theories. In other situations, the process is reversed: an experiment produces new or unexpected results, spawning theories to explain them, which then require further testing to validate or disprove them. This is how science works.
This topic is important not just because of an inane assertion by a political appointee, but because science these days is often distorted by ideology and politics, and abetted by scientific illiteracy. Some things are immutable. Force equals mass times acceleration (F=ma, Newton’s second law) regardless of race, sex, gender, nationality, religion, or even position on the evolutionary scale—earthworms conform, too. Identity or social considerations have no relevance, and humans cannot alter these principles. The lower chamber of the Indiana legislature once tried to mandate a change in the constant pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. (The legislation was rejected by the senate.)
The reality that the scientific method may produce discoveries that affect identity groups in different ways is not a justification for denial, misrepresentation, or dismissing the results of an experiment or finding. Yet, we see that happening, and not for the first time. A good example was provided by President Bill Clinton’s Undersecretary of Agriculture Ellen Haas, who had previously headed an anti-technology advocacy group, and who deconstructed science thusly: “You can have ‘your’ science or ‘my’ science or ‘somebody else’s’ science. By nature, there is going to be a difference.” Translation: I don’t give a damn about the experimental data or consensus in the scientific community. My views are just as valid as the experts’ views. This is how, as the old Washington, D.C. saying goes, personnel becomes policy, and often not in the best interests of society.
Some of “social science” is simply asinine and a waste of research funding that could instead be expended on endeavors useful to society, like epidemiology or surveillance of emerging infectious diseases, which have been notoriously underfunded. One of us (Dr. Miller) once endured a lecture by a University of Virginia professor about her National Science Foundation-funded study of the “ethics” of nanotechnology research. She had conducted interviews with nanotechnology researchers in their offices, and part of her “research methodology” involved recording what kinds of screen savers were on their computers. The study concluded: “Narrative is an indispensable device for formulation of theory about scientists [sic] perspectives regarding the moral and social implications of nanotechnology,” and “alternative pedagogies are necessary to fully explore and develop a working ethical framework for analysis of nanotechnology.” This meaningless gobbledygook is of nano-value to society.
Sadly, that “study” is not an isolated example. The late Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a physician, released a landmark report, “NSF Under the Microscope,” that provided a useful analysis of the agency’s grant-making. It identified several projects that will make most Americans, scientists and nonscientists alike, shake their heads. They include studies of how to ride a bike; when dogs became man’s best friend; whether political views are genetically predetermined; whether parents choose trendy baby names; the best time to buy a ticket to a sold-out sporting event; and why the same teams always seem to dominate the NCAA basketball playoffs.
Our organizational mistake was the creation of the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate within the NSF. Underlying its ability to dispense grants is the wrongheaded notion that social-science projects such as a study of animal depictions in National Geographic magazine and a climate change musical ($700,000) are as important as research to identify early markers for Alzheimer’s disease or pancreatic cancer—or the biology and epidemiology of coronaviruses. This is what happens when, as a skeptical former senior NSF official put it, “the inmates run the asylum.”
There are two problems with public officials legitimizing “soft science” as the basis for policy making: It often fails to arrive at the right answers and it can undermine public trust. We have seen during the coronavirus pandemic that the reporting of cherry-picked data has influenced public behavior negatively and potentially undermined non-pharmaceutical interventions and encouraged some unproven, unwise “pharmaceutical” ones—e.g., hydroxychloroquine to prevent or treat COVID-19.
Real science is apolitical. The phrase “follow the science” is commonly used to persuade, even when the speaker knows “the science” is unclear, equivocal, or being misrepresented for political purposes. As a result, many officials have lost credibility and provoked defiance rather than compliance. The only long-term answer is dependence on honest and objective science—hard science—and the reporting of it.
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Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases. They were undergraduates together at M.I.T. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology.