“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”
— Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6
Just like Humpty Dumpty, Republicans in the House of Representatives and their Fox News enablers have started to decide what words mean. This week’s word: science.
Yesterday, DC outlined how the Republican-controlled North Carolina State Legislature has tried to define an acceptable rate of sea level rise from global warming.
I’ve written about how a Republican-led legislature in Tennessee decided that certain religious beliefs are actually science, while global warming is not.
During the Republican Presidential debates, candidate Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Stillwater, MN) just plain made up science to fit her preëxisting belief system.
And of course, the decades-long Republican War on Science is well-documented.
So it should come as no surprise that National Science Foundation (NSF) funding bill amendment, sponsored by Representative Jeff Flake (R-Mesa, AZ) and passed by the House last month, purports to define what is, and what is not, “science”.
Flake began by trying to cut the NSF budget by $1.2 billion. (The FY2012 budget for NSF is just over $7 billion.) Representatives Marsha Blackburn (R-Brentwood, TN) and Paul Broun (R-Athens, GA) offered similar spending cuts. Blackburn’s DW-NOMINATE is +0.753, Broun’s is a mighty conservative +0.949, and Flake’s is an eye-popping +1.014. This is a DW-NOMINATE record, surpassing even the justifiably obscure Charles L. Underhill, who served as a Massachusetts Republican from 1921 to 1933. (Note that all three current Representatives are well-known to Logarchism readers for their rabid anti-government views. For example, Broun has appeared here twice before.) Cutting agency budgets is well within the purview of Congress, and an acceptable approach to the country’s current fiscal crisis. However, such a large-scale cut was unpalatable to Flake’s House colleagues. They defeated his proposal 121–291, also defeated the Blackburn and Broun proposals, and passed a bill that increases the funding for NSF to $7.3 billion.
Flake then returned with an amendment, which the House passed 218–208, that blocks NSF from funding political science programs, which represent $11 million of the NSF budget, or 0.15 percent. But since it doesn’t reduce the NSF budget — that amount was already set by the appropriations bill — it doesn’t save any money. Rather, it only micromanages the NSF and tells them that political science is not science.
Incidentally, note the DW-NOMINATE scores above. Who funded the political scientists who developed the DW-NOMINATE? Well, the NSF, that’s who:
Freshman Representative Chip Cravaack (R-Lindstrom, MN) also introduced, and the House passed 238–188, a similar amendment banning the use of NSF funds for climate change education. This doesn’t save any money either, but it does define what “science education” is, and apparently any science education other than climate science education is fine with Cravaack.
Charles Lane, at the Washington Post, argues that Congress should block NSF funding for all social sciences ($247 million, or three percent). He argues that the money could better be used to fund programs that produce “hard” science. Apparently, knowledge is not useful, nor is having a more informed citizenry. Lane defines science as “hard” science, like engineering and mathematics. He claims that
Federal funding for mathematics, engineering and other “hard” sciences is appropriate. In these fields, researchers can test their hypotheses under controlled conditions; then those experiments can be repeated by others.
Though quantitative methods may rule economics, political science and psychology, these disciplines can never achieve the objectivity of the natural sciences. Those who study social behavior — or fund studies of it — are inevitably influenced by value judgments, left, right and center. And unlike hypotheses in the hard sciences, hypotheses about society usually can’t be proven or disproven by experimentation. Society is not a laboratory.
I’m not clear on how Lane could draw a bright line between psychology (listed above as a “social science”) and neuroscience (a “hard science”). I’m not sure that he understands that all scientists are inevitably influenced by “value judgments”. After all, science is performed by humans. I’m not sure he understands what science is, or hypothesis testing is. He apparently thinks the existence of “value judgments” blocks economics, political science and psychology from the exalted pantheon of “science”.
As a neuroscientist myself, I always thought there was almost total overlap between the fields of neuroscience and psychology. But what do I know? I’m a scientist, and I always thought that the community of science got to define what science actually is. Now I come to find out who gets to define what science is: a Congressman running for Senate and a former New Republic editor and current Fox News bloviator who famously pointed out that Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-Tucson, AZ) couldn’t “speak normally” after surviving a point-blank gunshot wound to the head.
Perhaps we should be funding research to find out why Charles Lane feels the need to fling hurtful remarks at people and events he doesn’t understand, like a monkey flinging poo.
Had her attacker not taken so much away from her, Giffords might have made a credible run for the Class 1 U.S. Senate seat from Arizona currently held by retiring Republican Senator Jon Kyl. The primary date for Flake is August 28, and he holds a large lead but his closest competitor, Wil Cardon, is closing the gap. The Club for Growth is scared enough to run attack ads, claiming Cardon is no true Scotsman. It’s sad to think future political science research may suffer a great fall, due to the whims of an extreme right-wing Humpty Dumpty.
- Congress should cut funding for political science research (bangordailynews.com)
- The Political Attack on Political Science (bigthink.com)
- Jeff Flake Will Decide What Is and Isn’t Science, Thank You Very Much (patheos.com)
- House passes bill to bar spending on political science research (insidehighered.com)