A Science Policy Bash

Sounds like fun, no? Yesterday in the Times, Cornelia Dean reported on a science policy meeting for members of Congress:

More than 100 committee staff members, Congressional aides and at least one senator, Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, crammed into a basement meeting room. With all of the seats filled, people leaned on walls, sat on the floor and spilled out into the hall.

I'm glad members of Congress are getting cramped together to think about how they ought to structure their science advice, even if the necessary revival of the Office of Technology Assessment still seems quite far off in the distance. But what I found really interesting was Dean's reporting on an apparent attempt to undermine this event:

Robert Ferguson, who runs the Center for Science and Public Policy, which also presents briefings to Congress, argued that one of the speakers, Donald Kennedy, editor of the journal Science, had himself politicized the field in editorials on the dangers of climate change, marking him as having political motives.

He sent critiques of Dr. Kennedy by e-mail to prospective members of the audience so they could "decide if attending the event is worth your time."

This is the same Center for Science and Public Policy--a policy center under the umbrella of the conservative group Frontiers of Freedom--that has questioned whether we need to worry about mercury in fish. And of course, the group takes a contrarian stance on climate science. For examples, see here for its "Collected Senate Speeches on Climate Change Science by Senator James Inhofe" (that certainly will be one for the history books!), and here for one of its attempts to undermine the "hockey stick."

And there's more. Here's the ExxonMobil public policy giving report for 2004. Frontiers of Freedom received a total of $ 250,000 according to the document, all of it related in some way to work on climate change. Of that, $ 70,000 went to "Science Center & Climate Change." Though the names aren't exactly the same, Frontiers of Freedom doesn't appear to have a "science center" other than the CSPP.

I would argue that Cornelia Dean probably should have told her readers much more about CSPP than she does. But in any case, I find it revealing that this group doesn't like the editor-in-chief of Science briefing members of Congress on how to get their science advice.

In the absence of the Office of Technology Assessment, think tanks like CSPP have moved in to fill the science advisory vacuum, at least for some members of Congress. (For an example of the group's apparent influence on congressional presentation of science, see here.) But whereas OTA produced carefully reviewed consensus reports reflecting the views of a range of experts, the take of a group like CSPP on matters of science is, er, less balanced, to say the least.

Yet if Congress doesn't reinstall and re-institutionalize credible scientific advice, we should not be surprised if members turn to more agenda-driven sources of information. Nor should we be surprised to hear a lot of sound and fury about science--with contrasting and incompatible scientific positions being argued by non-expert members of Congress--instead of a broad acceptance of scientific consensus findings and then an honest attempt to use those to help formulate policy.

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I had noticed the same quote from Ferguson. Even though I had never heard of the CCSP, it was immediately clear that it must be some sort of pro-industry think tank, and two minutes of Googling revealed that it was. (I mean, trying to dissuade Congressional staffers from listening to a briefing from the editor of Science?) How can anyone, in Congress or the media, take these guys seriously, or at least not reveal who they are?

I agree that the reporter should have ID'd the CCSP, simply inserting "a pro-industry group" or something along that lines to let the readers know where they're coming from. (I have a feeling the reporter simply overlooked it here.) But reporters shouldn't be in the business of simply ignoring any group that doesn't adhere to a particular viewpoint, as Sean suggests. Even those groups with dubious intentions often have at least kernels of truth in their arguments. And if we started ignoring industry-backed groups, does that mean we should ignore environmentalist groups as well? Or pro-scientist groups? It's a bit of a slippery slope. That doesn't mean reporters should report what those groups have to say uncritically, but that's a discussion for another time.

Thanks, Walter. I'm certainly not saying anyone should be ignored or censored. The issue here is identification, I'd say. There's also an issue of proportionality of print devoted to particular perspectives that sometimes arises (aka "balance"), but that's not at issue in the Cornelia Dean story.

CCSP? Typo for CSPP? You're talking about the Center for Science and Public Policy, right?

Thanks Jackd. My bad, typos throughout the post have been fixed.

Dr. Mr. Mooney,

The primary purpose of this post is set the record straight regarding the New York Times report (sic) under girding your rather harsh outburst. We seek your consent to post our response to the Times regarding this matter and then address this incident, along with a few other inflammatory statements you've posted.

At the outset, let's be clear this is not a defensive (potentially life-threatening) attempt to administer withdrawal treatment for your religious-like sorting of good and evil people laboring in the realms of science, industry and public policy. I accept Randall Parker's findings that "Partisan defenders of irrational positions get rewarded by their brains in the same way drug addicts get rewarded by addictive drugs."

Nor is it an attempt to dissuade or evangelize you from your commissioned rounds as the reincarnation of Henri Boguet. Everyone needs a profession.

Here are the relevant statements from our private email to staffers on our list server:

"There is a Hill briefing on Monday about which you should know something.

"Monday, January 23, 2006
1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Capitol Building, HC-8

"One of the speakers will be Donald Kennedy, now the editor at Science Magazine. There is growing concern by some in the science community about the increasing politicalization at Science Magazine. Therefore, we provide you with some comments so that you can decide if attending the event is worth your time. We sponsor such Hill events ourselves, and encourage attendance at as many such briefings as possible to hear all sides of the issues, which you in turn may relay to your Member or Senator.

"Below (and attached) are:

"(1) Two recent blog comments on Kennedy's recent "unscientific" editorials in Science.

"(2) The notice of the event, in case you have not seen it.

"We hope you find this information of use, and will attend the briefing.

Mr. Mooney, since the only statement reported in the Times was the out-of-context phrase, "so that you can decide if attending the event is worth your time," I agree that a superficial impression might be as you described - an "apparent" attempt...

We say "superficial" because even the Edenic Adam and Eve could discern that the phrase "you can decide" is not the same as "don't do this."

On the other hand, providing staff the original notice of opportunity to hear Dr. Kennedy along with the exhortation, "We hope you will attend this event" in furtherance of the ideal of hearing "all sides of the issues," is polestar clear.

It is also factual and relevant (to the exact topic of his proposed remarks) that Dr. Kennedy's own procedures and public editorials at Science have elicited public expressions of concern by scientists on both sides of the divide. We placed the word "unscientific" in quotes to emphasize this is the judgment of his peers, based on his own public statements.

Clearly then, there is no honest justification for persisting in your "revelation" that we don't "like the editor-in-chief of Science briefing members of Congress on how to get their science advice."

Here is our response to the New York Times, adhering to their restriction of 150 words:

"Our recent private communication to some Congressional staff was publicly mischaracterized by reporter Cornelia Dean, "Where Science and Public Policy Intersect, Researchers Offer a Short Lesson on Basics" (January 31, 2006).

Dean reported we had "argued" Donald Kennedy politicizes science from his influential position at Science Magazine, and then insinuated we encouraged a boycott of sorts of his Hill appearance. We did neither.

"We related simply that there is growing concern among scientists about increasing politicalization at Science Magazine.

"Dean also failed to report that our email provided the original invitation for the Kennedy speaking event, and our words, "We sponsor such Hill events ourselves, and encourage attendance at as many such briefings as possible to hear all sides of the issues"...and 'We hope you find this information of use, and will attend the briefing."

"This was all made clear to Dean in a lengthy phone conversation and emails."

Mr. Mooney, the remainder of your post appears to us as a formulaic exposition of name-calling, labeling and guilt by associations whose intent is to achieve exactly what you fain finding objectionable. Since we have never met nor given offense (except for our very existence on the planet), we find this rationally inexplicable.

(1) You write: I'm certainly not saying anyone should be ignored or censored. The issue here is identification." This appears disingenuous against you implications ad nauseum in your Malleus Malleficarum (The Republican War on Science) that "identification" is synonymous with labeling, and morally justifies selective vilification amounting to censorship. (There seems no explanation for repeated, slanderous vilification of us and our work other than intent of harm.) We say selective because, after all, the premier science organization in the nation, The Smithsonian Institution, embraces ExxonMobil as a "Corporate Patron." (http://www.si.edu/corporate/members.htm)

(2) Science and knowledge are ONLY advanced by the "contrary," and retarded by "consensus."

(3) Your non-demonstrable accusation that our mercury reports are "unbalanced" seem self-indicting that (a) you have not studied them or (b) you found their carefully cited findings impenetrable. Neither has been the case for a good number of people, including the librarians of a major U.S. university who persisted (three times over several months) until we granted their request:

"Dear Mr. Robert Ferguson,

"Librarians at (redacted for privacy) believe the following works have significant value for the university's teaching and research mission:

1. "Fish, Mercury and Cardiac Health: A Review of the Current Literature," by the Center for Science and Public Policy, 2004. Found at
URL: http://ff.org/centers/csspp/pdf/20050119HGHeart.pdf

2. "How Safe Are we From the Fish We Eat?" by The Center for Science and Public Policy, Sept. 2004. Found at URL:
http://ff.org/centers/csspp/pdf/mercury092804.pdf

"To ensure long term preservation and access, we are requesting permission to maintain an electronic copy of these works in a protected "dark storage" environment that would be inaccessible to our patrons or the public.

"If these works ceased to be available on your server, we would also like permission to provide either unrestricted access to these works, or access for MSU students, faculty, and staff. Proper attribution would of course be given.

"Please reply by email if you grant permission for us a) to store a copy off-line, and b) to make that copy available if your copy becomes inaccessible.

"Thank you in advance for your assistance."

Mr. Mooney, we assume it likely that these busy librarians did not arrive at this valuation of our research skills or "balance" by themselves only.

Thank you for granting access to your blog. And really, we extend you every well wish.

With Warmest Regards,
Bob Ferguson
Ex. Dir.
Center for Science and Public Policy

Hi Robert,
I hope the Times prints your letter, but I think your protests are a bit strong. The email that you yourself have provided clearly sought to raise doubts about Kennedy, even if it also said that people should attend the event.

On other points: "Identification" has nothing to do with censorship. Rather, the principle is the same one that journalists and scientific journals practice when requiring disclosure. Finally, I'm glad that some librarians appreciate your mercury work, but I'll stick with the National Academy of Sciences (http://www.nap.edu/catalog/9899.html).

I wish you well too. I greatly appreciated your writing style. I may crib the phrase "polestar clear" at some point, though I have no idea who Henri Boguet is.

Chris,

Enjoyed listening to your panel discussion on Reason's site. Mr. Ferguson's writing style certainly does give a wealth of information. The library's request for permission to reproduce mentions the "significant value for the university's teaching and research mission." Perhaps that value is as an expample of how not to conduct research?