Sunday, October 22, 2006

The harm of politicized science

My latest science and technology column at the North County Times is up. It's about the study published in The Lancet on Iraqi war mortality, and the anti-war Democratic political activism of the researchers who conducted the study. That activism gives me reasonable grounds to suspect these researchers may have conceived and conducted the survey with political aims in mind.

The most flagrant breach of scientific ethics was committed by Les Roberts, one of the three lead authors, who actually ran for Congress this year as a Democrat opposed to Bush and the Iraq war.

This is from a news story about Roberts' decision to withdraw from his congressional campaign:

Roberts said, "Republican control of the Congress and White House in recent years has given us the most destructive governance since the Vietnam War."

The pre-emptive war against Iraq and record deficits fueled by "tax gifts for the richest few" have left the United States greatly weakened, he said.

Now contrast those statements with those made by lead author Gilbert Burnham in a Washington Post chat on the study:

"Somehow we have found ourselves in the middle of a political storm when our intents were to help other to think seriously about what happens to innocents--and even the perhaps not innocents--who get caught up in conflict. We have a huge job to convince people that we do NOT have political motives in this. We are disaster people. However I am not so sure we are getting our non-political message across as well as I had hoped."

Some advice for Mr. Burnham: If you and your fellow study authors want to convince people your message is "non-political", running for Congress isn't it. (Burnham, by the way, reportedly gave $900 to Roberts' congressional campaign).

Blogger Seixon has his own interesting ideas about what this study says about the corrupting influence of politics on science.

Now the criticisms of the author's conduct does not necessarily mean the Lancet study is wrong (although my impulse would be to throw it in the garbage as tainted). Another Web site dissects the arguments of Steven Moore, a Republican political consultant, who says the study is wrong.

"In the end, Moore has opened up some interesting lines of inquiry, but he has ended up over-reaching in an effort to prove the Lancet figures 'bogus.' " say Rebecca Goldin and Trevor Butterworth on the site

One final note: even though Moore's critique is a partisan one, and he also took part in the 2004 presidential campaign, raising money for commercials to argue that everything is improving in Iraq, that was not unethical. Moore is a political hack, and he does what political hacks do, Republican or Democrat. He is not a scientist whose profession values objectivity. Politics is all about being biased and subjective.

But Burnham, Roberts & co. are academic researchers who claim to be "non-political" and unbiased in their work. Becoming political activists in the field where they are doing research is a violation of scientific norms and ethics. Much the same is true of reporters, who are expected to refrain from outside political activities that interfere with their work. Imagine a political reporter continuing in that position while running for Congress. Could you trust that reporter's coverage to be fair? Obviously, no. Why, then, does a respected academic institution like Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where Burnham and Roberts work, tolerate this unethical mixing of science and politics?

UPDATE: I originally described blogger Seixon as a conservative, but upon further reading found that he declares himself to be a moderate, and presents his scores in one of those political quizzes. So I'll take Seixon at his word.

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