Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Incompetence and politics. . .

Politics. . . sigh. . .

Sorry to intrude on my usually apolitical posts with a political one, but this has me a bit miffed.

Slashdot has collected the major source material here. Read the articles yourself if you are interested. The text below is my own summary and rant.

Those who know me well know that I am not a fan of the Bush administration. I think the man himself is not very bright, his policies de-emphasize science and the natural environment, he over-emphasizes religion and lets it drive his policies too much, and his administration bungled us into the Iraq war. All of these issues are big problems in and of themselves, and have been argued and discussed for countless hours in countless forums. The one I’m miffed about right now is his de-emphasis on science, mixed with political cronyism. Here’s what happened:

George Deutsch, a 24 year old college dropout, was appointed by the Bush administration to be in charge of astrophysics content editing for web pages intended for middle school age readers. He instructed a web programmer to place the word “theory” after every mention of the Big Bang on some of NASA’s sights, because he felt that without the extra word it would be implied that the Big Bang was fact. He wanted to inform the public that intelligent design is “the other side of the debate”, going on to say:

[The Big Bang is] "not proven fact; it is opinion," Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, "It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator."

Well, he’s technically right that the Big Bang theory is not proven fact. . . BUT NEITHER IS ANYTHING INFERRED BY SCIENCE! This is an unfortunate result of scientific vocabulary which the American public really needs to understand: A scientific “theory” is an explanation of nature that has been supported by repeated experiment and observation. It is the highest level of certainty in science. There is nothing higher. You start out with a “hypothesis” (a proposed explanation of some natural phenomenon) then test it using experimentation. You get some results, make a few conclusions about how good the test was and what it says about your hypothesis. . . and then you test it again. . . and again. . . and again. Others perform more tests trying to disprove the hypothesis. Science is performed by trying to disprove things, and those ideas that have yet to be disproved after many experiments are called theories.

In science, “theory” is synonymous with “law”. The law of gravity and the theory of gravity mean exactly the same thing. So yes, the Big Bang is a theory, as are natural selection, gravity, relativity, and plate tectonics. Each of these has been supported time and time again by experiment, and has yet to be shot down with evidence, not for lack of trying. None of the theories listed above are controversial in the scientific community.

I expect that the majority of people attacking evolution as “just a theory”, do not understand the scientific method, and it is partially the fault of scientists for not making the definition more clear to the public. That’s another story, though.

Anyway, the guy had been appointed to this job as a reward for working so hard for the Bush-Cheney 2004 reelection campaign. The New York Times broke this story on Saturday. By today (Feb 8th), Deutsch had resigned.

Oh yeah, I mentioned that Deutsch was a college dropout. . . The original NYT story stated that he was a Journalism graduate of Texas A&M. It turns out he never finished his degree. . . he dropped out to work full time on the Bush re-election campaign. This was discovered by an intrepid scientific activist over at Oxford, who had recently graduated from Texas A&M himself. Check out his blog.. The point is that this young man was obviously not qualified to be editing astrophysics content on NASA web pages. I don’t think that Journalism students are required to take many courses in science.

What? An unqualified person appointed to an influential position out of political cronyism by the Bush administration? Where have we heard that before? COUGH (FEMA). . . AHEM (Katrina). . . cough cough. Ahem. Excuse me.

The sad part is that this is just a smaller part of a larger issue, which is that various other Bush appointees in the NASA Public Affairs office have been attempting to censor NASA scientists, especially those attempting to explain their results on climate change to the general public. See article.

Ugh. Okay. I’m done ranting for now.


Vanessa said...

Bravo, David. Bravo.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I had to start a whole seperate blog to keep my friends from having to listen to my political rants. Even being fmiliar with this issue I enjoied your rant very much.