Sunday, December 12, 2010

Not the Best of Weeks

It hasn't been the greatest of weeks for science in the U.S.A. First, serious concerns began to emerge about the lab work behind the discovery of an arsenic-digesting bacterium, which was announced with great fanfare by NASA a week previously. My friend and colleague Carl Zimmer has produced a great synposis of these issues for Slate, which you can read here.

What's particularly saddening is that, according to Carl, his article is already being picked up by Tea Party bloggers and websites, who are using it to add to the growing clamour from the Right for tighter controls on Federal funding of science, more skepticism about climate change research, and you name it. This is an unfortunate time for a high profile case that casts doubt on scientific practice and procedures to hit the news.

Over at the New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer has been doing a great job of undermining my confidence in science by publishing an excellent article on the Decline Effect, a phenomenon by which repeated re-testing of apparently rock-solid scientific results results in their becoming less, rather than more convincing with time. The conclusion the article comes to is that it may be next-to-impossible to prove anything experimentally. Sigh.

Which raises the question of why we don't just do like the anthropologists and abandon science altogether. On Thursday, the New York Times reported that the American Anthropological Association has been thrown into turmoil by a decision at its recent annual meeting to strip the word “science” from a statement of its long-range plan. "Why" you might ask? Well this highly entertaining blog post by Alice Dreger gives some background, but essentially the take home message is that the Right has no monopoly on wingnuts.

Meanwhile I had promised a more detailed follow-up to the whole "YouCut" assault on NSF, but when I came to consider it in detail I realized that I was so schizoid on this subject that I would have to right two posts from diametrically opposed positions. So that's what I did. If you want a sensible analysis of the situation, this is a very good article from USA today. If, on the other hand, you want to know what I think, read on......

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