One common trope in modern politics is to take a political position, hang a lab coat on it and brand it “science” and then accuse anyone opposing your position of being some sort of unenlightened, anti-science troglodyte.
It’s a nifty political maneuver, and it would be a much more convincing posture were Democrats not simultaneously trying to keep the scientific data used to justify many government regulations a secret.
That’s a big deal. For one thing, very often published scientific findings turn out to be wrong. Or, at least, they can’t be replicated by other scientists going back and checking the work. That’s according to the Reproducibility Project, a group that went back and tried to verify the findings of 100 published studies. From the New York Times (emphasis mine):
…a painstaking yearslong effort to reproduce 100 studies published in three leading psychology journals has found that more than half of the findings did not hold up when retested. The analysis was done by research psychologists, many of whom volunteered their time to double-check what they considered important work. Their conclusions, reported Thursday in the journal Science, have confirmed the worst fears of scientists who have long worried that the field needed a strong correction.
It wouldn’t be fair to conclude from this one study of studies that half of all published scientific findings do not hold up, but it does illustrate how important it is that science is transparent and, you know, checked out.
Especially the science upon which public policy is built.
At Nature Daniel Sarewitz, from the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University, has an interesting and balanced op/ed about partisan battle between Republicans and Democrats over science used to justify policy implemented by organizations like the EPA. Republicans say they want the data public so that it can be double checked. Democrats say Republicans just want ammunition to use to roll back regulations.
The Democrats are probably right, but so what? As Sarewitz points out, the importance of transparent scientific findings trumps political concerns:
Consider, for example, the Secret Science Reform Act of 2015, a US bill that would “prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from proposing, finalizing, or disseminating regulations or assessments based upon science that is not transparent or reproducible”. Passed in March by the House of Representatives essentially along party lines (Republicans in favour, Democrats opposed) and now awaiting action by the Senate, the bill has been vigorously opposed by many scientific and environmental organizations.
They argue, probably correctly, that the bill’s intent is to block and even roll back environmental regulations by requiring that all data on which the rules are based be made publicly available for independent replication. One of the main objections is that a lot of the scientific research that informs regulatory decisions is not of the sort that can be replicated. For example, a statement of opposition from numerous scientific societies and universities explains that: “With respect to reproducibility of research, some scientific research, especially in areas of public health, involves longitudinal studies that are so large and of great duration that they could not realistically be reproduced. Rather, these studies are replicated utilizing statistical modeling.”
Precisely. Replication of the sort that can be done with tightly controlled laboratory experiments is indeed often impossible when you are studying the behaviour of dynamic, complex systems, for example at the intersection of human health, the natural environment and technological risks. But it is hard to see how this amounts to an argument against mandating open access to the data from these studies. Growing concerns about the quality of published scientific results have often singled out bad statistical practices and modelling assumptions, and have typically focused on the very types of science that often underlie regulations, such as efforts to quantify the population-wide health effects of a single chemical.
Although concerns about the bill’s consequences are reasonable, the idea that it would be bad to make public the data underlying environmental regulations seems to contradict science’s fundamental claims to objectivity and legitimacy
It’s also ironic that those who have made “it’s science” into a political trump card don’t want to be transparent about the science.
By the way, North Dakota Congressman Kevin Cramer voted for the aforementioned legislation back in March.
“Time and time again, the EPA has refused to provide the scientific data they claim to be using to justify their regulatory decisions. Even after we voted for a subpoena in the House Science Committee, they have continued to insist on secrecy,” Cramer said of the bill’s passage. “If the EPA wants to tell North Dakota how to run our energy industry, operate our farms, and take care of our air and water, then we ought to at least be able to look at the data they’re using to draw their conclusions.”
The Senate’s companion bill was reported out of committee in April, but so far there’s been no further action.