Sound: a: free from error, fallacy, or misapprehension <sound reasoning> b: exhibiting or based on thorough knowledge and experience <sound scholarship> c: legally valid <a sound title> d: logically valid and having true premises e: agreeing with accepted views
Science: a: knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method b: such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena
This week the first Presidential debate will take place, and although the topic will be foreign policy, the science and technology decisions that the U.S. government makes have global consequences. It is important as teachers to help students understand how science information is and should be used in making important decisions. Isn’t this a simple matter? Use the results of science to formulate the decisions that need to be made. Just use “sound” science.
Maybe not. The term “sound science” was first used by the tobacco industry to try and discredit research that had shown that secondhand smoke endangered nonsmokers. They did this by using public relations to claim that the research upon which the claim was made (secondhand smoke endangers nonsmokers) was “junk science,” and that any decisions that health officials should make should be based on “sound science.”
Elisa Ong, MD, and Stanton Glantz, PhD, reported this in their article Constructing “Sound Science” and “Good Epidemiology”: Tobacco, Lawyers, and Public Relations Firms in the American Journal of Public Health:
The tobacco industry has attacked “junk science” to discredit the evidence that secondhand smoke—among other environmental toxins—causes disease. Philip Morris used public relations firms and lawyers to develop a “sound science” program in the United States and Europe that involved recruiting other industries and issues to obscure the tobacco industry’s role. The European “sound science” plans included a version of “good epidemiological practices” that would make it impossible to conclude that secondhand smoke—and thus other environmental toxins—caused diseases.
In yesterday’s post, I explored what the candidates said about the role of science education in our society. Today I want to explore another question which asked the candidates to reflect on recent criticism leveled at the Bush administration for using political interference to alter scientific reports, and indeed to use language that casts doubt on scientific research. It is in this context, that you will see the terms “junk science” and “sound science” used, especially by politicians. The champion for using the term “sound science” is Senator James Inhole, who has claimed that human-caused climate change (global warming) research is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on Americans.
Here is the question presidential candidates Obama and McCain were asked.
Scientific Integrity. Many government scientists report political interference in their job. Is it acceptable for elected officials to hold back or alter scientific reports if they conflict with their own views, and how will you balance scientific information with politics and personal beliefs in your decision-making?
Of course the short answer to this is NO. If you asked your students to discuss this question, what would be some of their comments? Would they be surprised that scientific results have been altered, or that political views can be used to filter the way scientific evidence is used? What do they think Obama would say in response to this question? What do think McCain would say?
Ok. Now, here are two excerpts taken directly from the the candidates’ responses to the question on scientific integrity. Can you match the the statements with the candidates?
Candidate 1: I will restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best- available, scientifically-valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials or political appointees. More broadly, I am committed to creating a transparent and connected democracy, using cutting-edge technologies to provide a new level of transparency, accountability, and participation for America’s citizens. Policies must be determined using a process that builds on the long tradition of open debate that has characterized progress in science, including review by individuals who might bring new information or contrasting views. I have already established an impressive team of science advisors, including several Nobel Laureates, who are helping me to shape a robust science agenda for my administration.
Candidate 2: We have invested huge amounts of public funds in scientific research. The public deserves to have the results of that research. Our job as elected officials is to develop the policies in response to those research results. Many times our research results have identified critical problems for our country. Denial of the facts will not solve any of these problems. Solutions can only come about as a result of a complete understanding of the problem. I believe policy should be based upon sound science. Good policy development will make for good politics.
Note that one of the candidates used the term “sound science.” What does this say about the future of science and science education if this candidate is elected? And to find out which candidate said, please follow this link, and then scroll down to question #12.