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[xmca] Wearing out truth

If you have not seen these materials, gathered by a colleague, i suggest you
take a look. Very interesting.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Frank Kessel <kesfam@pdq.net>
Date: Tue, Dec 28, 2010 at 5:06 PM
Subject: Truth?
To: Frank Kessel <kesfam@pdq.net>

 FOLKS: As you may (or may not!) remember, in a message forwarding the news
about how Republicans plan to (try to) cut/reduce the 'soft' behavioral and
social sciences from the NSF budget (see below-below), I provided the
abstract for a recent *New Yorker* article on the less-than-firm quality
of at least some of our hard(er) science findings.  Well, in the 2nd part of
his annual "Sidney Awards" columns, David Brooks talks about the same
article (see below).  Better still, he [rovides a link that enables all of
us non-subscribers to access the whole article. So here 'tis (attached). . .
Methinks that, along with the earlier-in-the-year article and discussion re
the limitations of much of WEIRD (psychological) science, this presents us
with, well, let's simply say a non-trivial challenge ot three!  FRANK

P.S.  In case you don't know, Brooks' "Sidney Awards go to some of the best
magazine essays of the year. The one-man jury is biased against political
essays, since politics already gets so much coverage. But the jury is biased
in favor of pieces that illuminate the ideas and conditions undergirding
political events" . . . and are named for Sidney Hook.


In earlier ages, people consulted oracles. We consult studies. We rely on
scientific findings to guide health care decisions, policy making and much
else. But in an
“The Truth Wears Off” in The New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer reports on
something strange.

He describes a class of antipsychotic drugs, whose effectiveness was
demonstrated by several large clinical trials. But in a subsequent batch of
studies, the therapeutic power of the drugs appeared to wane precipitously.

This is not an isolated case. “But now all sorts of well-established,
multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain,”
Lehrer writes. “It’s as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that
have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable.”

The world is fluid. Bias and randomness can creep in from all directions.
For example, between 1966 and 1995 there were 47 acupuncture studies
conducted in Japan, Taiwan and China, and they all found it to be an
effective therapy. There were 94 studies in the U.S., Sweden and Britain,
and only 56 percent showed benefits. The lesson is not to throw out studies,
but to never underestimate the complexity of the world around.


*From:* Frank Kessel [mailto:kesfam@pdq.net]
*Sent:* Thursday, December 23, 2010 3:14 PM
*To:* 'Frank Kessel'
*Subject:* News for the New Year: Cutting out the social science funding
from NSF

 So the battles begin  . . . again = the wacky Wisconsin Senator's "Golden
Fleece Award" redux . . . but, alas, probably with far greater
political force.

As for the, um, certainty of the, uh, hard sciences -- See attached.  (Will
zip over complete article as soon as one or another subscriber gains


>Representatives Eric Cantor's and John Boehner's 2009 proposal<http://republicanleader.house.gov/UploadedFiles/06-04-09_Savings_Proposals_For_President.pdf>to President Obama seeking to cut in half the NSF's $198 million allotted
for awards in behavioral and social science. "Unlike NSF’s other hard
science programs (such as engineering and biological sciences)," Boehner and
Cantor wrote in 2009, "these soft science programs are often more
controversial and less directly related to NSF’s core mission."

*Picking on Social Science *

December 21, 2010  Inside Higher Ed

A bid to question the merits of federal funding for social and behavioral
science research may be failing to capture the public's attention, even as
it signals that larger and more polarizing battles over science, federal
policy and money could lie ahead.

On Aug. 13, Rep. Adrian Smith, (R-Nebraska) posted a clip on
YouTube<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSYTS-nRt4o>announcing the
launch of
YouCut <http://republicanwhip.house.gov/YouCut/Review.htm> -- an attempt to
get citizens to crowdsource ways to cut the federal budget. In YouCut's
first foray, Rep. Smith invites viewers to share their impressions of grants
for research that have been awarded by the National Science Foundation.
After praising the NSF for supporting discoveries in the "hard" sciences
(typically math, engineering, and the physical, natural and computational
sciences), which have spurred economic growth, he cites what he sees as two
of the NSF's more suspect awards.

"University academics received a $750,000 grant to develop computer models
to analyze the on-field contribution of soccer
he says (it's actually a Northwestern University project led by engineering
and business professors to develop strategies to better assemble effective
teams in virtual communities). Rep. Smith also mentions a $1.2 million award
to model the sound of objects
use by the video game and movie industries (the project involves
University computer scientists finding ways to change how sound is
manufactured in interactive virtual environments).

Attacks of this nature -- which tend to target perceived intellectual and
cultural elites -- often gain traction during periods in which Republicans
control at least one house of Congress, as they are about to do. This
position of power enables them to hold hearings, call for votes on specific
projects and exert some control over the purse strings of federal agencies.
Such attacks already have begun. Republicans led a successful effort earlier
this month to pressure the Smithsonian Institution to remove a work of art
from the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition, "Hide/Seek: Difference and
Desire in American
its perceived anti-Christian imagery.

"We’ve been down this road before," said Howard Silver, executive director
of the Consortium of Social Science Associations, who recited a litany of
efforts by politicians of both parties to question science research. Often
cited as the originator of this type of Congressional activity is Sen.
William Proxmire (D-Wisconsin), whose Golden Fleece awards drew attention to
wasteful spending -- with scientific research one of his favorite targets.
More recently, Pat Toomey, then Republican representative and now senator
from Pennsylvania, tried in 2003 to block National Institutes of
Health-backed research on sexual

Many times, these salvos -- in which politicians pounce on silly-sounding
research projects, often without understanding their underlying purpose --
have ended up backfiring. Proxmire once ridiculed federal money spent to
study the screwworm fly, but later
conceded<http://www.ucop.edu/pres/comments/gfleece.html>that this
research led to extremely effective efforts to eradicate the nasty
pest that devoured the flesh of
Mark Sanford, as a U.S. representative from South Carolina, sought to freeze
NSF funding. He staked much of his argument that the agency mismanaged money
on the fact that it supported research into
a term he mistakenly thought referred to automatic teller machines. Instead,
it describes asynchronous transfer mode, a telecommunications innovation
that enables data, voice and video to be transmitted in one data stream.

YouCut's scrutiny of the NSF -- which Silver described as "interesting
political theater" -- is more explicit than past efforts in dividing the
physical and natural sciences on the one hand from the behavioral and social
sciences on the other. Silver said he was troubled by Representatives Eric
Cantor's and John Boehner's 2009
President Obama seeking to cut in half the NSF's $198 million allotted
for awards in behavioral and social science. "Unlike NSF’s other hard
science programs (such as engineering and biological sciences)," Boehner and
Cantor wrote in 2009, "these soft science programs are often more
controversial and less directly related to NSF’s core mission." That
statement was written before both men were slated to assume much more power
-- Boehner as Speaker of the House and Cantor as Majority Leader. And their
interest in finding areas in the budget to cut has remained undimmed.

Rep. Smith's address on YouTube continues to distinguish between the value
of these branches of science. While the two examples he offers as evidence
of questionable research blend different scientific disciplines, Smith
frames NSF's most worthy work as being in engineering or the physical,
natural and computational sciences. He asks viewers to "help us identify
grants which do not support the hard sciences or which you don’t think are a
good use of taxpayer dollars.”

Experts and advocates for science in general, and social science in
particular, have questioned this separation. "It’s sort of an easy way to
make political hay," said Silver, noting that social and behavioral sciences
account for a small fraction of the NSF's annual awards (about 3 percent of
the agency's $6 billion total budget, according to the agency). "Is there a
business in this country that doesn’t need to understand human or societal
behavior? This whole business of saying these aren’t as useful or as
important as natural or physical science doesn’t make sense to me."

Similarly, Barry Toiv, vice president for public affairs at the Association
of American Universities, said his organization and its allies will need to
make a forceful case that social sciences are as important an investment as
the the natural and physical sciences, while acknowledging that no formal
campaign was in the works. Toiv cited the University of Michigan's surveys
of consumers <http://press.sca.isr.umich.edu/press/about_survey> as an
example of how social science research benefits public policy. Another
example: the research now being conducted at Massachusetts Institute of
Technology <http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2010/profile-pentland-1101.html>on
understanding nonverbal cues. The results could help troops in
Afghanistan better read the body language of people with whom they cannot
communicate verbally, he said. "A particular project may sound funny or
irrelevant, but you never know where that’s going to lead," said Toiv.

To a great extent, this argument has been won within the NSF, based on its
commitment to fund cross-disciplinary
which was articulated in August by the agency's assistant director for the
social, behavioral and economic sciences.

Among policy-makers, it's a different story, albeit one with some new
technological, rhetorical, disciplinary and political wrinkles. YouCut's use
of crowdsourcing marks a "clever" change in approach, said Al Teich,
director of science and policy programs for the American Association for the
Advancement of Science. "This is a high-tech twist on an old story," he
said. Teich and others hope that it could be fruitfully deployed by
scientists and their advocates to make the case for their research. "It
might be a useful technique to engage the public in this sort of
conversation," he said.

April L. Burke, founder of the lobbying and consulting firm Lewis-Burke
Associates, also thought the effort to focus attention, through YouCut, on
the NSF could serve as a valuable opportunity for the sorts of people and
institutions she represents -- research universities and scientific
organizations. Scientists and their advocates would do well to see the
latest scrutiny not as a blanket condemnation of science and cause for
offense, but as an invitation to make the case as to why the NSF should fund
social science, she said. "I’d rather see us launch a positive campaign and
talk to members of Congress and get them comfortable with social sciences
and physical sciences," said Burke, "and save our angry powder for when
we’re really under attack."

It is not clear that the bid to draw close scrutiny to the NSF has had the
desired effect. While the clip was posted in August, the effort only started
to generate more widespread attention in the past two weeks, from such
outlets as *Wired*<http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/12/nsf-youcut-review/>and
*USA Today*<http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/columnist/vergano/2010-12-05-politics-science_N.htm>.
YouTube tracking data indicate that Rep. Smith's address had generated, as
of press time, about 12,200 views over the past four months. Twelve viewers
indicated that they like the page, while 195 dislike it. Responses on
Twitter to Rep. Smith's address have not been particularly kind, either.
Some have called it a “witch hunt,” “catastrophically dumb,” and dangerous
in a country with a high rate of scientific illiteracy.

Rep. Smith’s office referred to Rep. Cantor's office questions from *Inside
Higher Ed* on the number of awards that have been challenged. Rep. Cantor's
office did not respond to several calls and e-mails -- including a request
to clarify whether *any* citizens had raised objections. Maria Zacharias, a
spokeswoman for the NSF, said she was not aware of any other grants being
called into question by members of the public, though such a lack of result
is not necessarily unexpected.

Several observers thought the real significance of the YouCut episode was
that it offered a preview of upcoming efforts to trim federal spending on
NSF and other agencies back to 2008 funding levels, and of looming
investigations over climate science or energy policy. Teich's group, the
AAAS, has offered a sober but slightly hopeful
the shifting landscape since last month's election, and suggested that
consensus in science funding, climate change and energy policy could still
be built.

Toiv, of the AAU, declined to see the prospect of future conflicts over
research in strictly partisan terms. He said political pressure over the
deficit was bound to place discretionary domestic spending, which is the
source of NSF's money, under the microscope. "There was going to be a
problem no matter which party won," he said. But, he added, it remains
important for advocates of scientific research to highlight the economic
argument to support future funding. "We cannot hope to have the kind of
economic growth we need to address the deficit issue without, over the
long-term, making these investments now in basic research," said Toiv.
"These are investments. That’s what needs to be clear."

— Dan Berrett <dan.berrett@insidehighered.com>

Attachment: New Yorker Truth Wears Off.doc
Description: MS-Word document

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