Views on Science in High Places

posted in: Syndicated | 5

“[Mr. X] told the assembled groups that science itself is subjective, and that he could have three different groups bring him three different supposedly scientific opinions.”

Any guesses on the identity of Mr. X? Could he be a creationist arguing for the inclusion of intelligent design alongside science in the classroom? A new-age radical arguing that alternative medicines are just as scientifically effective was … well medicine? Maybe the most likely bet would be a sceptic of global warming, they’ve been in the press a lot lately, what with temperatures falling across the northern hemisphere (it’s apparently winter you see).

Unfortunately the person in question is (according to an article posted in the wall street journal), US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Secretary Vilsack made these comments during a meeting lead by himself and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan to address the re-deregulation of alfalfa engineered to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, after a lawsuit which required that the USDA conduct a more thorough study of the environmental impacts of the alfalfa’s release. Another source reported:

not once mentioning the health or safety aspects of Roundup Ready alfalfa during the more-than-three-hour meeting

So this is what it comes down to. There are no demonstrated health and safety concerns for this particular crop, even after the further court mandated evaluations, but it appears the US Secretary of Agriculture has lost faith in the idea that science is something more than a system of compromising between everyone’s equally valid opinion.

But it’s not true. Scientists aren’t always right, and yes you can often find scientists who disagree. But the wonderful thing about science is that when reasonable people disagree, we don’t compromise and say the answer is probably somewhere in the middle but we’ll never know for sure. We design new experiments, go out and collect new data, and, in the end, discover which ideas are probably correct, and which are provably false and wrong.

It’s important to note my concerns are based on a paraphrased quote in a single news article. There is a distinct possibility the reporter misunderstood the point Secretary Vilsack was trying to make (I’ve certainly seen similar things happen in print before), but if so I hope he will publicly and vocally denounce the mischaracterization of his postion on scientific inquiry as it has the potential to do serious harm to the already embattled position of science holds public discourse of our nation.

This goes for everything I write, but let me reinterate that the post above represents solely my own opinion and does not reflect views of my employer, supervisor, co-workers, fellow bloggers, family members, friends (both old and new), nor the opinion of my parent’s pet cat.

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James is a graduate student studying Plant Biology at UC Berkeley, focusing on comparative genomics.