Earlier today, Australia’s chief scientist, Alan Finkel, publicly compared US President Donald Trump to former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Science, he says “is literally under attack” in America.
According to Finkel, the new administration “has mandated that scientific data published by the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] must undergo review by political appointees before they can be published.”
When reporting these comments, Australian newspapers clearly didn’t bother to confirm their veracity (see here and here). A two-minute Google search reveals they were emphatically repudiated 11 days ago by a Trump spokesperson who accused the Associated Press of mischaracterizing his remarks. The original AP news story was amended on January 26th ‚Äì see the third paragraph here.
In other words, Finkel has been ensnared by fake news. The chief scientist of Australia didn’t bother to double-check his facts before making an outrageously lurid public accusation. I wish I were genuinely surprised by this, but it so happens I’m currently reading a book titled Science, Money, and Politics. Published in 2001, it was written by a journalist who by then had been observing the scientific world for more than four decades. I’ve just finished Chapter 5, the final paragraph of which includes these words:
leaders of science…are not the most reliable commentators on the historical, political, and financial realities of their profession.
Author Daniel S. Greenberg’s conclusion is based partly on an opinion piece published by the New York Times back in 1999. It was written by Alan Chodos, then a “senior research physicist at Yale University.” The very next year, Chodos became a full-time official with the American Physical Society, and an editor of one of its publications. Unfortunately, his opinion piece contained a whopper of a falsehood. Times readers were told that:
The golden age for physics in this country was the 1960’s, when university budgets were ample…Congress is at fault for the severe shortage of American physicists. It has cut the budget for basic research every year since the 1970’s, and especially in the 1990’s with the end of the cold war…
Such a claim is just dead wrong. In Greenberg’s words:
the federal budget for basic research rose from $2.4 billion in 1970 to $19.5 billion in 1998, and over $20 billion voted by Congress for 2000 ‚Äì data easily found in reliable, publicly available documents.
In a profession built on numeracy and dedicated to accuracy, what accounts for these topsy-turvy misstatements of fact?
Indeed. Whether it’s a Yale physicist 18 years ago, or Australia’s chief scientist today, it’s unwise to take the words of scientists at face value. There’s a reasonable chance they don’t know what they’re talking about.