Lamar Smith Anti-Science Redux

lamar-smithI just read a weird speech delivered by Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas on the House floor.

So what? Members of Congress deliver odd oratory on a constant basis.  It’s puzzling because, Smith is the chair of the House Science Committee.  A position that should work to progress science. As I noted in a previous post, Smith doesn’t really like or trust scientists.

In 2014, he stated in a Committee meeting that’s — you know — dedicated to science:

“Going forward, members of the House Science Committee will do our best to avoid listening to scientists.”

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On Monday, Smith said from the House floor, on the topic of fake news and the current animosity between Donald Trump and the media:

“Better to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.

I am in no way interested in wrangling the politics of what he said. I have my opinions on the Trump Administration but they are personal and not germane to this news/information blog. What I propose is a thought experiment.

What I want to examine is the content of Smith’s quote from the standpoint of a public official charged, allegedly, with promoting and empowering the forward progress of scientific discovery. One would think.

Having said that, we would expect the CHAIRMAN of that committee to think scientifically about the things he supports and says. Such a person would be expected to employ the Scientific Method before making a claim on any subject to see if it conforms to reality or is an “alternative fact” (i.e. non-reality).

You remember the Scientific Method, right? To review:

  • 1. Observe some aspect of the universe.
  • 2. Invent a tentative description, called a hypothesis, that is consistent with what you have observed.
  • 3. Use the hypothesis to make predictions.
  • 4. Test those predictions by experiments or further observations and modify the hypothesis in the light of your results.
  • 5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until there are no discrepancies between theory and experiment and/or observation.

That begs the question: Does Smith’s claim conform to the Scientific Method?

  1. Observation: There exists news — reports of happenings in our world.
  2. Hypothesis: Some news reports are true. Other’s false. Smith would add: “Media coverage about Donald Trump is mostly false. News statements made by Donald Trump are mostly true.”
  3. Predictions: (according to Smith) “Trump’s future statements are likely true and Trump-related media reports are likely false. Thus, ‘[The public should] get your news directly from the president — it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”
  4. Data Points and Further Observations:  A bit of cursory research reveals the following:
    • Is the Media mostly inaccurate when reporting on Trump? That’s difficult to quantify. The media is composed of thousands of news outlets with varying degrees of overall accuracy. Some get it right 99% of the time and some fall flat. Whether it is reality or perception, the American Public believes the media is accurate most of the time.  We’ll have to leave that question in the realm of “insufficient data” or, at best, “accurate some of the time.”
    • Is Trump mostly inaccurate in his public statements? Since Trump is a single entity, the accuracy of his statements can be demonstrated using empirical evidence. Empirical evidence indicates the President has made several inaccurate and false statements within the space of a few months as evidenced here, here, here, here and here.
  5. Conclusion: Lamar Smith’s statement is false — Trump is not an accurate source of “unvarnished truth.”

If Smith truly wants to advance science (and by implication the Scientific Method), his only rational course of action is to retract that portion of his speech.

Reality Check: Of course this won’t happen and Smith is anything but an advocate of science.

Example: In 2013, Smith crafted a bill that would create a new set of controversial criteria for National Science Foundation grant proposals, effectively overturning the peer review process in favor of a politicized funding criteria process controlled by Congress (aka the guys who are NOT scientists).

Fellow committee member Eddie Bernice Johnson chastised Smith, saying “the moment you compromise both the merit review process and the basic research mission of NSF is the moment you undo everything that has enabled NSF to contribute so profoundly to our national health, prosperity, and welfare.”

Clearly, Smith holds nothing but contempt for science and scientists and, if he has any sense of rational ethics, he should resign his position as Chair of the House Science Committee. Don’t hold your breath.

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To circle back to my 2014 post:

“Our best and only tool for improving and extending life and health is the deployment our rational brain — a tool capable of exploring this universe using the scientific method. And what a wondrous tool of discovery it is.”

FYI

“The Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has jurisdiction over all energy research, development, and demonstration, and projects therefor, and all federally owned or operated non-military energy laboratories; astronautical research and development, including resources, personnel, equipment, and facilities; civil aviation research and development; environmental research and development; marine research; commercial application of energy technology; National Institute of Standards and Technology, standardization of weights and measures and the metric system; National Aeronautics and Space Administration; National Science Foundation; National Weather Service; outer space, including exploration and control thereof; science scholarships; scientific research, development, and demonstration, and projects therefor. The Committee on Science, Space, and Technology shall review and study on a continuing basis laws, programs, and Government activities relating to non-military research and development.”

 

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