Marburger and Sociobiology

A couple of brief items to follow up previous items in either News or Notes and Comment or both – she said pompously. My point isn’t to be pompous, it’s just to say that these items refer back to previous items as opposed to being new ones, just in case anyone wants to, you know, get a broad overview of er um –

Anyway. There is a long, detailed post by Chris Mooney on his blog, about Bush’s science advisor John Marburger and his response to the charges by the Union of Concerned Scientists that Bush administration has systematically distorted science. Mooney writes for The American Prospect and the Washington Post about these issues, so his blog is an excellent place to check for science coverage. He doesn’t think much of Marburger’s response.

In order to paint a picture of a series of scientific abuses by the administration, the UCS report relies heavily on previously published media exposes and interviews with disgruntled scientist-whistleblowers (many of them from within the government). By contrast, Marburger presents the government’s official line on each incident, which of course tends to minimize or ignore the whistleblower accounts. But by proceeding in this way, Marburger pretty much automatically loses the argument. He accuses the UCS of failing to “seek and reflect responses or explanations from responsible government officials,” but he never gives us any good reason why we should trust the administration, instead of all the scientists who have risked retribution by going public with their charges. Indeed, the mere fact that there are so many whistleblowers out there points to something systematic going on–namely, an unprecedented level of science politicization by the administration (precisely what UCS is alleging).

And this article by Melvin Konner is very good on the subject of sociobiolgy/Evolutionary Psychology we were talking about a few days ago, and the often automatic hostility to it in some quarters.

As the new field of sociobiology has emerged during the past quarter century, it has met with firm and unrelenting opposition from prominent liberal critics…It has also drawn opposition from a group of biologists on the left who have raised general scientific and philosophical objections and have had great influence in shaping liberal opinion. The scientific critics have included highly respected figures in biology: Ruth Hubbard, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, and Jonathan Beckwith, among others. None in this group had done direct research on human behavior when sociobiology first emerged in the 1970s. Nonetheless, they immediately perceived a grave threat to liberal values, and their opposition has persisted ever since. However respected the source, the criticism from this group has had little effect on the direction of scientific research: sociobiology is now firmly established as an accepted branch of normal science. As a result, liberal opinion about sociobiology has increasingly diverged from scientific opinion. If liberals are to understand why this has happened, they need to consider the possibility that Gould, Lewontin, and other prominent scientific critics were wrong in their attack on sociobiology in the first place.

So Konner explains how they got it wrong.

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