Thursday, April 2, 2009

Two Items, Unrelated (Except for a Big Ten Connection)

a. In a quiet backwater of the news world today, there is a piece about President Obama's nomination for the director of the US Census, which bears significance on this blog's subject matter, though admittedly only in a peripheral way.

Obama's choice is a man named Robert Groves, who served as the associate director of statistical design for the Census from 1990-92. Groves, who is a professor at the University of Michigan, caused a minor kerfuffle during his tenure there for pointing out that the Census's statistical sampling methods were remarkably crude: then as now, the Census works by mailing people forms and counting the replies. This results in dramatic undercounts in areas where people are less likely to have stable, long-term addresses--places that typically vote disproportionately for Democrats. And members of the Republican party have fought against anything other than the 19th-century "head count" method ever since.

The key point here, from my perspective, is not especially about who benefits in the short run from possible changes to how the Census is administered (and there will be no changes for the 2010 census according to the AP story). What is critical is this story represents yet another area in which a war is being waged on scientists simply by virtue of the disinterested information they provide to the government such that the government will make good long-term decisions. For the most part this war has been waged by, and on behalf of, the members of the Republican party, and found its greatest and most effective expression in the machinations of the Bush administration. And though the Republican party may be in something of a retreat at the moment, its far right wing--which clearly dictates the national Party's policies--continues to oppose the entire intellectual structure that allows science to thrive, and does so with great ferocity. That is, the Groves nomination constitutes a threat not only because it might marginally diminish Republican power, but more importantly because it demonstrates a totally different way to arrange government, where non-partisan civil servants provide the best and most accurate data to policy-makers.

Or to put it another way, the reaction against the Groves nomination, which is already quite clear based on the quotes in the AP article, is of a piece with the Republican intimidation of career scientists and policy experts at NASA, the NSF, the FDA and NIH to name but a few, on subjects ranging from global warming, the extinction of endangered species, and the teaching of evolution. To this list we can now add, "how to count a sample of people properly."

b. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran an article over the weekend illustrating in detail the kind of money sloshing around medical schools these days, in which Big Pharma supports the ongoing "education," if it can be called that with a straight face, of physicians. Keep in mind that what goes on at the University of Wiscosin is no different than many or even most other medical schools in the US. I have little to comment on the article other than to say, "read it." Props to the Carlat Blog for the heads-up.

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