Blacksburg, Va., Feb. 16, 2004 -- In recent years, the science establishment and science press have begun to pay increasing attention to cries that selection of members for scientific advisory committees based on their political stance is contaminating the Federal scientific advisory process. At the 2003 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement Science (AAAS), the AAAS Council unanimously passed a resolution calling on politicians and Federal administrators to respect the letter and spirit of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, with its requirement for balance.
But isn't science "science?" asks Rachelle Hollander, program director of the National Science Foundation Societal Dimensions Program. "How are claims for 'balance' relevant?"
"The idea that science panels should represent a balance of different policy biases suggests the scientists are not objectively interpreting evidence, or perhaps that there's no way to interpret data in an unbiased fashion," says Deborah Mayo, a philosophy professor at Virginia Tech.
Hollander and Mayo have organized a symposium at the 2004 AAAS annual meeting (Scientific Integrity in Policy Contexts, Monday, Feb. 16, 10 a.m.) to explore philosophical and empirical research around the question: Is the assumption that policy biases should be balanced at odds with the idea of scientific objectivity?
Heather Douglas, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Puget Sound, in one of the philosophical presentations, takes the view that scientists must consider the impacts of error in science advising, requiring them to include social values in their advice. David Guston, director of the public policy program at Rutgers, presents an empirical research report about the influences in and from delegation of responsibility to scientific advisory committees, using the National Toxicology Program as an example.
Patricia Spitzig, senior policy analyst at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration who is involved in a new program to promote effective leadership in the Civil service in Federal science-based organizations, and Mayo, a philosopher, have been invited to respond and provide deeper perspectives on the issues at hand.
Mayo will respond to the symposium presenters and speak on "Making Inferences with Integrity: Getting Beyond Some Obstacles in the Policy vs. Science Debates." She says that "The latitude that enters both in generating and interpreting statistical risk data, many argue, introduces ethical and other value considerations that go beyond accepted canons of 'objective scientific reporting'. This thesis of 'ethics in evidence' has been taken by some to show that a responsible interpretation of probabilistic evidence may warrant violating traditional canons of scientific objectivity, and even that a scientist must choose between norms of morality and objectivity."
Mayo argues that the "ethics in evidence" argument, while persuasive, is badly flawed. "It rests on accepting a cluster of popular criticisms of the objectivity of scientific evidence and inference, and is also intertwined with current (as well as long-standing) debates and confusions regarding the statistical methods (of testing, modeling, and decision) on which risk assessments may be based."
She will disentangle and refute the ethics in evidence argument; then "sketch a methodology for avoiding central criticisms, fallacies, and foibles surrounding statistical and probabilistic assessments; and show its relevance for avoiding the false dilemma (morality or objectivity) that has led some to despair of the possibility of an unbiased assessment of evidence in science-based policy.
"In practice, it may turn out that a good way to obtain the necessary, unbiased methodological scrutiny is by means of a group that is 'balanced' in terms of policy goals: but, even then it is important to see that what is doing the critical work is the unbiased scrutiny, not the 'balance' of policy values of the scientists," Mayo says.
Source: Eurekalert & othersLast reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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