Saturday, July 30, 2011

Are We Retreating from Science?

The developing story about the suspension and investigation of arctic scientist Dr. Charles Monnett leaves me asking questions about science's role in the public discourse.

My composition students and I spend a lot of time examining how various types of evidence are valued in different communities. For example, policy makers appreciate statistics that are easy to interpret. The media gravitates toward gripping visual images. Literary scholars like well-articulated analysis that emphasizes context. Experimental scientists look for reproducible results.

In all of these communities, participants need to simultaneously communicate what it is they value as evidence while presenting their ideas using the evidence others value.

It isn't easy, but it becomes especially difficult when you throw politics, authority, and money into the mix.

A science news story is developing (see also here & here) that might shed light on the types of evidence we value - or fail to value - in the public discourse.

The Players
Dr. Charles Monnett: an arctic scientist working for U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE). Monnett has published findings about arctic wildlife that suggest a need for greater caution as we search for energy in arctic waters. 
The director of BOEMRE Michael Bromwich: a public servant supervising a U.S. agency that, among other things, leases the offshore exploration rights to private energy companies. 

PEER, a special interest group that defends public workers who protect the environment. The group has lodged a complaint over Monnett's suspension. 

Those who assert climate change is "junk science." These people believe that Monnett's work is not rigorous, and claim he has an agenda that informs his research. 
(I have not found these claims to be persuasive, but the influence of such claims can be felt while investigating this issue.)

The Context
Monnett's most publicly known work is about drowned polar bears he observed in 2004. The data from his paper was featured in Al Gore's slideshow/movie, An Inconvenient Truth

The original paper was written by Monnett and Jeffrey S. Gleason. It was published in a 2006 issue of Polar Biology - a peer review journal. A community of scientists reviewed the work and decided it was a valuable contribution to endeavors in the field of arctic biology. 

While at least one climate change skeptic has labeled Monnett's work as "junk science," it seems as though the blogger hasn't read Monnett and Gleason's paper, as the post never mentions Gleason.

The Story 
Monnett is under investigation for unspecified allegations and has been suspended from doing his work for the Department of the Interior.

There is room for a massive conflict of interest on BOEMRE's part in this scenario - much of the funding for the department comes from leases for energy exploration.  

Bromwich has not announced why Monnett is being investigated and justifies this with his quote, "We are limited in what we can say about a pending investigation."

The Question
I believe this is a case of our government retreating from scientific evidence, and I think the situation poses the following question: Do we as the American public value the input of scientists when the interests of the environment and energy conflict?

The Details
This gets a bit long.
On the 28th of this month, a press release was published protesting the investigation and suspension of a leading Arctic scientist, Dr. Charles Monnett - who supervises a large amount of research for the BOEMRE.

The press release and a formal complaint were both composed by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). PEER has suggested that Dr. Monnett's suspension is motivated by political or profit driven ambitions. The press release actually goes so far as to call the investigation a "witch hunt" (although, I don't think PEER does itself any favors with that choice of words). 

According to the official complaint, Monnett "has been placed on administrative leave and suspended from his [...] duties due to 'an on-going inquiry'[...] yet Dr. Monnett has not been informed of any specific charge or question relating to the scientific integrity of his work."

Both PEER and the media outlets reporting this story have linked the suspension and investigation to Monnett and Gleason's 2006 paper published in Polar Biology. Monnett and Gleason's paper describes the bodies of 4 dead polar bears seen floating in the waters off the coast of Alaska - an undisputedly unusual sight. The paper suggests that the drownings can be attributed to late-ice/mild ice years and suggests that the the number of polar bear deaths is likely to increase as global temperatures rise. 

The paper and accompanying images gained notoriety when they were used in Al Gore's slideshow/movie, An Inconvenient Truth

In a story today, the connection between the 2006 paper and the current investigation was denied by the director of BOEMRE, Michael Bromwich. He stated in an email that the suspension  "had nothing to do with [Monnett's] scientific work" and "was the result of new information on a separate subject brought to our attention very recently." That's all he says about the allegations in the email.

PEER, however, has provided journalists with documentation that suggests the investigation is related to Monnett's work on polar bears. Today's story reports that a July 13th stop-work order was issued for a polar bear tracking study. The letter Monnett received from his contracting officer at the time of that order states there is doubt about Monnett's ability to judge data in "an impartial and objective manner on the subject contract." This conflicts with Bromwich's statement.

Also, Bromwich's claim that the information came to his "attention very recently" is a bit odd. One record of an BOEMRE official working on this investigation is from February of this year. Maybe by "state-work standards" that is very recently, but the allegation's merit is less than convincing. According to transcripts of a meeting between Monnett, a representative from PEER, and two BOEMRE investigators, when pressed for specific allegations, the BOEMRE response was, "well, scientific misconduct, basically, uh, wrong numbers, uh, miscalculations" (Line 12, Page 83).

And of course, there is the climate change skeptic's blog with a post on this story. The author linked the investigation to Monnett's work with polar bears - contradicting the director's statement. (And as a side note, the blogger cherry-picked a passage from the transcript to suit her purposes. The transcript is actually kind of funny- the investigators questioning Monnett don't know much about research protocols or publishing conventions.)

The motivation of the investigation is not yet clear - not to the public, nor even to the man being investigated. Nevertheless, a leading scientist has been barred from doing his work.

The Implications 
Now, this story may develop. Maybe there is something I'm missing. I'll allow that.

The story, however, is a few days old. An employee advocacy group has objected, and the media has picked this up. The allegations should have been made public by now.  

Dr. Monnett has been tracking arctic wildlife for years, and some of his scholarly work has made the very difficult journey into the public consciousness. He appears to be a valuable contributor to the Department of the Interior's mission of "protecting America's great outdoors and powering our future."

Until we are informed otherwise, there is no reason to believe Dr. Charles Monnett did something that should keep him from his work, unless...

...Unless paying attention to Monnett's work on polar wildlife might influence what some believe to be a more important public good - energy production.

Was Dr. Monnett's decision to submit his findings for publication a step too far? Does his work hinder the public discourse? 

Of course not. His work helps us construct a clearer picture of the risks and opportunities involved in energy exploration. We should welcome his voice and critique it in an open forum. It appears at least for now, however, people with authority are punishing him for enriching the debate.

As this story develops we need to ask ourselves: Do we as the American public value the input of scientists when the interests of the environment and energy conflict?

I hope so.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

An Abuse of the Word 'Research'

Chris Haworth, a friend of mine, posted a link to a study recently published by the Heritage Foundation.
The study was conducted by Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield. It is an excellent example of the methods people use to corrupt the public discourse.

While I think the Heritage Foundation is an important voice, this particular study was conducted poorly. The study seeks to misinform. It is polemical and, in my judgment, unethical.

The study is labeled as a "Backgrounder on Poverty and Inequality." Its findings are primarily this: Most of the people who the US Census Bureau has labeled as individuals living "in poverty" should not be described as poor. This conclusion is based on 2005 survey data about the household appliances in homes of people who the Census Bureau categorizes as living below the poverty threshold.

The study is motivated by the fact that "in discussions about poverty... misunderstanding and exaggeration are commonplace." The researchers believe that "exaggeration has the potential to promote a substantial misallocation of limited resources for a government that is facing massive future deficits." They are concerned that Americans may have the wrong impression about the living conditions for a family of 4 earning less than $20,615/year.

The study's data show that in 2005, most families living in poverty have food security and a home. On top of that, most families living in poverty may have air conditioning, cable, or an Xbox (some may have all three). From this, the researchers conclude that in many cases, it is incorrect to describe a family of 4 earning less than $20,615/year as "poor."

I think the motivation for this study is interesting, and it deserves investigation. The way we label large portions of our population has huge potential impacts. Any investigation conducted, however, should seek as honest a depiction as possible.

Rector and Sheffield used data from 2005, despite the existence of a 2009 survey (they claim the microdata they need is not yet available). 2005 was at least two years before the economic crisis hit. At the time, credit was cheap and predatory lending was commonplace. In 2005, banks regularly were extending loans to people who couldn't afford to buy a home. 2005 was was a year when people thought they had money because they were living in an economic bubble. It is the wrong year from which to elicit data for this kind of study.

The study's conclusion quotes officials who the researchers believe are misinforming the  public about being poor in America. The researchers claim that Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman has it wrong when she says, “It is a moral outrage that in the wealthiest nation on earth there are still 12.8 million children living in poverty” and “inexcusable that 12.8 million children are forced to suffer through hardship every day.” Rector and Sheffield claim that it is an exageration to suggest that children living in poverty suffer hardship.

Here's the math:
A family of four earns $20,615 to spend per year.
That's $1,718 per month.
That's $429 per person per month.
That's $107 per person per week.

If a person plans to accumulate no savings, they have nearly $110 a week for housing, utilities, food, clothing, education costs, and transportation. To assume that such a budget does not create hardship because in 2005 most poor families had cable is an abuse of the research process. It is an attempt to misinform the public using the guise of reputable research.

This is why critical thinking skills are so crucial if we expect today's students to engage in the public discourse. The study looks and reads like reliable material, but it is empty rhetoric aimed at undermining efforts to address economic inequality in America.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Why Does a Failed Plan Live On?

There is something in the current budget negotiations that I don't understand: Why are we still listening to the "no new taxes" argument?

The people who are opposed to any/all new taxes are suggesting the nation's wealthiest create jobs, but they have no proof of that.

They want the public to ignore recent history: The 2003 Bush tax cuts were extended in late 2010. We are still facing a debt/deficit crisis, and the jobs numbers have not improved significantly.

The top earners in the US have enjoyed 8 years of Republican-approved tax breaks. The argument supporting those breaks is that top earners create jobs, but the jobs numbers are horrible. The promised job have not been created. The economy has not recovered. The debt crisis has grown.

The President yielded, and the Republican Congress passed the tax cuts they wanted last December. There has been no sign that those cuts have helped our economy. The Republican tax plan failed... again.

Why is anyone still listening to them? Their tax policy is a one trick pony, and the trick doesn't work.

I understand that these politicians won a midterm election, but they got what they wanted and it failed. Their 'no compromise' attitude is looking like willful ignorance at this point. They are not leaders worth following anymore.