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Understanding complex systems, the essence of SBE research, is extraordinarily difficult but also enormously significant. Predicting how our military adversaries are likely to behave is as important as developing the next generation of weaponry. Forecasting how people living in tornado alleys are likely to respond to storm warnings is as important as improving the science of forecasting the weather. And projecting how the public is likely to use the health care system is as important as creating lifesaving drugs and treatments.
Despite such obvious benefits, critics of SBE programs have asserted that they provide few societal returns and are rife with examples of frivolous research. But there might be a more insidious reason for such opposition: a conviction that SBE research outcomes will not conform to conservative ideology.
Such reflexive behavior would not be unique: There are examples of office holders in both parties who cherry pick scientific results to validate their policies. Some Democrats who believe global warming is a serious threat have asserted that Superstorm Sandy was evidence of climate change, even though there is no credible scientific proof for such a claim. Some Republicans who believe the earth is only 9,000 years old have stridently rejected the entire body of astrophysics that quite conclusively shows the earth’s age to be about 4.5 billion years.
Science can and should inform policymaking, but it must never be the “tool” of policymakers. Elected officials who don’t make such a distinction don’t understand the essential nature of science. And their ignorance can harm us all.
Michael S. Lubell is a professor of physics at the City College of the City University of New York and director of public affairs of the American Physical Society.