The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"We want the facts to fit the preconceptions.  When they don't, it is easier to ignore the facts than to change the preconceptions."...  ... Jassamyn West.

Commentary of the Day - February 17, 2005:  Integrity - Scientific, Academic, and Public.

The issue of integrity in science, academia, and public life is nothing new.  However, the events of recent weeks perhaps argue for a renewed examination of what constitutes scientific, academic, and political integrity.  The IP has in mind recent revelations that  more than 200 scientists working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been pressured by management to alter their findings on endangered species in order to avoid conclusions that might be harmful to business interests; revelations that a high-visibilty, activist professor at the University of Colorado may have embellished the facts in some of his published work; and the recent revelation that the cost of the Medicare drug benefit is turning out to be much higher than originally claimed by those in the Bush Administration who pressured a civil service actuary to low ball the estimate that was given to Congress at the time the plan was up for a vote.

A recent survey of Fish and Wildlife scientists by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility revealed that approximately half of those who responded to the survey (approximately 200 out of about 420 individuals) reported that they had been pressured to alter or reverse scientific conclusions that might have imposed hardships on business interests.  The Fish and Wildlife service employs some 1,400 scientists.  They are charged among other things with determining which animals and plants should be placed on the list of endangered species.

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 has both its supporters and its detractors.  Clearly, many in the current administration do not like the restrictions that the act can place on commercial interests; and, one certainly can argue about the extent to which the act has achieved the goal of protecting endangered species.  However, those are political arguments that should not be made within the agency charged with upholding the law as it currently exists.  In particular, scientific integrity requires the scientists employed by the agency to let the data lead them to their conclusions and recommendations.  They should not be pressured to alter either their observations or their scientific conclusions in order fit preconceived political ideologies.  When it comes to the environment scientific results often are not clear cut, and management often chooses to favor those results that support its positions.  But that is not the same as forcing the scientists out in the field or at the bench to fudge their data to fit the political position.  In the end, the administration has to justify its positions on these issues both to Congress and to the public.  If they have to distort the data to make the case for those positions, they are standing on a foundation of quicksand.

In the academic arena Ward L. Churchill is the professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado who triggered a firestorm of protest when his long overlooked essay in which he compared the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center to "little Eichmanns" came to light.  Churchill is, or claims to be a Native American.  He is a left-wing activist whose politics are both inflammatory and angry.  Once his views about the September 11'th victims became broadly known, many conservative commentators issued calls for his dismissal from his tenured position at Colorado.

Churchill certainly is not the only academician with extremist political views.  There is no shortage of scholars whose politics lie at the extreme ends of the political spectrum.  Those on the left tend more often than not to hold positions in academic departments, while those on the right generally are found in "think tanks" funded by conservative foundations -- although some also are found on university campuses.  Most of the time these ideologues avoid the kind of gratuitous invective that generates calls for their dismissal.  Churchill, however, seems not to be bound the usual limits of civility.  Nevertheless, calls for his firing purely on the basis of his ideas runs contrary to the tenets of academic freedom and to the spirit of the first amendment to the Constitution.  Likewise, those who would deny him the right to present his views -- however absurd they may be -- have little understanding that the strength of the first amendment is contained in its protection of unpopular ideas.

However, academic integrity and freedom of speech are different issues.  It appears that Churchill has violated standards of academic integrity in ways that well could provide grounds for his dismissal from his academic position.  One component of academic integrity is honesty about one's credentials.  More than one academic has been fired for claiming credentials to which he or she was not entitled.  In Churchill's case his claim to Native American ancestry, which he made on two applications for positions at Colorado are highly suspect.  Churchill claims membership in the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees; but, Keetoowah leaders have said that he is not a member of the band.  And, recently the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation has said that there is no evidence that Churchill is eligible for membership in the Cherokee Nation.  Churchill, on the other hand, says that he is three-sixteenths Native American.

Even giving Churchill the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his American Indian heritage, there are far more serious concerns about the honesty of his scholarship.  While standards of objectivity could be higher than they are in some academic disciplines; nevertheless, it is a basic tenet throughout academia that you don't make up facts to fit your theories.  It appears that Churchill has done that on more than one occasion.  In his book A Little Matter of Genocide he stated that the U.S. Army distributed blankets infected with smallpox to Mandan Indians on the Upper Missouri River in 1837, and that the resulting epidemic caused the deaths of at least 125,000 Indians.  However, the source that Churchill cited for those facts -- an account by a UCLA anthropology professor, Russell Thornton -- said something quite different.  The epidemic did occur, but according to Thornton's account it was caused most likely by contacts between Mandans and some infected passengers or crew members on a steamboat that stopped at Ft. Clark.  In addition, in Thornton's account the death toll was between 20,000 and 30,000.

In other published works, Churchill has made claims about the General Allotment Act of 1887 that simply are not true.  Churchill has said in several papers that the Act requires tribe members to have more than 50% Indian blood to receive land.  In fact, the Act allows tribes to decide their own standards for membership.

The facts surrounding the treatment of Native Americans by the United States government have been shameful enough.  There is no need to distort or embellish them.  Academic fraud is a serious matter that deserves careful investigation; and, if turns out that Churchill's lapses are more than honest mistakes then discipline is warranted.

In addition to scientific integrity and academic integrity, the public has a right to expect a minimum levels of integrity from public officials.  A few days ago the Bush Administration announced that the new Medicare prescription drug benefit will cost more than $1.2 trillion over the next decade.  This is approximately three times the $400 billion that the administration claimed when the program was being pitched to Congress, and about double the estimate provided by Richard S. Foster the civil service Medicare actuary who was pressured by administration officials to bring his estimates in line with the $400 billion number.

Basically, implied threats were made to Mr. Foster that his job was on the line if he didn't toe the administration line in his testimony before Congress.  In contrast to political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the administration, civil service employees -- in principle -- should be free from such threats.  And, as a professional actuary, it was Foster's job to give Congress his best estimates of the projected costs of the program that the Bush Administration proposed.  Again, it was a matter of letting the facts lead Mr. Foster to his conclusions.

Even though Foster finally was able to get his projections on the table, the administration was able to muster just enough votes to get the program passed.  However, in the end the facts prevailed; and, the long-term costs of a deeply flawed drug benefit program are now becoming apparent to all who care to look.

There is a basic principle underlying all these cases.  Namely, integrity requires a respect for the facts.   If the facts don't fit the ideology, then it's time to adjust the ideology.

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