On Scientific Objectivity

What makes us think that science is “objective”? Steve Heims, in a 1980 book, put it nicely:

“The ethos of science rests on two pillars, the politically useful myth of “value neutrality” and the article of faith most conducive to the growth of scientific bureaucracy, namely, that scientific innovations (“progress” ) and science-based technological innovations are a priori beneficial. While these two pillars clearly knock against each other, they continue to hold up the practice of science.”

This is not to say that we should ignore facts, as this administration is wont to do, but that we should recognize that our values inform how we select topics.

A Pet Peeve: Animals in the Next Seat

As has been pointed out in the Washington Post and in its blog The Volokh Conspiracy, “service” animals are permitted to fly on planes, despite the fact that many people (including my wife) are quite allergic to them. The Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Act permits the pets not only to be on the plane (and without paying for the privilege) but to be held and petted on the owner’s lap, spreading dog or cat dander throughout the cabin. Moreover, it is relatively easy to “buy unofficial documents or apparel” to indicate that the pet is indeed a service animal.

I see two ways that this can be resolved within the strictures of the ADA. First, include allergies within the scope of the Act. For example, I have been on flights where peanuts were not given out because the carrier had been notified that a passenger had an extreme reaction to them, possibly resulting in anaphylactic shock. Although my wife’s allergy to pet dander is not that severe, others may not be as fortunate. A note from her allergist would certainly be a lot more convincing than the aforesaid “service animal” documents.

Second, as with smokers on planes in earlier years, have the persons with pets sit in the rearmost seats, and have those with substantiated allergies sit further away from the rear. According to one of the airline personnel we queried about it, a separation of about seven rows is enough to minimize the spread of pet dander.

Accommodating the disabilities of others is certainly worthwhile, but not when (1) it is so easy to fake the disability and (2) it adversely affects others with other disabilities who have the same right to be accommodated.

Some Words of Advice for Federal Employees

I worked in the Justice Department (as a GS-15 in the National Institute of [formerly, Law Enforcement and Criminal] Justice, Law Enforcement Assistance Administration) during the Nixon Administration, when John Mitchell (soon to be indicted and convicted) was Attorney General. I was asked to do a few off-the-wall things while there. So I have some words of advice for those employees of the Federal government who are currently in positions of relative authority and who will be interacting with political appointees.

Some of their directives you will be told to implement will probably be counter to the stated (and authorized) goals of the agency. Moreover, many of them will be given to you orally.

First, go back to your office and write them down. If feasible, send it in memo form to your superior asking if you have gotten the directive right. That is, put it on the record.

Second, whether you have or haven’t received a reply from your superior, make a list of issues, both pro and con, that may be affected by the proposed policy. Describe them in full context and cite the relevant legislation as necessary. Send this up the chain of command as well.

Third, you may also receive calls that are threatening or problematic. Write a memo to yourself to keep a record of it, and show it to a trusted friend as soon as possible, to establish a time line.

Fourth, do not use your office phone or computer (or cell phone while in the office) for personal reasons, as this may open you up to censure. In fact, I would suggest that you use Signal for your personal text messages (see the NYT article on its use) whenever you text, and ask your correspondents to do the same.

Others may have additional suggestions; please post them in the comments section.