Advice to Obama: Seek a Constitutional Amendment on Science (January 22, 2009)


It seems Barack Obama is now just about as popular as one can imagine him being. Given the many promises he has made and hopes he has stirred, there is a good chance he will disappoint people to some extent. He may still be a good president — he may have his highs as well as his lows — but there seems to be at least some reason to think now is the time to achieve as much as possible.

On that basis, I would recommend promptly seeking a constitutional amendment that in some sense safeguards science from political and economic meddling. A former constitutional law professor would seem to be especially well positioned to make the case for a constitutional amendment and, conceivably, make it somewhat more feasible to amend the constitution (if only in some tentative, state-by-state optional, temporary, or other limited regard). Such a change would offer the possibility of keeping the Constitution, and perhaps government, more on the ball — making some changes in the judiciary, for example, so that there are expectations of efficacy and responsiveness to the needs of ordinary people, in place of the impractically self-absorbed system that presently burdens so many lives.

The fine contours of an amendment safeguarding science (or, perhaps, intellectual inquiry) would have to be worked out by experts in law and in science policy. To introduce the idea in a bit more detail, I can only offer general remarks for purposes of illustration.

There does appear to be a glaring need for elimination of the possibility that some future presidential administration or other political or financial force would be able to achieve the extremely dangerous and damaging distortions of scientific research in which the Bush administration engaged. The right to freedom of speech illustrates the danger that can arise when such a provision is enshrined in the Constitution, however.

I am a big believer in the importance of free speech, and a big opponent of the chilling effect that penalization of free speech can have upon the speech of others. But I believe in free speech that is in some sense demonstrably accurate — in an affordable sense, i.e., not in the form of today’s defamation laws, which require even truthful and wrongfully accused speakers to withhold so much that needs to be said, lest they be bankrupted by the obligation to prove that their words were accurate.

I am likewise not too fond of so-called “news” reporters who blatantly distort the realities of a situation, or of tobacco marketers or mortgage brokers who do their best to obscure the truth about their products, or of commissioned research that deliberately strives to misrepresent the dangers of some pharmaceuticals. If the law can come down so onerously on truthful speakers accused of defamation, it surely should come down at least as hard on untruthful speakers engaging in these sorts of behaviors.

If some such perspective should happen to inform debate on a proposed constitutional amendment to protect intellectual inquiry from corruption, then it would appear possible to talk realistically about the kinds of restraints that might be imposed to prevent glaring abuses of the public trust, in the matter of finding and reporting research results. Possibly a lodestar in such an effort would come in the form of a vision of a collegial, common-purposed dialogue among lay people and experts alike, regarding the multifarious problems and quandaries that we all seek to overcome. This sort of public discourse might be the target that such an amendment would seek to promote and protect.

(This item was previously posted in another blog.)


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