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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Scientist returns fire in GOP’s War on Science


A scientist nibbled away at Sen. Rand Paul on Friday after the Kentucky Republican blasted his research on schools of fish as wasteful federal spending.

“He got the funding wrong and the species wrong, and he misrepresents the work we’ve done,” Princeton science professor Iain Couzin told POLITICO. “He’s done some serious cherry-picking here. That’s one study, we’ve had a series of studies that have taken many years.”

On Fox News on Thursday night, Paul said the military has spent $5.2 million studying goldfish and advocated yanking funding for such programs to cut the budget.

“In the military they have $5.2 million they spent on goldfish — studying goldfish to see how democratic they were and if we could learn about democracy from goldfish,” Paul said on Fox. “I would give the president the authority to go ahead and cut all $5 million in goldfish studies.”

The problem: if President Obama had the authority to “authority to go ahead and cut” funding for military goldfish studies, he’d be able to cut zero studies. The species being studied is the golden shiner. But I suppose “goldfish” sounds more ridiculous, so Rand figured he’d lie and go with that.

Unfortunately, that’s not the only fact Paul stretched or got wrong, which was pretty much everything. Couzin said that the research was for applications in artificial intelligence and robotics. Understanding how simple intelligences like fish work together would be tremendously important in fighting oil spills and radioactive leaks, for example.

“Our work aims to understand the principles of collective control in animal groups and what this can inform us about collective robotics,” he said. “It has nothing at all to do with human politics.”

Couzin also said that the $5.2 million figure cited by Rand was false. Funding for the project is mixed, with a portion coming from federal grants. You assume the rest would come from private industry, which would benefit from the research as well.

“If you think about it, schools of fish have been on the planet for much longer than we have and they’ve evolved to find solutions to problems. They can sense the environments in ways that we simply didn’t know how to do that,” Couzin said. “From ant colonies to schooling fish, it’s not that complicated but the feats they can achieve are extraordinary. The collective of a whole can solve problems in ways individuals cannot.”

He added: “Perhaps Sen. Paul should read our papers before he comments on them and perhaps he should consider more broadly how science can help society.”

Or maybe the next time Paul feels the need to act like an ignorant blowhard on Fox, he should check the impulse toward demagoguery and just not do it.

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