Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Lesson in Falsifiability for “Senator No”

In 2009, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) used the CIRI Human Rights Data Project (www.humanrightsdata.org), as one reason among others to argue for ceasing National Science Foundation funding for political science research. He did not succeed then, but he will undoubtedly succeed in 2013, given the recent Senate and House passages of the Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013, containing this language. His amendment to this bill will block approximately $10 million of NSF funding for political science research from being used, except for that research which the Director of the NSF certifies is in the interest of the United States’ economy or security. Coburn’s 2009 comments about the CIRI project persist in recent coverage of this week’s news about the passage of the appropriations bill.

Interestingly, the situation in which we currently find ourselves provides an opportunity to teach the Senator a basic scientific concept: falsifiability. In essence, Senator Coburn has made a $10 million hypothesis (educated guess) that his enumerated reasons for cutting NSF funding of political science research are sound. Unlike in the world of science where hypotheses must meet evidence and findings must pass peer review, however, the Senator does not have to expose his hypothesis to systematic scrutiny. We can do that here, however.

The CIRI Human Rights Data Project provides annual numeric ratings of the level of government respect for 15 internationally-recognized human rights in 195 countries, including the United States. With funds from the NSF, in 2004 we launched a website that allows users to download these scores for free. The majority of NSF funds went to our many graduate and undergraduate student assistants. Currently, CIRI data are used in approximately 170 countries by governments, international organizations, researchers, activists, businesses and, increasingly, students. 

Senator Coburn leveled explicit criticism at the CIRI project because we purportedly concluded that the United States has been ‘increasingly willing to torture enemy combatants and imprison suspected terrorists,’ leading to a worldwide increase in ‘human rights violations’ as others followed-suit.” 

That is false, Senator, on two counts:

First, the CIRI project only codes what governments do to their own citizens. What governments do to enemy and non-citizen combatants are not included in the CIRI dataset. This has been made clear for anyone who takes the trouble to read our data-creation guidelines, which have been freely accessible online since August 2004. 

Second, whether other governments follow the lead of the US in the use of torture is a causal research question. The CIRI project provides data about respect for human rights; we do not, as an organization, test causal research questions. The NSF money CIRI has received has gone towards data creation and distribution, not the investigation of whether other countries are more prone to use torture should the USA do so first. What Senator Coburn’s statement about CIRI is based upon is a quote from David Cingranelli in a news item from December 2008, not anything relating to the CIRI project’s data or its funding.

So, to the extent NSF funding for the CIRI Human Rights Data Project has weighed in his decision, Senator Coburn has threatened $10 million of federal funds for political science research based on an easily falsifiable premise. Cutting millions of dollars of valuable social science research based on a patently false supposition about the world is deplorable and unwise. 

If the Senator is opposed to CIRI’s mission of providing data to help provide a life of dignity to persons worldwide, it would be honorable to be straightforward about that rather than engaging in mischaracterizations in order to be seen as protecting the US citizenry from the wasteful funding of projects which purportedly denigrate the United States without reason. 

Finally, a special mention for Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who was willing to go along with Coburn's language because she thinks the "national security" and "national economy" loopholes are big enough such that no research will actually be declined by NSF. That's a dangerously tunnel-visioned  of research such that it all fits into one or both of two boxes. It also bends to the Bush-era winds that national security (defined as military expenditure and intervention) is the only important factor in this world -- a point of view antithetical to the very notion of human rights itself.

-David L. Richards