Scientists, researchers and advocates have expressed concern over the past few weeks that ideology may trump data for appointees to top state positions.
By Rose Hoban
In the wake of the appointment and resignation of a candidate to lead the state’s pre-kindergarten program last week, scientists and advocates around North Carolina are expressing concern that policies based on science will lose out to ideology.
The choice of Dianna Lightfoot to head the Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Child Development and Early Education last week brought this concern to the forefront for many.
For a decade, Lightfoot has led an organization that has questioned the efficacy of early childhood-education programs, disputed the brain science that supports those programs and downplayed data about how effective the preschool programs have been.
And her organization, the National Physicians Center for Family Resources, has questioned the need for HPV vaccination and appears to misrepresent data from an evidence-based program, Nurse Family Partnership, that has been shown to improve child well-being.
Lightfoot withdrew her name from consideration two days later after a firestorm over opinions and comments she had posted online.
“The arguments against early-childhood education don’t have any evidence to back them up,” said Jeannine Sato, program director at the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University, where she works with researchers to turn their findings into programs.
“There seems to be an effort to debunk that research, but I have yet to see any studies that accomplish that,” she said. “And there’s mounds and mounds of published literature that shows you can’t get a better investment than programs like Smart Start.”
“But there’s a concern that science might not be in the forefront of decision-making and policy-making,” Sato said.
That same concern was voiced about other recent appointments made by members of the General Assembly last year, and now about some of the choices made by Gov. Pat McCrory. These appointments include leaders in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Health and Human Services, both areas of government where science is key to making decisions.
More than a dozen researchers and advocates were contacted and interviewed for this article, but few were willing to comment on the record. That’s because of the way that science often gets paid for – with government dollars.
A number of researchers at publicly funded institutions were contacted; all but one declined to comment, worrying their programs could be in jeopardy if they criticized choices made by the administration.
Pseudo-science preferred to science
“Science has a lot of cultural authority,” said Gordon Gauchat, a researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill who studies attitudes toward science across the political spectrum. Gauchat said that sometimes science deniers use poorly substantiated science to sow doubt.
Gauchat said that, for instance, science denialists don’t try to deny ideas like Einstein’s theory of relativity or gravity, and that there’s a reason for that – there are no policy areas that depend on those ideas.
“If you look at places where people doubt science, they’re very specific topics that are related to the agendas of interest groups” such as the oil industry, the chemical industry, energy, manufacturing and tobacco.
“North Carolina has a long history with pseudo-science,” Gauchat said. “The tobacco industry leads the way in the use of scientific methods to muddy the waters.”
And Gauchat said the legitimate disagreements that scientists have over methods and results become a place where people with an agenda can sow doubt.
“Experts generally disagree about a lot of things,” Gauchat said. “But what we’re talking about here is not the debate among experts, it’s the promotion of people who discount advanced training in favor of training that gives them enough authority to promote their agenda.”
Deb Cassidy, who was removed from her position leading the Division of Child Development to make way for Lightfoot, was a preschool teacher who went on to earn a doctoral degree in child development. Cassidy has authored dozens of research papers and taught child development at the university level for more than two decades.
Lightfoot listed a master’s in psychology as one of her qualifications, but for most of the past 20 years her work has consisted of organizing conservative medical professionals and training them in “strategic ways to impact health-related regulations, policies and practices by accessing decision-makers,” according to her LinkedIn profile.
In the press release announcing her appointment, Secretary of Health and Human Services Aldona Wos called Lightfoot a “strategic and tactical top tier policy executive with extensive healthcare, child welfare and education expertise.”
“People like that, all they need is reasonable doubt and to be thought of as being on par,” Gauchat commented. “It’s just a victory being out there and being given the credibility to say there’s some doubt about legitimate science.”
Gauchat examined the website of Lightfoot’s organization and noted that conventions of traditional science papers were broken – for example, few footnotes, well-placed ellipses to distort conclusions of others’ research and references to research done by the organization itself.
“It would be funny if it weren’t so sad,” he said.
“The people who are promoting pseudo-science or questioning good science, they’re wolves in sheep’s clothing,” Gauchat concluded. “The whole story is that they’re promoting ignorance for a particular agenda, which isn’t stupid, it’s crazy like a fox.”
Other areas in the bull’s eye
“The positive effects of early-childhood education are really quite large on third-grade test scores,” said Helen Ladd, an economist who studies education policy at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke.
“We find positive effects of Smart Start and More at Four, and both programs reduce the incidences of students having special needs by the time they’re in third grade,” Ladd said. “And we know there’s a big cost savings to the state later on, because special-needs students are more expensive down the road if you don’t catch their problems early.”
Ladd and others point out that research into early-childhood education has been extensively studied and replicated since Maria Montessori first theorized about the development of children a century ago.
But other topics under scrutiny by state lawmakers have scientific results that are the subject of more robust scientific debate and more controversial conclusions than the usefulness of pre-K programs. At the top of that list is environmental science.
Gov. McCrory’s appointee to head the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, John Skvarla, has questioned the science of climate change.
“We must engage the very best minds with diverse opinions to make conclusions on policy that will be driven by fact,” Skvarla told WRAL-TV earlier this year.
“Science is fluid,” he said. “There would be no theory of relativity if Einstein had accepted what was conventional wisdom at the time. Climate change is just like that.”
And legislative leaders last year proposed removing the public health expert, pollution management expert and fish and wildlife conservation expert from the state’s environmental management commission. That bill failed, but last week the state Senate proposed new legislation that would remove all current members of that commission and replace them with gubernatorial appointees.
The same bill would remove the academic expert from the board regulating the dietetics and nutrition licensing board.
But it’s not just about North Carolina that concern over pseudo-science is being raised. Duke University Nobel Laureate Robert Lefkowitz expressed his concern over “anti-science bias” in the shaping of public policy during his speech at the Nobel banquet in December.
Worry among state scientists, researchers
“If this is who the administration has chosen,” one researcher who agreed to be quoted but asked not to be named said about the Lightfoot appointment, “we’ll have to work with her. It pays not to antagonize them from the very beginning.”
Advocates for a number of children’s programs were also reticent.
“We’ve got to have someone in the division of child development who believes in the importance of these programs and the science that undergirds those programs,” said Rob Thompson head of the Covenant with North Carolina’s Children.
Gordon Gauchat, who is working at a research center associated with UNC-Chapel Hill, was the only UNC researcher willing to go on record.
“I’m here on a fellowship and I finish in a couple of months,” he said. “So they really can’t hurt me.”
Cover photo courtesy RDECOM, Flickr Creative Commons