Fareed Zakaria has yet another piece on the inevitable decline of Europe. In it, he makes the claim
Talk to top-level scientists and educators about the future of scientific research and they will rarely even mention Europe. There are areas in which it is world class, but they are fewer than they once were. In the biomedical sciences, for example, Europe is not on the map.
High energy physics, anyone? Western European output of scientific papers surpassed that of the US about 10 years ago and the gap is still widening. The US is relatively stronger in biomedical research than in the physical sciences, but Europe has caught up there as well. The loss of the US lead in science is sufficiently widely-accepted that proposed responses made it into Bush’s State of the Union speech.
There are of course, plenty of counterarguments you could make. The quantity of papers produces matters less than their impact, commonly measured by citations, and on this (lagging) indicator, the US is still ahead. The US is still ahead in Nobel prizes, though again the gap is diminishing. And perhaps there are indicators that show the US with an expanding lead relative to Western Europe.
Alternatively, there’s a plausible case to be made that, since scientific knowledge is a public good, it doesn’t matter much where it is produced.
Zakaria could make these or other arguments but doesn’t. Instead he relies on unnamed scientists he has talked to (not a random sample of scientists presumably, or the plurality would be Europeans).
I know that it’s impossible to resolve anything in this debate, but surely some ground rules would be useful. One such rule would that if you’re going to make a claim that contradicts both standard statistics and common perceptions, you should back it up in some way. If, for example, a Europe-booster wants to claim that Europeans actually work harder than Americans, and are therefore more productive, this claim needs more support than “People I talk to all say “.