by Judith Curry
Here’s a New Year’s resolution for scientists, especially in the United States: gain the confidence of people and politicians across the political spectrum by demonstrating that science is bipartisan. – Daniel Sarewitz
Daniel Sarewitz has provocative opinion piece in Nature entitled Science must be seen to bridge the political divide. Excerpts:
As scientists seek to provide policy-relevant knowledge on complex, interdisciplinary problems ranging from fisheries depletion and carbon emissions to obesity and natural hazards, the boundary between the natural and the social sciences has blurred more than many scientists want to acknowledge. With Republicans generally sceptical of government’s ability and authority to direct social and economic change, the enthusiasm with which leading scientists align themselves with the Democratic party can only reinforce conservative suspicions that for contentious issues such as climate change, natural-resource management and policies around reproduction, all science is social science.
The US scientific community must decide if it wants to be a Democratic interest group or if it wants to reassert its value as an independent national asset. If scientists want to claim that their recommendations are independent of their political beliefs, they ought to be able to show that those recommendations have the support of scientists with conflicting beliefs. Expert panels advising the government on politically divisive issues could strengthen their authority by demonstrating political diversity. The National Academies, as well as many government agencies, already try to balance representation from the academic, non-governmental and private sectors on many science advisory panels; it would be only a small step to be equally explicit about ideological or political diversity. Such information could be given voluntarily.
To connect scientific advice to bipartisanship would benefit political debate. Volatile issues, such as the regulation of environmental and public-health risks, often lead to accusations of ‘junk science’ from opposing sides. Politicians would find it more difficult to attack science endorsed by avowedly bipartisan groups of scientists, and more difficult to justify their policy preferences by scientific claims that were contradicted by bipartisan panels.
Shawn Otto illustrates well what most posters here simply don’t get–most policy choices that appear to be related to science have absolutely NOTHING to do with whether one supports science or not. The policies are based on politics and ideology almost exclusively, with science not determining the “right” answer in most cases. That most people think science can determine the “right” policy shows that their view of science is already corrupted by political ideology. Let’s demonstrate.
After showing where Democrats sometimes run off the rails (GMF and anti-vacs, but not only Dems it should be noted), Otto then says that Republican views are often ” broadly antithetical to science.” According to him, the following cases are examples.
1.) Dislike for critical thinking–Certainly this is an important scientific value, but how exactly do Republicans show this? This seems to be a concocted charge. Certainly, Republicans sometimes reject clear scientific evidence, but so do Democrats. Ever hear of political correctness?
2.) Climate change–Science can tell us about likely scenarios for the future of climate, but it cannot tell us what outcomes should be preferred. Science can’t say whether one should be concerned about polar bears or think solar power is cool. Nor can it tell us how to balance economic interests versus environmental ones. Those who think that climate science demands certain policy choices over others are confusing politics with science–exactly the problem Sarewitz highlights.
3.)Teaching of evolution–Attempts to avoid teaching evolution properly is a good example of anti-science policy, but teaching the “controversy” is not. Science should fair best when the controversy is emphasized and the evidence is analyzed, so this approach, while certainly an example of political pandering, is not antithetical to science. If anything, it is closer to the heart of science than most approaches to science education.
4.) Abstinence in schools–Science can certainly tell us what apporaches are most effective, but it can’t demand that “effectiveness” be the sole reason for choosing a policy. It is not unscientific to choose a policy approach for other reasons. Condoms aren’t very effective forms of birth control? Is their use unscientific? Does science require us to implant permanent contraceptives in all teenage girls because that’s “most effective”? Of course not. It’s not unscientific to use non-science reasons.
The bottom line is that those who call the other side unscientific because of their policy choices are themselves drawing political and ideological conclusions that have NOTHING to do with science itself. Unfortunately, when scientists engage in this behaviour, as they frequently do, it destroys the credibility of science.
Roger Pielke Jr has an excellent post on this A New Year’s Resolution for Scientists. Excerpt:
John Besley and Matt Nisbet documented this phenomenon in a recent paper and explain how the nature of social media serves to amplify partisanship:
With an ever-increasing reliance on blogs, Facebook and personalized news, the tendency among scientists to consume, discuss and refer to self-confirming information sources is only likely to intensify, as will in turn the criticism directed at those who dissent from conventional views on policy or public engagement strategy. Moreover, if perceptions of bias and political identity do indeed strongly influence the participation of scientists in communication outreach via blogs, the media or public forums, there is the likelihood that the most visible scientists across these contexts are also likely to be among the most partisan and ideological.
For partisans, none of this analysis makes sense because their goal is to simply vanquish their political opponents. That science has become aligned with the Democratic party is, from where they sit, not a problem but a positive. Thus more partisanship is needed, not less. I have no illusions of convincing the extreme partisans of the merit in Sarewitz’s view. I do think that there are many in the scientific community who object to the exploitation of scientific institutions to the detriment of both science and decision making, and no doubt it is to this group that Sarewitz’s resolution is offered.
There is of course nothing wrong with partisanship or with scientists participating in politics, they are after all citizens. However, our scientific institutions are far too important to be allowed to become pawns in the political battles of the day.