Science and Politics: Friends or Foes?

12 June 2015

This week, we’re thinking about the relationship between science and politics.  Are they friends or foes?  I can get myself in a cynical frame of mind in which I think to myself that whether they are friends or foes depends on where the money is.  I'm kidding -- sort of.  I mean have you ever  met a politician who was against an expensive boondoggle -- like the space station or the super-conducting super-collider --  that was about to be built in his or her district?   Plus, ask yourself  how many politicians turn a blind eye to scientific truth in exchange for a few bucks from the likes of  the tobacco lobby or the climate change deniers or the creationists. nothing good can come from the intrusion of politics into science. We should keep politics out of science and science out of politics. When you start thinking this way it's tempting to conclude that when  science gets in bed with politics, science becomes politicized. And that’s bad for science.

The problem is that unless you’re talking about ending all government funding of scientific research, you can’t possibly keep politics out of science.  Plus keeping science out of politics (rather than politics out science) is definitely a bad idea too. We need scientists to speak truth to power. – especially if we’re thinking of science as it is to day and not the science of days long gone by.    Time was, when science was of imagined to be  some sort of pristine, value-free search for truth, forever walled off from politics. But science in the 21st  Century is too big, expensive, and high stakes to be walled off from politics.

Say you’re the National Institutes for Health. You’ve got billions to hand out in research grants. But you’ve also got scads of scientifically worthy proposals to choose among  – you got proposals on the brain, cancer, aging, pre-natal care. But you can’t fund them all. What do you do?  You’d like to decide on the basis of scientific merit alone, of course.   But it could be that they all have equal scientific merit.  So it's easy to  see, I think, that scientific merit alone doesn’t suffice to make them equally deserving of public funds. Deciding which things of the many scientifically worthwhile proposals deserve to be funded is a matter of values and – drumroll please --  politics.   So politics and science necessarily go to together.

Anid objector might say that,  in this sense, any time you want to spend public money, it’s a matter of politics.  But the person who believes that politics just distorts science,  probably means something different from this.  To see what she might be getting at,  take the debate over climate change.  Ask yourself why some people insist, in the face of a nearly overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary, on denying that human activity has made a massive contribution to global warming?  The obvious answer, of course, is that they feel like their way of life is threatened and they don’t want to change.   But if you were to ask them straight up, they’d never admit that.  They’d try to argue the science with you.  They’d insist that what you take to be settled science isn’t really settled at all.

I know it’s hard to take the climate change deniers and others of their ilk seriously.  That's because it’s hard to take them  at their word.   It's hard to believe that they actually really and truly believe what they say.    But I think it's important to see that they are, in fact, utterly sincere.  They really and truly believe that change in the climate is not at all affected by human activity.   How do they manage to believe that in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, you ask?   The secret is what I call motivated cognition.  They’re letting their desires and their political agendas determine how they assess the evidence and what they are willing to believe on the basis of that evidence.  That’s not a good thing, that’s an irrational thing.

Of course, to a certain extent people engage in motivated cognition all the time.  It's not  just climate change deniers or other anti-science types who do so.  Indeed, i think we all do it.   Suppose, for example, you claim to know that my most trusted friend has robbed a bank.  I wouldn’t want to believe you.  And because I wouldn’t, I would subject any evidence you offered me for your claim to intense scrutiny.  That’s all that climate change deniers are doing -- just with claims that are, at first blush, a little more personal.  (Though, again, deep down inside, they are probably trying to protect and hold onto a cheerished way of life.) 

The problem with motivated cognition is that although it is doubtlesslty  a perfectly human thing to do, it does not seem to be an entirely rational thing to do.  If you start thinking that way, you’re going to end up like a battered wife who is desperate to keep her abusive marriage in tact and so refuses to believe the overwhelming evidence that her husband isn’t going to change.   

Of course, anything can be taken to extremes.    Setting aside extreme cases, doesn't it seems right to say that there’s simply no way you can totally shield your beliefs from being affected by your interests?  I can hear the objector insisting that this is just what the scientific method is intended for -- to allow us to pursue the truth in an unbiased, dispassionate, disinterested  way, indepedently of where it leads.  But that seems to me quite frankly to be a fantasy.  If you were really disinterested, why would you even start gathering evidence in the first place?  It’s not enough to say that we should be interested in finding out the truth – whatever it turns out to be.    Nietzsche taught us long ago that some truths just aren't worth knowing.  He insisted that only the truths that serve our genuine interests are.  And he was not alone in thinking that.    The pragmatists thought something similarly.    But if  Nieztsche is right, then  the pursuit of scientific  truth is and ought to be inescapably tied up with our values.   There simply could not be such a thing as a "value-free" science.    Science is always deeply value-laden.  But since the adjudication of values is an inherently political matter, science itself is inherently political too.  Or so it seems to me.  How does it seem to you?   I'd love to know your thoughts on this matter. 

Comments (15)


Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, June 13, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Politics doesn't do so well

Politics doesn't do so well on the falsification front. A solid constituency can sustain a useless program or erroneous policy or prevent a valuable or valid one from gaining prominence. Economists claim scientific rigor, but persistently promote and propagate policies and opinions that simply defy the facts and reason, deeply embedding their prejudice that working people must be kept at a disadvantage or else they will not be "productive" (newspeak for submissive). But there is nothing that governments do that doesn't require adjustment to changing circumstances or review of the relation between its intent and its effect. And if constituencies can poison the process in areas aside from support for research, the question of whether politics should get involved in science is beside the point. The point being, can politics respond rationally on any issue where there is a powerful interest group opposed to it or in support of an unreasonable policy or program? Science is not the issue. Reason is.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, June 14, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

From the point of view of

From the point of view of science the issue is one of revanchism. But in a broader sense, if the powers of government derive from the need of the people to secure rights, the question arises, against who? Well, against those who would deny them. But this also encompasses those whose private actions and interests deny rights of their fellow citizens even though each taken alone seems not to and is not explicitly meant to. There are two kinds of mischief in the world, mischief meant to estrange, malice, and mischief meant to naturalize, love. An adversary style of politics tends to support the former against the latter.
Whatever happened to the supercolider?

MJA's picture

MJA

Monday, June 15, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

My turn: Surely Ken, you must

My turn: Surely Ken, you must agree, truth in politics does not exist.?There is no spying on Americans, we don?t have a domestic spying program,? Obama told Leno.
As for truth in science, surely multiverses, string theories, sub atomic particle smashers, higgs bosoms, and the uncertainty of quantum mechanics just to name a few, can best be be likened to Mother Goose and her nursery rhymes all be it a lesser expense, unless of course you try to measure the damage they also have done. Anyone afraid of wolves? =
Truth by and by, to dust the cobwebs off the sky, is clearly more simple than thought. And best of all it's absolutely free! So much for those expensive educations. Thanks, =

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, June 15, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Michael,

Michael,
Higgs bosoms? Now that's an experiment I'm in on! They might be small, but make up for it in energy level, I suppose.
I think the point is that America is lagging behind in science, and even where it still excels, in medical research, it is not getting any return on its investment, letting private interests take the credit, and the profit.The politician does not fathom the use of an experiment known to be likely to bear no fruit. It's most of what science does. It's called comprehension. If you don't explore what you think of as truth what you think is a fairytale.

RichardCurtisPhD@msn.com's picture

RichardCurtisPh...

Wednesday, June 17, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I think the conversation was

I think the conversation was a bit confused.  What does the word "values" mean here?  You all seemed to be all over the map on that.  And I think that is what caused a lack of agreement.  This is not hard.  We, the masses of the world, value Democracy as our core value.  I would add Equality, but many other values come together in Democracy.  It is easy to use that value as a measure of science.  Does the science contribute to Democracy?  If not then it is bad.  If it does then it is good.  Drones are criminal and undermine Democracy and so are bad science.  Science that sees some humans as better than others is clearly anti-Democratic.  I think what was confusing the conversation is that some people do not value Democracy and the guest (being a good liberal) does not understand class struggle as the primary dynamic in society and so does not understand that Democracy is controversial, because the rich want everything and to control everyone.  The rest of us want something very different.

chaos1's picture

chaos1

Wednesday, June 17, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Of course I agree that as a

Of course I agree that as a human activity, science is political and value laden, but in the 1980s and 1990s there was an overreaction where people were REDUCING science to politics and power relations or "actor networks" which is at the other extreme from those who believe the scientific method is purely inductive and deductive and is separate or uninfluenced by politics and human values. Of course science is influenced by power relations and funding.  However, we had students (including me) arguing about scientific theories who had no coursework related to that science. that is all I disagree with. I believe that science can neither be reduced to politics nor to pure induction and deduction.
Probably both science and politics (even if only trivially) are self-correcting disciplines just by nature of the fact that they are both forms of experience.  Experience (and hence science and political experiments)  is a type of learning and has certain self-corrective aspects. Maybe that is in the very definition of experience and learning that they have aspects of self-correction.  I hope I can be optimistic enough to believe that we indeed ARE learning from our mistakes in both science and politics.

chaos1's picture

chaos1

Wednesday, June 17, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Sharyn Clough, the professor

Sharyn Clough, the professor at Oregon State University has it right at least on this debate when she says that all data analysis, and even all experience is biased even if only because of temporal and spatial limitations on our attention and our circumstances.  We are finite creatures and can only take the slenderest samples of our natural world, so our experience of the world is always selective, and therefore biased to some extent.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, June 18, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Well, here's a simple

Well, here's a simple question, should the rules of evidence and argumentation apply in politics as it does in science and law? That is, what constrains politics from abandoning rigor in favor of private interest and prejudices?
A deeper question is whether politics can be faithful to its principles at all? This may be too much for the issue raised, but if politics is inherently currupt that issue is moot.
So the real question is, what does the power of persuasion mean?

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, June 18, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Actually, the song goes,

Actually, the song goes, "money can't buy me love."

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, June 19, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Michael,

Michael,
Do you know of Ane Brun? Of course, she, eventually, makes it all the way up to three. But if it all starts with "numero uno", why should anyone count? You really ought to check out some quantification theory. The quantifier is credited much too much, at the very great and extremely unjust expense of the qualifier.

MJA's picture

MJA

Friday, June 19, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

The measure of science: We

The measure of science: We are infinite creatures who vainly attempt to measure an infinite universe which is equally as immeasurable as ourselves. The universe is ourselves, infinitely One or the same. Measure divides, truth unites! And if anyone doubt this, as we have all been taught to measure everything, ("Man is the measure of all things" Protagoras) then I would suggest a simple scientific experiment: What is the science or measure of you?
As for politically financing this scientific experiment, money is not the answer.
"Money can't buy me love." The Beatles

Charles Osborne's picture

Charles Osborne

Saturday, June 20, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

If once there was a clear

If once there was a clear distinction between political and scientific interests and commitments, it was because, partly, both science and politics were more monolithic--unified. When education was up against a wall of superstition and gross ignorance (such as illiteracy, etc.), the goals were simpler. Likewise, when the political interest in science was producing more scientists at our universities, and giving grants to universities to pursue the research that they chose to do, then it was simpler.
As the government can fund the arts through a few grants to a few distributors of grants (themselves artists), it need not choose whose art is worthy and whose is not. Likewise, funding universities for their own research does not require Congressmen to know a lot of science, while being responsible to the people.
And a virtue of a republic over a democracy is that if wise people are elected, they will decide how to spend money, based not (necessarily) on democratic principles, but upon their own investigation of the facts and priorities--often through committees calling witnesses, etc., like a trial.
I suspect that your question here is whether we are doomed to bad science by bad politics--and vice versa. If a scientist must kiss the ring of politicians to do or publish research, that is good if the politician is good, and bad if he is bad. If a politician must answer to the rich, or to crazy religious cults, to be elected--well, that is a sign that too few people vote to make a republic work. When the worst elements of society can control who wins in elections, we cannot be surprised that we get bad government. It is true that universal suffrage does not promise the best government or the best choices, but it is true that it would prevent some of the worst governments and the worst choices.
Plato did not propose a republic because it would be right in its judgments, but because it provided a stage upon which a government could be right, if the people are right. If the people are wrong, either as a body or in their government, well--the discussion is over, yes?
It falls upon those who know politics, and those who know science, to become partners. For 50 years after the Great Depression New Deal, there was effective partnership, but it was limited by limits of the nation--economy, funds, education, and the will to work together.
I would like to see changes in the world. I would like elections that last only 5 or 6 weeks, with Congressional Districts small enough to campaign effectively on foot or at town meeting places. I would like to see 5 major political parties, so everybody can find one they like, and they would have to compromise for rule. In science I would like to see hard science and soft science (social science) firmly separated politically. And I would like for the model of space programs or super-colliders not to be the model for university research. It is not sheer size or money that separates the grand scientific programs from the more targeted ones--it is truly the political nature of the grand ones that separates them from the more familiar research. Research on whether a common medical practice is the most effective practice does not call for a national will, case by case, but going into space does. That is mainly because everybody wants the best practices in medicine, but not everybody wants us to send probes to outer space, using money that could pay for medicine.
Whether a science project is or should be political depends upon whether it rests upon political judgment--which science is where we want to put our money and our national will? A republic is better suited to such decisions than a democracy.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, June 20, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

This week's On The Media had

This week's On The Media had a segment with a sequence of Republicans in the leadership preferencing a statement on climate change with the phrase, "look, I'm not a scientist, but..." in a tone that seemed to make the label scientist a pejorative. One of them was chairman of the envoronment committee.
 

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, June 21, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

What Brooke Gladstone, at On

What Brooke Gladstone, at On The Media, was getting at was that the Pope's Encyclical on climate change means that Republicans can't go after conservative catholics on the basis of climate change denial, so the strategy, as evidenced by a series of actual statements, is to denigrate science.
It is often enough said that the problem of democracy is all about the calibre of people in office. I think it was Kant who claimed that a system could be devised in which a city of devils could be angelic, if self-interest were only so ordered as to lead to this. But maybe bad people deserve good government too. As, by the way, bad scientists deserve good science. Solution? A culture of critique. But this only works if the person offering a thesis is held responsible for responding to the reasonable expectations of the critic, not just the supporter. Rules of evidence and reason apply. But only if the people expect this, and refuse to recognize an evasion of responsibility in this, is democracy workable. Consider the case of "Pudd'n-head" Wilson. It's a great send-up of American rejection of reason. But reason wins out in the end.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, June 22, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Is there an "ideal speech

Is there an "ideal speech situation"? Not, I think, as Habermas would have it. Not if consensus is as pernicious a thing as I suppose it. Regimes of conviction such as conventional wisdom lose the meaning they pretend to realize. In an adversarial situation error generates opportunism. But error is the genesis of meaning, not foil to it. In the long run it is not possible to mean what we say without a bit of indulgence from our interlocutor. A system of opportunism does not eliminate error, it merely retrenches us against recognizing our own, while intensifying our recognizing it in others, even where it isn't there at all. But how can there be a system of "linguistic competence" in which indulging error is the genesis of meaning? A Balkanized self-interest? We have that in theory. We have two parties, but each member is mythically individual. I mean, we are supposed to elect representatives as if the two-party system had never emerged at all. Congress and Senate vote, nominally, as if each member were independant. And so we are at a loss for general themes amongst them as a basis for deciding who to vote for. And yet, in private, they are quite partisan. And so they run on vaguely unpolitical themes and act on agressively political ones. But nothing counteracts this. For one thing, the media refuses to cover politics properly for fear of losing out on political advertizing, or of providing it for free (advertizing rates actually go up during political campaigns, a kind of extortion, I think). But the result is a complete lack of critical review. Compare an American political interview with one on the BBC. Or, for that matter, the "question and answer" sessions a Brittish PM puts up with weekly. The fact is, a hidden agenda is entrenched in American public life, and has been from the beginning. Even the Federalist already shows this.
 

 
 
 

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