The ideal of science is objectivity in the service of advancing knowledge. We tend to assume that to be objective, scientists must keep their politics from influencing their work.
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.