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.
What is it
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. But time and time again we see that science, even some of our best science, is awash in political influences. Could politics sometimes have a positive effect on objectivity in science? If so, which kinds of politics might have a positive effect and which might not? What criteria could we use to make the distinction? And does 'objectivity' still have meaning in this context? John and Ken take all sides with Sharyn Clough from Oregon State University, author of Beyond Epistemology: A Pragmatist Approach to Feminist Science Studies.
Ken starts off the conversation by posing the question: are science and politics friends or foes? John replies that it simply depends on where the money is, and goes on further to say that science and politics should simply remain separate. To this, Ken points out how much science relies on government funding, and that politics without science would certainly be disastrous. The two go back and forth, debating whether the benefits of allowing politics to interact with science outweigh its potential to distort it. Should science be a disinterested search for truth, or should we direct it to best serve our interests?
John and Ken are joined by Oregon State University professor of philosophy, Sharyn Clough. She joins Ken in arguing that politics and science are necessarily intertwined, and that the best we can do is tell apart the good and the bad politics by examining the evidence. Clough dispells the myth that complete objectivity is possible within science; we will always have our motivations, and therefore must do our best to acknowledge them when carrying out scientific research.
Clough and our hosts then face questions from the audience that range from the prioritization of government research funds to the ability of science to counteract groundless policies. Clough goes on to argue that the distinction between the humanities and the sciences must be erased to allow for the well-rounded thinking that intersection of politics and science demands. The discussion concludes with some last thoughts by John that suggest he remains convinced the two should remain separate to maintain the integrity of science.
Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 7:50): Shuka Kalantari speaks with Stanford professor Londa Schiebinger about how political lobbying was necessary for the introduction of pregnant crash test dummies and medical tests that include females.
60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:45): Ian Shoales discusses his concerns for the future of science and the misuse of scientific terms.