Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Science vs. politics: The Bush Administration's twisting of the truth

Thought Mechanics has an excellent post on the Bush Administration's activities at the intersection of science and politics, arguing that policy decisions on such issues as stem-cell research and climate change have been based largely on "flawed, ideologically-driven, and intellectually-dishonest science". Or, to put it in a different (and perhaps more familiar) way, the science has been fixed around the politics. Result: climate change is overstated, just as Iraq has WMDs. But there's more. As T.M. points out, this fixing has also contributed to "the destruction of the public trust surrounding scientific inquiry itself".

Once upon a time, in the not-so-distant past, it was at least assumed that truth, however nebulous in any ultimate sense, could be discovered through scientific inquiry. There may yet be other truths, but science was a good start at trying to figure out the truths of the physical world. That's still true, of course, but the Bush Administration has done its utmost, it seems, to cast doubt on science as it pursues its own faith-based understanding of reality.

(Thanks to CommonSenseDesk for the link.)

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  • Mike, Thanks for the honorable mention.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:23 PM  

  • You've got a great site, Jack. I hope all my readers check it out.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 3:07 AM  

  • During most of the post-war era, science was king in the United States. People put an almost mystical faith in the ability of science to solve our problems. During the 60s and 70s, I think some of this faith started dissolving because of things like Three-Mile Island and, to some extent, Viet Nam, where the faith in high tech warfare proved to be misplaced. The media started emphasizing (I would say overemphasizing) technological screw ups. I think the left had something to do with the debunking of science too--until fairly recently, it was the left that was skeptical about the benefits of science and the scientific method. And you still see talk from postmodernists about socially-constructed science.

    Now the right has taken this over and built on people's fears of an overly-deterministic view of life. And while the scientific community has propagated the idea that science is totally objective and value-free, the fact is that scientists make mistakes and are just as prone as others to ideologically-driven agendas.

    I certainly agree that what Bush has done is appalling and dangerous. The scientific community has to start communicating better just how it does its work (especially, of course, the more controversial fields, such as palentology)and stop pretending that its conclusions are self-evident. For example, one idea I think would be worthwhile would be for palentologists to explain what the theory of evolution IS and what IT IS NOT. It is a theory of how life evolved; it is not a theory of how life began. Many opponents of evolution have tried to say the evolution takes God out of the equation. It does not, although most scientists I suspect are non-believers.

    Of course, much of the Bush debunking of science has a political angle--to avoid taking actions that would impose costs on business. Still, I think the scientific community needs to be more proactive in educating the public. I have said on this blog before that it's time that scientists stopped arguing from authority by saying that x number of scientists believe in global warming and presenting the evidence for this conclusion in ways that people can understand. It also needs to acknowledge the legitimate questions of skeptics such as Bjorn Lomborg, rather than simply dismissing them as tendentious.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:08 AM  

  • Well put, Marc. Certainly the "faith" in science was much stronger during the hey-days of the Cold War, when getting to the moon and developing high-tech weaponry was all the rage. I suspect that the recent decline in science's authority -- in its claim to "truth" -- has a good deal to do with postmodernism, which, along with everything else, rejects reason as any kind of guide to truth and argues that everything is merely a matter of perspective (i.e., there are no facts, only values, and those values are all power-laden).

    I think we've had this conversation before: The right has now taken up the mantra of the left. While the right claims to uphold certain universal truths (religious ones, that is), it tends to diminish the truths of this world by rejecting reason (hence the title of Robert Reich's book) and, to a point, science. This is more the evangelical right than the business/libertarian right, of course, but conservative politics these days means playing to that base.

    But I agree that scientists need to do better. The whole modern project, starting with Machiavelli but really taking off with Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, and Newton, elevated science to a position of authority (even as it relegated religion to the level of antiquarian superstition). Many scientists today seem to feed off of that self-conferred authority. Many simply assume that they're right about everything without really understanding that even science has its limits: it can't tell us everything about human nature and the human condition. Many assume that those who don't agree with them, or who simply don't know enough, are ignorant and backwards. That may or may not be true, but I agree that they should explain themselves and what they're about in terms that are less elitist, condescending, and self-important.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 1:47 PM  

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