The Scientist in the Political Arena

Posted on 11th October 2004 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior

I received a great criticism of my website recently, which inspired this article:

I enjoy the Scientific observations articles on your website, but you need to drop the political musings. If you were really scientfically-minded (sic), you wouldn’t be trying to influence your readers to see things your way. Your bias is apparent in your article “Politics Muddling Science” and your list of Scientific organizations. Scientists should merely tell the truth and leave it to policy-makers to draw the appropriate conclusions.

There is, I have discovered, a segment of the scientifically minded population who believe that science is somehow “above” engaging the political arena. Politics, they argue, is about persuasion for gain, while science is concerned purely with empirical observation for its own sake. Science should merely present the world with facts, therefore, and not soil itself with politics.

This perspective betrays a severe lack of understanding of the scientific process and a rather naive idealism of science itself. It is also characteristic of an overt cynicism concerning politics that is completely unjustified. Politics is the means by which we dispute issues with the purpose of achieving an ideal mean. How can a process meant to find the best policies for the common good be inherently bad? Scientists who characterize politics in this manner are equating the process with some of its participants.

Cattle and sheep stock account for 20% of the Earth’s methane production, a greenhouse gas. When a Politician characterizes research into this as studying “cow flatulence” and cuts funding for it, should Scientists object? Should a Scientist, studying the spread of STD’s from community to community through Truckers, keep their mouth shut when a Politician unfairly reduces their work to the study of sex culture?

Scientific research depends almost entirely on government funding. Private Enterprise does not conduct general research. When a Scientist seeks a grant, they are playing politics. They must frame their research in such a way as to emphasize its potential benefits to the collective body of knowledge. They must employ some degree of rhetoric to get government funds.

These are issues where individual Scientists are looking out for their own self-interest in the political arena, but what about issues in the greater social scheme of things? Science is very concerned with issues of environmental sustainability, global warming, and world health. Are Scientists acting inappropriately when they take a position on these issues? Should they not lobby the American Congress or the United Nations for action, but leave it up to the world to stumble across their research in some obscure journal and trust it to do the right thing?

“truth” With a Lower-Case “T”

“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate famously asked at Jesus’ trial, and throughout all of human history we have struggled with defining it. Truth is simultaneously a subjective and objective concept. Subjective, because it differs from person to person conceptually. Objective, because there is ultimately only one truth, the reality that we all share and no one holds a monopoly on understanding it.

The Scientific Process of empirical observations, hypotheses emerging from them, testing through experimentation and disputation, until a theory that satisfies all conditions is the best process we have for working out the details of our common reality. That is not to say it is a perfect process. Just as politics has pundits who will distort the truth for a myriad of reasons such as the pursuit of personal gain, pride, ignorance, or as simply a means to the end, Science has scientists with all of these same personal shortcomings.

Scientists are human beings and they can and do let their personal biases, pride, or other personality flaws influence their interpretations of their results. Scientific journals of peer-review are filled with mistakes that may result from such perceptual distortions, which are quite common and perfectly understandable components of human nature. To raise Science, which comprises the collective body of knowledge gathered by scientists, flawed human beings, onto a pedestal of “Truth” with a capital “T” applies an idealistic infallibility to it.

And cynicism is the last refuge of an idealist.

Democracy is for Everyone

Politicians are not politics. This is so important for people to remember because we so easily fall into a pessimistic rut about the political process. The idea that politics, with its rhetorical appeals and partisanship somehow obfuscates the truth is irrationally cynical.

Political Science, Social Science, polls, random samples, these are the scientific process of politics. It is not perfect, but then no perfect system exists for anything. Disdaining politics for its dysfunctional components is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Productive disputation thrives on a cross-pollination of ideas. Democracy thrives on the pursuit of the ideal mean. What makes a politician better equipped than a professor to determine public policy? What makes the opinion of Michael Moore or Rush Limbaugh more significant than someone with a doctorate in any field? We all bring valuable perspectives to the table in our democratic process and all opinions garner equal respect.

48 Nobel Laureates have signed an endorsement for one of our presidential candidates this 2004 election cycle. It was their right to do so. People who respond to this fact with lamentations that “Scientists should stick to science,” are actually exposing a sort of jealousy at the position of respect the Nobel Laureates posses.

Consider the argument often applied to celebrities to discredit their political statements, “What do they know about politics?” This raises my own question: What do politicians know about politics? Our politicians originate from a wide range of backgrounds, they are veterans, farmers, scientists, lawyers, movie stars, so on and so on.

None of our politicians hold degrees in being President or a Congressperson. The most significant degree our politicians hold to qualify them is the law degree, but this does nothing to prepare them for determining public policy and more to do with giving them the rhetorical eloquence needed to persuade. The only qualification a politician has to determine public policy is their virtue of being elected.

So the electorate determines public policy. This makes sense, as we are all components of the public. Collectively we have some idea of what’s best for us. So arguing that some demographic, some component of the public should stay out of the arena flies in the face of Egalitarianism.

If Science is the endless endeavor to refine our understanding of truth, then Scientists should lobby for the truth. When creationists constrain or even prohibit the teaching of evolution in public schools, Scientists not only have the right, but the responsibility to vociferously advocate teaching the truth to our children. When politicians argue for funding institutions that serve the public good, Scientists must make sure the public knows that generalized Scientific Research is an important part of those services.

For Scientists not to take part in Politics is simply intellectually irresponsible.

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