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Scientists need to keep their hats on in this political climate

In Finance and business, Policy on February 28, 2009 at 7:54 pm

A recent post by science writer John Tierney in the New York Times “Findings” column highlights Dr. Robert Pielke, Jr.’s book, The Honest Broker, which expresses a concern with scientists’ temptation to take advantage of their privileged position. Scientists in the company of non-scientists often overemphasize the credibility of their own models and speculations at the expense of politicians that don’t have the peer-reviewing ammunition that scientists do. Additionally, scientists who “enter the fray” find themselves having political debates, rather than scientific ones—Dr. Pielke wants the public, as well as the scientists, to recognize the distinction. The country is at a crucial juncture, and many will look to scientists for advice on investment options with regards to both the economy and climate change—in this light, the scrutiny is well-placed.

Although we shouldn’t jump the gun and become conspiracy theorists, it’s always prudent to revisit the important preface to critique of any science: scientists are human. It might seem like a trivial qualifier, but anyone who’s worked long enough in the sciences knows that they fight for credit, worry about their reputation, and navigate complex human networks like anyone else—most of us tend to forget this because we don’t often have the opportunity to share reflective conversations with science professors who have the honesty to look back their careers and laugh at themselves. I’m currently taking the course MOL 328 U.S. Medical Research and Researchers: Preeminence, Problems, Policies, and this post reminds me of the times that Prof. Rosenberg made polite remarks about arrogance and fiery temperaments (in reference to James Watson and Robert Gallo, respectively). Scientists’ personalities often make fascinating and amusing narratives, I assume because people so often take for granted the stereotype of scientists as disinterested, coldly intellectual fixtures that have better conversations with their computers and specimens than with other people. The strange juxtaposition of the objective reality we probe and our interpretation of it gives scientists this potentially awkward but uniquely endowed vantage point. Some make use of it, while others revel in their privacy and autonomy.

For those scientists (and academics in general) who have to defend their ideas in the public arena, debates that used to center on preliminary assumptions and gambles on plausible hypotheses are being transformed into debates that spill over from tiffs in academic journals to more personal political attacks in op-eds and press conferences. The emergence of the science blogosphere has made many scientists more accessible—by corollary, it has given contention a new place to thrive. The casual link between evolutionary theory and sociological and cultural history has encouraged people to interpret scientific results rather generously—while there are some who can thoughtfully articulate the interdisciplinary connections, it’s frightening how easily science and philosophy of science are confused.

The humanness of scientific research also introduces difficulties into collaborative projects that harbor potential for politicization. The relatively recent efforts in the last few decades to coordinate academia, government, and industry in the practice of medical research point to the impediments faced when groups with different goals and skill sets have to come to a consensus. The publication of the results of the Human Genome Project in two separate journals (Science and Nature) by two parties (at odds with one another over strategies for releasing the data), is one well-known example of the seeming irreconcilability of people’s (and scientists’) perspectives (reconciliation committees were unable to bridge the divide).

With this in mind, there are several problems with finding feasible environmental solutions that the government can pursue. For one, science advisers are inevitably going to have their own opinions on matters, and will steer funds and publicity how they see fit. I actually have very little idea how influential science advisers are, so if anyone would like to comment on this, please do. In any case, it’s problematic when scientists who’ve developed good tools and strategies are effectively ignored because the government has decided to back one public stance. Even if the government had a more multidimensional message to hash out, its inertia prevents it from reacting quickly enough to the innovations that periodically bubble up from scientists in academia and industry. Being a science major, I’m a bit lost on this one, because there are certainly times when the government primes the pump and energizes research in all sectors—what distinctions are there between the current environmental research movement and the booming medical research movement after WWII? The obvious factor is the economic fragility—post-war U.S. was the “last one standing,” but nowadays, we’re not even sure how many years it will take us to recover from the economic crisis. Even if we were to take into consideration the large wads of cash that are being handed to researchers as part of the astronomically large economic stimulus package, it’s a mystery to everyone whether stimulus money can actually be meaningfully utilized for research, which is a long-term endeavor. For more details on what the EPA plans to do with the money from the Recovery Act, look here. While it seems that the EPA is going to do a thorough clean-up job, there don’t seem to be any initiatives for creating technology for cleaner energy—something is missing the mark.

Not being an expert in policy, I am not surprised that the administration necessarily has to take a singular stance, but I am curious if there’s any way to make better use of the scientists who offer alternative (and often complementary) approaches to environmental problems. Is it a matter of freeing up regulation, federal funding, or large-scale implementation that makes the government’s role important in the furthering of these strategies, such as the air capture of carbon that Dr. Pielke feels is worth investing in? There is an incredibly palpable universal interest in environmental initiatives, but because of all the short-sighted projects and fire-lit hoops to jump through, we’re losing time while everyone lobbies for his own interests. The government lacks a systematic and diverse cooperative plan. Although the upcoming Power Shift Conference is certainly a step in the right direction, politicians’ willingness to establish effective clean energy policy has to start with a fair assessment of all the brands of environmental projects that are out there. Only then can young activists’ enthusiasm find a vehicle for realization. Tierney expresses a similar frustration when he writes, “Well, I suppose it never hurts to go on the record in opposition to a billion imaginary deaths. But I have a more immediate concern: Will Mr. Obama’s scientific counselors give him realistic plans for dealing with global warming and other threats?”

Stephen Colbert recently commented during his show (jokingly, but I suspect with some seriousness) on the parallel between the scare tactics of the Bush administration used to justify the Iraq War, and the apocalyptic grandeur of Democrats’ defense of the stimulus package. I think most people don’t care to be scared anymore–everyone knows there’s a lot at stake, even if you’re not sure what exactly the experts think it is. My feelings about expansive statements made by scientists seeking popular science sensationalism can be summed up by David Brooks’ worried remark in his recent New York Times op-ed column “The Uncertain Trumpet” on the many promises made in President Obama’s recent address: “Obama blew a mighty trumpet Tuesday night, but after you blow the trumpet, you actually have to charge.” Scientists can’t just capitalize on counting the ways that the world can end—they have a responsibility to bail us out when no one else knows how to. Along the way, the few pioneer scientist public figures are sure to blaze new trails, making the political machinery work for them, rather than working for the politics.

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  1. That Tierney article was an interesting one. It’s also interesting that this particular entry begins with talk of scientists taking advantaged of their “privileged position”, since it’s never been clear to me that this is something scientists have enjoyed. While I don’t think it’s fair for scientists to say that “I believe this, and you should too because I’m a fair judge of truth,” the qualification to that sentiment would be that more often than not, Congress doesn’t really listen to their points, fair or not.

  2. P.S. Y’all need to change your time settings for the blog so things appear as EST, you elitist GMT-loving whores.

  3. I’d agree that scientists have never “had it easy,” because they are subject to much unreasonable scrutiny by those who don’t know enough about the research process. Laymen demand that scientific results give black-and-white answers, and fault science if it can’t move ahead with inhuman speed. All the same, people that misrepresent science as an ideology fall on both sides of the spectrum–they either think science furthers an abhorrent materialism that wrongs God, or they worship what scientists say because they place their trust in these professionals and the authority of scientific findings (knowing that most scientists hold themselves to a universal ethical code). Scientists may not be privileged, in the sense that they get money and fame and power–I mean privileged to mean that they are in this unique position, where their work appears (and is often claimed to be) objectively true. Other academics may claim to be knowledgeable, but opinion and subjectivity are always understood to be involved.

  4. […] The Politics of Science In Policy on March 2, 2009 at 4:19 am Just a few points in response to Janice’s post. […]

  5. […] vs. The Politicians.  Part of this is because of the cognitive biases of scientists and the blurring between positive and normative positions, and these are effects we see in other debates, for […]

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