On Behemoths and Bi-Partisanship

Daniel Sarewitz has a commentary in Nature in which he claims that science is on a “worrying slide towards politicization”. The solution so that scientists can “gain the confidence of people and politicians across the political spectrum”? Scientists can demonstrate that “science is bipartisan.”

No. Just no.

Science is not bi-partisan. Science should not be bi-partisan. It should be non-partisan.

FULL STOP.

If “science has come, over the past decade or so, to be a part of the identity of one political party, the Democrats, in the United States” it is not because science is partisan. It is because one political party, namely the Republican Party, has ever so steadily estranged itself from science, through cutting funding or outright denial of science’s findings.

The problem isn’t with science’s partisanship. It’s with the corruption of politics and the radicalization of the Republican Party. The political realm is so thoroughly addicted to the financial elite’s donations and influence that the science has been denied, ignored and trodden on. The Republican Party has so thoroughly estranged itself from anything resembling moderation that it is a shadow of its former self.

Politics, that behemoth, is the real problem.

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The Behemoth and Leviathan

There can be no better example than climate change / global warming.

.

Now, it is true that the Democratic Party has been remiss in taking action on climate change, despite the increasing clarity with which the science has spoken. What is even more true is that the Republican Party has erred more egregiously in this matter. Neither political party can claim much higher ground, or if there is some elevation that the Democrats have reached, it is barely above sea level.

This is because of a problem with politics and the political system, not science or scientists. Partisanship is not the problem and so calls for bi-partisanship are simply empty and wrong

To head critics off at the pass, I am not claiming that science is pure, lily white and virginal when it comes to objectivity. Only someone with a vulgar understanding of science would claim it is. Science is a human creation. It cannot escape human foibles. But the scientific method and scientific values and approaches to producing knowledge are the best damn means of producing the most objective knowledge yet known.

It’s not infallible. Scientists are not angels fallen to earth. One need only read of the scandals in research journals to appreciate that science is not free from bias and error.

But here’s the thing. In contrast to non-scientific approaches to producing knowledge, scientists spend a great deal of time learning about bias and error and trying to account for it, minimize its impact. Figuring out error is, after all, a key component of every scientific investigation.

Yes, scientists are partisan. They do vote, and they may tend to be liberal-leaning because the scientific mind is liberal rather than conservative. It is largely unafraid of uncharted territory. It is not afraid of uncertainty. It is willing to question and turn over existing views if the evidence demands it. Maybe it does so only after a long time of kicking and screaming, but eventually it does.

Science is an amazing human development and has been so successful precisely because there are built-in means to try to minimize human bias and error. There are expectations of rigour that help weed out wishful thinking.

Science is not partisan, however much social scientists like Sarewitz might claim it is.

To claim that the problem lies in scientist’s partisanship misreads the matter entirely. It speaks of a blindness on the part of Sarewitz and Co. to the real problem. The problem is not that scientists are partisan or can’t communicate their findings properly to the public or side with one political party.

The problem is a corrupt political realm that ignores, tries to interfere with and/or outright denies the science to suit its own agenda.

Here’s Sarewitz:

As scientists seek to provide policy-relevant knowledge on complex, interdisciplinary problems ranging from fisheries depletion and carbon emissions to obesity and natural hazards, the boundary between the natural and the social sciences has blurred more than many scientists want to acknowledge. With Republicans generally sceptical of government’s ability and authority to direct social and economic change, the enthusiasm with which leading scientists align themselves with the Democratic party can only reinforce conservative suspicions that for contentious issues such as climate change, natural-resource management and policies around reproduction, all science is social science.

Let’s try to unpack this:

Sarewitz claims the following:

  1. Scientists seek to provide policy-relevant knowledge on complex interdisciplinary problems.
  2. The boundary between natural and social sciences has blurred more than many scientists want to acknowledge
  3. Republicans are generally skeptical of government’s ability to direct social and economic change
  4. Scientists align themselves with the Democratic Party with enthusiasm
  5. This leads to the view that all science is social science

So much going on in this one paragraph…

1. First, scientists do science. They communicate their findings with each other in various forums, journals and in conferences. Policy makers seek out the findings of science to help them make political decisions over issues in which science may have a bearing. Some scientists are employed by governments to do science and their findings may be used directly by governments in the policy process. Other scientists may be called upon to review the science and provide summaries of its findings on specific issues so that the knowledge can be used in the policy process. The IPCC is an example of this.

Most of the science I have seen on climate and global warming has been very high quality. I am not an expert, but to me, it is science as we expect it to be carried out. Once it gets into the hands of politicians and politicos, all bets are off. One need only look to how communications of science findings are manipulated by political types to see how politics tries to bend science to its will.

2. This statement about the boundaries of social and natural sciences is gobbledegook pure and simple. Social science has long felt itself to be natural science’s country cousin, and has tried to make itself look more ‘rigorous’ and ‘scientific’ but it is a shadow of its city cousin when it comes to the ability to use its findings to effect change.The only social science that is rigorous enough to match the power of natural science is marketing and advertising. The social science of understanding the human psyche when it comes to commodities and consumerism is about the only thing that has really risen above social science’s general myth-making.

The boundaries between social and natural sciences are only blurred in those who already see through tinted glasses — glasses that apparently need new lenses.

3. Yes, Republicans are largely skeptical of government, period, with a few huge and telling exceptions. It can do wonders when it comes to waging war and enabling markets, protecting property rights, and maintaining social order and the status quo, but nothing else.

That is where the real problem comes into play. The compelling nature of scientific evidence on certain problems, namely climate change, suggests that government may have to step in and effect change, both economic and social, in order to prevent our climate from becoming something antithetical to our current civilization.

Republicans don’t want to accept that. It’s against their ideology. That is the real problem.

4. If scientists align themselves with the Democratic Party with enthusiasm, it is because scientists heed the message of their own findings and their own findings compel them to conclude that action is necessary to address the problem at hand — climate change is a good example. Scientists are humans, they are citizens, they have a vote and a responsibility to use it. If they see the writing on the wall and conclude that action is necessary to address the threat climate change poses to civilization, it is the Republican Party’s fault that scientists do not turn to them.

The Republican Party has been so slavishly catering to extremists in their party for the past couple of decades (young earth creationists, intelligent designers, etc., anti-abortionists, etc.) that it has driven out moderates and those who are willing to listen to science. Why would scientists side with a party that denies science? Why wouldn’t scientists turn to a party that appears at least to accept science as a valid source of knowledge?

5. The view that all science is social science is pure hogwash. If some ignoramus believes that, it is because they are primed to believe it, or are ignorant of the terms of the issue. It is not because of any problem with science that ignoramuses believe such tripe.

We should ignore such people. They are vexations to the spirit.

So, as usual, Sarewitz says a whole lot of nothing. He will be seen as the darling of the denialati for doing so, because he’s pretty much created a straw man of science in order to set it afire. Then all the “skeptics” can point to it and say, “Look, science is aflame.”

Science is not aflame. It’s percolating along as it always has and does, kept moving by the millions of scientists around the world working away in labs and the field and at desks and computers. It’s findings with respect to climate change are more and more clear and compelling.

Politics has become an even more corrupt behemoth, fed by campaign contributions, PACs, and lobbyists, out to stamp out any real or perceived enemy. It is the real problem and until social scientists like Sarewitz start to examine politics with a critical eye, their analysis will remain vapid and empty. All their work will do is provide fodder for the denialist crowd, and excuses to deny the science of climate change and its increasingly clear findings on what we face if we continue on a business-as-usual path.

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About Policy Lass

Exploring skeptic tales.

16 Responses to “On Behemoths and Bi-Partisanship”

  1. Welcome back. And Happy New Year!

  2. OMG I just re-read my post “Arguing With Stupid People”. What a magician I am! I got the stupid to prove my point about the futility of arguing with stupid people…

  3. I’m not going to excuse denialism by politicians. Furthermore, as a publishing scientist outside of the field of climate science, I have been highly impressed by the quality of climate science. Denialists are awash in ignorance and wishful thinking when they suggest that the scientific process is somehow less rigorous in climate science than in any other scientific discipline. However, I do think Sarewitz is being helpful here, in reminding us scientists to remain as nonpartisan as possible, in order to protect our findings–and the scientific process itself–from partisanship. I am not pointing fingers here. I think each of us scientists who venture into the public domain should look carefully at our own statements and do our best to “scrub out” any political nuance. In my experience, that does not leave my own statements vacuous. To the contrary, I think it makes them easier to be heard by those who may hold to different ideologies.

    • What is helpful, in my opinion, is for people to correctly identify the problem so that actual solutions to that problem can be developed. As long as the disease has been misdiagnosed, there is little hope that the wrong treatment will cure what ails the patient. IMHO, Sarewitz has misdiagnosed the problem and thus his prescription will have little effect except to delay proper treatment and further sicken the patient.

      The problem is not that scientists are gravitating to the DNC… It’s that the RNC has alienated scientists through its denial of science. There are many conservative scientists who bemoan the way the RNC has become a laughingstock when it comes to positions on science issues. Fix the party and the rest will fall into place.

      False equivalence only serves to prop ups flawed analysis.

  4. Policy Lass, superb commentary.

    Paul, if a scientist and a blind person are standing in a house that is on fire, at what point should the scientist dispense with describing the probabilities of various outcomes and instead yell “get out now!”?

    It is clear to me that our “leaders” are paralyzed to act and more scientists need to impress on the masses that our house is on fire. If that means being more “political” so be it – but few scientists are.

    • Respected Scott, I agree, we should say, even yell, whatever the science is saying. But in my opinion, we lose influence with the public whenever our educational efforts become partisan or political. When we do, we give people a reason to doubt the science, no matter how good it is.

  5. If we were to use religion as an analogy it would clearly be very silly if someone were to say “Science must gain the confidence of leaders across the religious spectrum”. In the modern context we’d recognise this as code for “Science should be quiet about issues that challenge the authority of religious leaders” or even “Science should be quiet about issues that challenge the authority of religious leaders that hold sway in our society, otherwise have that those crazy terrorist beliefs”.

    Conversely we’re all aware people like to hitch their wagon to science’s credibility and this can be a problem. Democrats do like to paint themselves as the reality based or science based party but really they’re only about average in this regard i.e. what you might expect from a random sampling of the population of a first world country.

    Oh and welcome back and happy new year :D

  6. When Sarewitz writes:

    “But even Nobel prizewinners are citizens with political preferences. Of the 43 (out of 68) signatories on record as having made past political donations, only five had ever contributed to a Republican candidate, and none did so in the last election cycle. If the laureates are speaking on behalf of science, then science is revealing itself, like the unions, the civil service, environmentalists and tort lawyers, to be a Democratic interest, not a democratic one.”

    he reveals he is inadequate to the task of commenting on either science or politics. When did it become axiomatic that being supportive of Democrats is opposed to being democratic? Unless a party seeking democratic election has explicitly embraced anti-democratic principles, supporting that party means embracing democracy.

    But not, apparently, in Sarewitz’s mind.

    His, apparently is the small minded approach of many contemporary Republicans, where not being with them means being against democracy, capitalism and America. The intolerance of opposition, of an alternative voice which evidently characterizes Sarewitz and so much of the Republican party is, however, a totalitarian strain – not democratic.

    One wonder’s why this hack has been allowed to sully Nature with his commentary.

  7. Hurray! You’re back – with another gem of an article.

    Happy new year – wishing you a good one.

  8. Hereby is proposed a bi-partisan action between Denizens and Rabbits against bi-partisanship:

    http://judithcurry.com/2013/01/03/new-years-resolution-for-scientists/#comment-282430

    For sake of coherence, I would call it a **Violent Agreement**.

    To advertise that he’s not bi, Eli’s putting Leha Horne, Peggy Lee and Diana Krall in the juke box tonight.

  9. One need only read of the scandals in research journals to appreciate that science is not free from bias and error.

    To expand on this point a little…

    It is useful to point out that the scientific method is inherently structured to identify and correct biases and errors, whether deliberate or otherwise, in what is a relatively short time. Science tests and retests its understanding in an iterative process, in part to account for the very human fallability of its practitioners. Science has the capacity for self correction.

    Contrast this with a conservative approach to understanding, which is by definition one which protects the status quo despite external indications for the necessity of progression. Where flawed understanding or articles of faith exist, there is little inherent in the conservative paradigm that would facilitate modification.

    As evidence I would tender two examples, but the thoughtful reader would be able to propose countless many more. Without the progressive influence of science the meme of young Earth Creationism would simply roll through the centuries of teaching on the origins of the universe. And without the influence of progressive politics it’s quite likely that some of the more egregious and hypocritical habits of certain clergy and secular leaders would continue without abatement through the generations…

    There is little in today’s scientific corpus that could survive for so long if there was even a hint that there was something wrong.

    So examples of bias and scandal in science are not so much an indication that its methology is is flawed, but are in fact proof that it manages to weed out the flawed practitioners within its ranks. I challenge any conservative to point to a conservative* model that does so with anything near resembling the efficiency of science – I would argue that most conservative scandals occur in spite of conservatism’s surveillance of itself, rather than as a result of its surveillance of itself.

    [*A pedant would argue that science itself is conservative in its parsimony, but in this context I am referring to political conservatism - a subtle but probably necessary distinction...]

  10. Bugger. The quote tag doesn’t work.

    The first paragraph of my previous post was a quote from Policy Lass’s post.

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