Right Intent, Wrong Execution

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Daniel Sarewitz , ever since Frontiers of Illusion was assigned reading in my first year of my Public Policy MS. On one hand, he clearly feels that scientists need to have a larger voice in the development of policy, particularly as it relates to scientific and technological disciplines, but on the other I often took a message that the job of science was to fix politics, or specifically, the screwups that politics caused. Sarewitz recently published an opinion piece in Nature that argues that scientists are in danger of being viewed as a liberal/Democratic interest group and need to move back to the political middle (http://www.nature.com/news/science-must-be-seen-to-bridge-the-political-divide-1.12119).

I agree with the concept that scientists should be concerned about political marginalization. I agree that we are often viewed as being a progressive “base” group which opposes conservative interests. I agree that a greater voice for scientists in the formulation of policy would probably yield better policy outcomes for all Americans.

So why do I fundamentally disagree with this opinion?

It comes down to an assumption that you can choose a scientific conclusion to support based on politics. The fundamental reason why scientists tend to find themselves supporting progressive/liberal/Democratic causes is that progressives tend to have a better grasp on, and respect for science. Progressives tend to base policy decisions on sound scientific reasoning and accept that understanding will change and so policies must change as well. The conservative side is the side of climate change denialism, rolling back environmental protection regulations, minimizing social service programs even when such programs are clearly demonstrated to be net-cost-saving. You don’t see many Democrats questioning evolution do you?

If someone wants to make policy on a subject and uses science to set the major principles, you’re going to come up with a single answer, or more accurately, a clearly stated question, an answer and a set of error bars and caveats. You will have differing opinions and disagreements within science, but those are usually based on competing sets of assumptions or interpretations, most of which can be transparently identified and, eventually, resolved through further research. This means that for most current issues, there is some wiggle room within the “scientific consensus,” but Sarewitz seems to be saying that scientists should move within that uncertainty to gain political advantage. That’s just not how science works. For most scientific questions, there is a single answer that can eventually be arrived at with a reasonable degree of statistical certainty. Scientists lose a tremendous amount of credibility if we routinely make policy recommendations based on finding a middle ground.

There is a big difference between advocating for middle ground policies out of political necessity and claiming that the middle ground is scientifically true. Scientists would do well to remember this.


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