On Science, Social Science, and Politics

Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, penned an early January op-ed in Nature, Science Must Be Seen to Bridge the Political Divide. In it he argues that science must be seen to remain apolitical, so as to maintain its funding and its respected position in society. Science and politics shouldn’t mix, which means scientists should stop being so political, in this case supporting the Democratic party.

For the third presidential election in a row, dozens of Nobel prizewinners in physics, chemistry and medicine signed a letter endorsing the Democratic candidate… 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.

This is dangerous for science and for the nation… In the current period of dire fiscal stress, one way to undermine this stable funding and bipartisan support [for science] would be to convince Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, that science is a Democratic special interest.

Sarewitz’s foil in making this argument, in telling Nature’s readers to make a New Year’s resolution to “gain the confidence of people and politicians across the political spectrum by demonstrating that science is bipartisan,” is social science. That is where the danger lies – that science could actually become like social science!

This concern rests on clear precedent. Conservatives in the US government have long been hostile to social science, which they believe tilts towards liberal political agendas. Consequently, the social sciences have remained poorly funded and politically vulnerable, and every so often Republicans threaten to eliminate the entire National Science Foundation budget for social science.

It doesn’t matter to Sarewitz that many of the problems science is tackling are increasingly in the realm of social science, as he notes in his editorial. Rather, what matters is keeping science’s respected position.

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.

The US scientific community must decide if it wants to be a Democratic interest group or if it wants to reassert its value as an independent national asset.

So social science gets thrown under the bus – we’re not an “independent national asset.” And indeed, after the economic meltdown, many have questions about just how independent and useful economics and economists are.

In many ways, though, economics failed by trying to be too science-like, in modeling economies rationally and creating new mathematical approaches that seemed to give control over risk and then blew up in the face of human limits and greed. We naturalized debt, as David Graeber has argued so well in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Yet debt is as much a moral concept as it is an economic one. The change to be made isn’t to maintain the fiction of the economy as a natural creation, with outside regulation correcting the human flaws that inevitably get introduced. Rather, it’s recognizing that we have a human economy, and need to develop economics that way, as Keith Hart just eloquently outlined.

A similar problem crops up in the Sarewitz op-ed. He wants to reserve a model of “science” that exists largely in some mythic past, of independence and rationality and the ability to make sound judgments. Indeed, that is the main point emphasized in The Atlantic piece by neurologist Puneet Opal, The Dangers of Making Science Political. Opal builds on Sarewitz:

We in democracies should make every effort to promote the objectivity of scientists so they can seek and communicate the best approximation of truth in the natural world, using their training and resources. And the approximation, is only because we will never know reality, but we can get amazingly close with scientific evidence and logical thinking.

As scholars in Science and Technology Studies have long argued, science is a human activity. Sergio Sismondo writes in An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies:

Science and technology are thoroughly social activities. They are social in that scientists and engineers are always members of communities, trained into the practices of those communities and necessarily working within them. These communities set standards for inquiry and evaluate knowledge claims.

Opal’s simple presentation of science as some pure and ideal pursuit is also hard to reconcile with all the recent press about science fraud, and the recognition that scientists have badly misplayed their hand in environmental debates precisely by clinging to this purist model. They brought a knife to a gun fight, thinking that other people would listen because they offered “the truth.”

And that’s a major problem. The central conceit of Sarewitz’s article is mistaken, the benefit he believes will come from becoming “bipartisan”.

To connect scientific advice to bipartisanship would benefit political debate. Volatile issues, such as the regulation of environmental and public-health risks, often lead to accusations of ‘junk science’ from opposing sides. Politicians would find it more difficult to attack science endorsed by avowedly bipartisan groups of scientists, and more difficult to justify their policy preferences by scientific claims that were contradicted by bipartisan panels.

Let’s think about that. In Sarewitz’s world, politicians will naturally listen better to bipartisan endorsements. Take a recent example, the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles plan for “Financial Responsibility and Reform.” Politicians just fell over themselves to enact that bipartisan approach to dealing with a major social problem, didn’t they?

An even better example is smoking. If the model is somehow that by inserting better, more independent information into the political process, more rational and scientific decisions will be made, then that’s the wrong kind of scientific flow chart. Tobacco companies had major profits at stake, and major money to spend. They spent it on politicians and scientists alike. It wasn’t on a search for “the truth” about tobacco.

Here’s the opening to a review of the book Doubt is Their Product.

The sabotage of science is now a routine part of American politics. The same corporate strategy of bombarding the courts and regulatory agencies with a barrage of dubious scientific information has been tried on innumerable occasions — and it has nearly always worked, at least for a time. Tobacco. Asbestos. Lead. Vinyl chloride. Chromium. Formaldehyde. Arsenic. Atrazine. Benzene. Beryllium. Mercury. Vioxx. And on and on.

In battles over regulating these and many other dangerous substances, money has bought science, and then science — or, more precisely, artificially exaggerated uncertainty about scientific findings — has greatly delayed action to protect public and worker safety.

In other words, political interests have used one of science’s guiding principles – of skepticism and doubt – against itself.

Propping up a model of science as truth forgets the messy process of how scientists actually arrive at conclusions. Scientists often try to promote one rhetorical approach within their field (theory, uncertainty, questioning), and try to present another model of science for public consumption (truth, independence). But do they really think people are so naïve that they don’t pick up on this? Politicians and corporate heads certainly are not.

Indeed, I think that the most obvious social outcome of science becoming “bipartisan” is that these other, much more powerful groups will welcome the recognition that science is inherently political, and thus truly driven by interests and not by a search for truth. Skepticism has already been employed against science. Recognizing that science needs to be bipartisan? That will become just another tool that can be used against science in the political process. Imagine a bipartisan approach to evolution or to reproduction…

Sarewitz also misdiagnoses how science is viewed by the public. He has a view from the inside, of the beauty and power of science. From the outside, at best it’s “really smart people who sometimes act like know-it-all’s.” At worst, it’s “arrogant pricks who want to control the world.” I mean, kids’ cartoons are full of this stuff. The evil scientist who wants to rule the world.

So, science as independent in the eyes of the public? That bus left the station a long time ago. Sure, it’s one way to interpret science. But there are plenty other ways available to discerning and non-discerning people alike.

In this public realm, it is often how authoritative knowledge is claimed that makes people to react badly: I know more than you, so I get to tell you what you’re supposed to do. Yet this approach is exactly what Sarewitz is claiming in the Nature op-ed. Scientists are this “independent national asset” who should be searching for ways to “strengthen their authority.” Not follow the bad political path of social science into irrelevance…

Sarewitz is using academic politics to try to fight larger politics. That’s the wrong approach. Social scientists and scientists should be grouped together, rather than split apart. They both offer authoritative knowledge, acquired through long training, membership in specific communities, and standards of evidence. People generally recognize these sorts of claims to authority better than “the truth” or “I know more than you do.” Think athletes. Many people can talk a good game, but to really play the game, that’s a different story.

So I’d encourage Prof. Sarewitz to recognize that science and social science can make good bedfellows, both in politics and in academia. Rather than throw one under the bus, it would make better sense to develop more comprehensive approaches so that the research and ideas we produce as a whole can have a public impact. And to recognize that art and writing and critical thought – domains of the humanities – also play a central role in increasing the role of considered knowledge and developed skills in today’s world.

After all, as Sarewitz notes, many of the most pressing problems we face today are exactly at the intersection of multiple disciplines.

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.

Recognizing that fact as a starting point, and then moving to examining how to build common approaches to research, communication, and policy, is a more sound approach.

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