May 18, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Political Science 101

Ideally, science should be non-partisan and stay out of politics.  That ideal is not always met, as the following recent stories illustrate.

  1. The intellectual president:  New Scientist published a commentary, “Hail to the intellectual president,” by Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science.  Opening line: “If you liked George W. Bush, it wasn’t because of his brain.”  Ronald Reagan, John McCain and Sarah Palin were other targets labeled anti-intellectual in the article, along with McCarthy and Eisenhower.  Obama, by contrast, is “the intellectual president,” in his opinion.  “With the coming of Barack Obama to the presidency, the phrase ‘sea change’ is not too strong,” Mooney wrote.  “If Obama’s message about the importance of science makes its way through even this medium, he will have changed America more than we can possibly calculate,” he said in conclusion.  “The goal must be nothing less than to break the cycle – to make intellectualism a permanent value of American culture.  A two-term presidency would help.”  New Scientist did not offer any Republican a chance for rebuttal, but The New Atlantis did; Yuval Levin wrote a lengthy essay in December 2008 about the uneasy and often contradictory historical relationships between secular progressives and science, and how those tensions play out today.
  2. Pay the policy piper:  The May 15 issue of Science included a news item on the 2010 budget by Dan Charles, Jocelyn Kaiser, Eli Kintisch, and Erik Stokstad.1 

    Science lobbyists have cheered President Barack Obama’s arrival at the helm of the U.S. ship of state for a host of reasons.  One is the impressive scientific credentials of the new Administration’s initial appointments.  The list generally begins with Steven Chu, a physics Nobelist, and includes science adviser John Holdren, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Jane Lubchenco, and the co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, medicine Nobelist Harold Varmus and genomics wizard Eric Lander.  Another is Obama’s repeated promise to “restore science to its rightful place.”  That’s code for reversing the regulatory policies of the Bush years that seemed to ignore or distort the scientific analyses on which they were supposed to be based.  And just last month, Obama received an ovation from the members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) by calling for 3% of the country’s economy to be devoted to research, an unprecedented level of public and private spending on science.

    The authors offered their advice on how the President can navigate treacherous waters and remain on the good side of the scientific community.  Since the policies they promoted are federally funded, nobody asked whether this represents a conflict of interest.

  3. Rebuttal:  Louis E. Thompson, an MIT alumnus, wrote a rebuttal to a Science’s March 20 essay by Kurt Gottfried and Harold Varmus that “The Enlightenment Returns” with the election of President Obama.  In his letter to the editor in the May 15 issue of Science,2 Thompson wrote “Politics Still in Play.”  He disagreed with their assessment that the Obama policy on science ensures “that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda.”  He pointed to two recent examples of political expedience and earmarks that benefit politicians.  Thompson allowed that some parts of the Enlightenment may have returned, but “Political convenience remains,” he said.

The flip side of “political” science is that ignoring the political element in a research story can sometimes distort the conclusions.  In Science May 15,3 26 researchers analyzed the cholera crisis in Africa, particularly in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The article focused on remediation techniques of cholera epidemics, especially vaccination.  They disputed the strategy that vaccination is ineffective when an outbreak has already occurred: “this dogma is based on a single analysis that assumed that outbreaks are self-limited and short-lived, in contrast to cholera in Zimbabwe, which has been raging since mid-2008.”  The article said nothing, though, about the dictatorial regime of Robert Mugabe, whose policies that have wrecked the economy and destroyed access to health services and clean water are arguably the biggest factors in why the outbreak of this largely controllable disease occurred in the first place.

1.  Dan Charles, Jocelyn Kaiser, Eli Kintisch, Erik Stokstad, “The 2010 Budget: Navigating Treacherous Waters,” Science, 15 May 2009: Vol. 324. no. 5929, pp. 864-866, DOI: 10.1126/science.324_864b.
2.  Louis E. Thompson, letters to the Editor, “Politics Still in Play,” Science, 15 May 2009: Vol. 324. no. 5929, p. 880, DOI: 10.1126/science.324_880a.
3.  Bhattacharya et al, “Public Health: The Cholera Crisis in Africa,” Science, 15 May 2009: Vol. 324. no. 5929, p. 885, DOI: 10.1126/science.1173890.

Though there are blessed exceptions among many individual hard-working scientists who try to remain unbiased, we need to recognize that the scientific institutions are partisan political activists, just like labor unions.  Money, the mother’s milk of politics, has corrupted their objectivity.  Want to stop cholera and hunger?  Spread democracy and Judeo-Christian moral values.  Support Christian organizations like World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse that dig wells and teach indigenous peoples about clean water and productive farming techniques.  Influence leaders of democratic countries to oust the evil dictators like Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong Il, who live in ridiculous opulence while reducing their people to starvation and disease, and their otherwise-productive land and people to ruin and despair.

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Categories: Politics and Ethics

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