May 13, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Should Scientists Take Sides as Political Activists?

“Scientists’ turn to win votes” announced a Nature editorial today.  The science journal argued it’s no time to bemoan the loss of “science-savvy politicians,” but rather time to “make new friends” in the political arena.  “Other scientific societies should rally their memberships to get the word out to new parliamentarians about the value of science.”  Nature was not cryptic about which side it is on.  It mentioned a Liberal party member as “the most articulate voice during the election for science and its importance in policy-making,” but repeatedly chided members of the Conservative party: “Since the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher imposed savage cuts to research in the 1980s, most academic scientists have shied away from the Conservative Party,” the article said, only to follow it up with this patronizing statement: “Unlike Thatcher’s party, the Conservatives of today have made supportive noises about science – even if most members lack a strong understanding of scientific issues.”
    That editorial was primarily about UK politics.  The next editorial, however, dabbled in the American political scene.  “The University of Virginia should fight a witch-hunt by the state’s attorney general,” demanded the editors of Nature.  They are upset that Kenneth Cuccinelli, a “firebrand conservative” elected attorney general of Virginia, is investigating grant money going to Michael Mann, whose “hockey-stick” graph was the centerpiece of the Climategate controversy last year.  The journal’s editors are demanding that the university fight a subpoena issued by the attorney general on the grounds of “academic freedom” – without stopping to ask if academic freedom means use of tax dollars without accountability.  Regardless, the editors thought they would paint the attorney general in the worst possible light by associating him with people whom they assumed their readers would regard as distasteful: “Certainly Cuccinelli has lost no time in burnishing his credentials with far-right ‘Tea Party’ activists, many of whom hail him as a hero.”
    In New Scientist, Michael Brooks argued that it is “time for scientists to go into politics.”  He is running for election in the UK in the Science Party, a political party he founded last month “to highlight the importance of science to the UK economy and science’s lack of representation in Parliament.”  The Science Party wants members of Parliament “to understand scientific issues such as climate change, genetic engineering, finding ways to meet our energy needs and improve our nation’s health,” according to their website.  “We also believe that the UK cannot afford to cut funding for scientific research.”
    Brooks takes issue with Martin Rees (05/02/2010), head of the Royal Society, who believes the role of science is merely to advise and inform government, not make policy.  Brooks, who is angry that politicians often ditch scientific advice when they feel it is inconvenient, feels government needs to feel the authority of science.  This includes issues such as climate change, he pointed out.  “Sometimes scientists have to be willing to stand up to those who would seek to subjugate or sideline science,” he said.  “Often the only people well enough informed to understand the consequences of not taking scientific advice seriously are the scientists themselves.”
    Speaking of climate change, a huge number of climate scientists wrote a letter to the editor of Science last week, disturbed about the bad rap they have gotten in the media since the Climategate scandal.  Rather than express any remorse, however, they stood their ground that global warming is a fact requiring humans to take political action to avert catastrophe.  They compared it to other scientific “facts” including Darwinian evolution:

Scientific conclusions derive from an understanding of basic laws supported by laboratory experiments, observations of nature, and mathematical and computer modeling.  Like all human beings, scientists make mistakes, but the scientific process is designed to find and correct them.  This process is inherently adversarial—scientists build reputations and gain recognition not only for supporting conventional wisdom, but even more so for demonstrating that the scientific consensus is wrong and that there is a better explanation.  That’s what Galileo, Pasteur, Darwin, and Einstein did.  But when some conclusions have been thoroughly and deeply tested, questioned, and examined, they gain the status of “well-established theories” and are often spoken of as “facts.”
    For instance, there is compelling scientific evidence that our planet is about 4.5 billion years old (the theory of the origin of Earth), that our universe was born from a single event about 14 billion years ago (the Big Bang theory), and that today’s organisms evolved from ones living in the past (the theory of evolution).  Even as these are overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, fame still awaits anyone who could show these theories to be wrong.  Climate change now falls into this category: There is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend.

The implication is that if you can trust scientists on evolution, you should trust them on global warming.  While the scientists were careful to avoid claiming science can provide certainty, they implied that science can provide adequate knowledge to assure public trust and demand political action.
    Sheila Jasanoff of Harvard, however, writing in the same issue of Science last week,1 had a more nuanced view of the complexities of the science, the politics, and the communication of data from scientists to government and the public.  Here are just some of the issues that make scientific confidence much more complex than in the 17th century scientific revolution:

In earlier times, it was enough to build trust within a researcher’s community of scientific peers.  Disciplines were small and methodologically coherent.  Research neither drew heavily on public funds nor profoundly affected public decisions.  Today, the circle of stakeholders in science has grown incomparably larger.  Much public money is invested in science and, as science becomes more enmeshed with policy, significant economic and social consequences hang on getting the science right.  Correspondingly, interest in the validity of scientific claims has expanded to substantially wider audiences.  It is not only the technical integrity of science that matters today but also its public accountability.

Issues of scientific ethics, integrity and accountability have also risen to the forefront.  These were accentuated by the Climategate scandal.  “It is no longer enough to establish what counts as good science,” she said; “it is equally important to address what science is good for and whom it benefits.
    The complexity of the scientific relationship with government can be seen as a three-body problem, she said: the individual scientist, the body of scientific knowledge, and committees that transmit that knowledge.  Just as with three-body problems in physics, outcomes of the interactions of these entities are not always predictable:

Standards of individual good behavior are especially difficult to identify and enforce in evolving scientific domains with under-developed histories of accounting to external audiences.  Divergent national traditions of openness and confidentiality present additional hurdles for climate scientists, who are involved in international, as well as interdisciplinary, consensus-building.  As the UK inquiry on the hacked CRU e-mails revealed, some data relied on by climate scientists had been obtained from national governments under nondisclosure agreements.  The parliamentary committee conducted, in effect, a process of post hoc standard-setting when it concluded that the climate science community should have followed more open practices of publication and disclosure.

While scientists may point to a growing consensus of so many scientists after many rounds of assessment as a measure of reliability, other conclusions are possible, she said: “At the same time, the very fact that judgment has been integrated across many fields leaves climate science vulnerable to charges of groupthink and inappropriate concealment of uncertainties.”  Then there was the IPCC setting its own rules, with no governmental oversight or accountability.  Sure, there was peer review, it could be argued.  “These methods are good enough to satisfy many scientists, but they rest on traditions of scientific, rather than public, accountability,” Jasanoff said.  “Yet the IPCC performs a mix of functions—part scientific assessment, part policy advice, and part diplomacy—that demand external, as well as internal, accountability.”  The missing component of accountability is not between scientists, but “relations between science and its publics.”
    The relationship of trust between the science community and the public was shaken by Climategate.  Science cannot simply validate itself with assertions.  “Administrative procedures mostly operate within nation states, and there is no higher court where science can account for itself to the world.”  Presumably that truism would hold even with a world government.


1.  Sheila Jasanoff, “Science and Society: Testing Time for Climate Science,” Science, 7 May 2010: Vol. 328. no. 5979, pp. 695-696, DOI: 10.1126/science.1189420.

Each scientist has a vote, like any other citizen.  Do they want something more?  Each scientist can take part in their political party, and try to influence their neighbors.  What more are they asking for?  Would they be happy with some kind of scientific oligarchy, like a panel of wizards advising the king?  Heaven forbid.  Like Jasanoff said, there is no higher court where science can account for itself to the world.  Science must be accountable to the people.
    Once again we see the fine word “science” being applied to a mixing pot of good, bad, and ugly.  Not all science is created equal.  Not all science deserves public funding, public support, or public respect.  Some of it deserves to be publicly shunned and criticized.  Consider:

  1. Not all sciences are epistemically equal (compare “political science” with particle physics).
  2. Not all sciences are methodologically equal (compare taxonomy with quantum mechanics).
  3. Not all sciences are capable of equal degrees of confirmation (compare origin sciences with electromagnetics).
  4. Not all sciences are practically equal, especially for governments (compare ballistics and space technology, which have potential defensive applications, with elusive searches for cosmic strings, dark matter, SETI, or some “last universal common ancestor”).
  5. Not all pure sciences generate equal national prestige.  Think of an outer planet mission like Cassini, which has generated international cooperation, stimulated millions of students to become interested in science and engineering, made people around the world stand in awe of its amazing pictures, and has given its member nations pride and prestige in science.  Compare that with futile attempts to discover speciation among lizards in the Bahamas (PhysOrg) or endless attempts to explain the evolution of altruism via game theory.

Those are just a few issues that bear on governmental and public support for science; see the 04/02/2010 commentary for 30 more.  We need to decouple “scientific institutions” and “professional scientists” from “science” per se.  If science is a search for truth about nature in an orderly, methodical, rational way, then we can all be scientists, and we all should be, to a certain measure.  Many great discoveries have been made by hobbyists and citizen scientists.  There’s something pure about that.  Of course, individuals cannot build Large Hadron Colliders and 10-meter optical interferometer telescopes on Mauna Kea; those kinds of science projects require huge collaborations and funds.  Much of science, perhaps most of it these days, requires advanced education and a full time commitment.  But like Jasanoff said, once scientists become professionalized and collaborative, they can be subject to groupthink, even if they follow ostensibly reliable methods like peer review and multiple rounds of assessment.  Don’t think scientists are beyond human nature.
    Whose science is it, anyway?  An argument can be made that professional scientists, who are forever banging their crutches on the public trough (as David Berlinski aptly put it), are the last ones who should be influencing public policy.  Governments of the people, by the people, and for the people should have the ultimate say in how their money is spent.  The public must, of course, be informed properly and have a sufficient level of scientific literacy to understand why a science project is worth funding (in representative democracy, this is handled by well-educated advisors of the executive branch).  But scientists have a responsibility of providing visible and tangible benefits to the public – not just demands on the grounds of their authority as scientists.
    That huge group of climate scientists harrumphed about the lack of respect they were getting from the public (and basically demanded they get it, and demanded the government take their policy advice seriously).  They claimed global warming is a fact that cannot be denied, despite the scandals.  Consider for a moment this notion of “global temperature” on which so much of their consensus rests.  There is no such thing!  The globe does not have a temperature.  Individual points on the globe do, at least moment by moment, but temperature is a dynamic and localized quantity.  It’s a hundred below at the poles at the same time it’s a hundred above in the desert.  There is no way to come up with a measure of “global temperature” that is not a function of (1) the instruments used to measure it and (2) the points and times selected where it is to be measured and (3) the statistical methods used to average the data and (4) the theory used to interpret the final number.  The answer is “theory-laden” as philosophers say.  So when climate scientists say that global temperature has increased 0.75 degree over the last century, what could that possibly mean?  It can mean whatever their political agenda wants it to mean.  In fact, in the same issue of Nature, Peter Stott and Peter Thorne basically admitted that temperature data collections are non-standardized, non-uniform, missing large chunks from big parts of the world, “or are otherwise not easily accessible – or for more complex financial or political reasons.”  See?  There are issues beyond just pure, unbiased science involved in something this complex and convoluted.  They said that there are only three institutions monitoring global temperature records, the records are in the hands of just a few people who are trying to get standards recognized.  That means, does it not, that records from early in the 20th century on which the conclusions that temperatures are rising cannot be relied upon.  Moreover, here’s what they said about their recommendations to improve things: “The concept we have outlined above has so far been developed by a few individuals at a single institution.”  Yet the global warming community talks like the science is so solid only an idiot could question it.
    We talked about this at length in the 10/05/2009 commentary, so we won’t belabor the point again here.  Suffice it to say the climate science consensus complainer corporation compared their “fact of global warming” to – guess what?  Darwin’s theory of evolution.  That tells you all you need to know.

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Categories: Politics and Ethics

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