September 28, 2004
It is Not About Science
Last week’s Science magazine contains an essay by David Baltimore, president of Cal Tech, titled “Science and the Bush Administration” (subscription required). In the essay Baltimore writes that the recent attention being paid to the misuse of science has had some positive benefits: “…it looks as though the criticism from individual scientists and from the UCS has been influential in causing the administration to be more honest about the underlying science. We should welcome this new posture.”
But Baltimore expresses frustration that even with the apparent improvement in the use of science: “Nevertheless, although the realities of the science may be better accepted, the policy implications are still being ignored. Our goal now should be to have the policies track the science.”
Baltimore’s statement reflects the view that certain political outcomes are compelled by specific scientific findings. But, believe it or not, among the issues that Baltimore expresses concern about – AIDS, climate change, stem cells – current controversies are really about politics and not about science. Baltimore appears to come very close to recognizing this very point when he writes:
“…a new pattern of behavior by the administration is becoming clear. The sequence is as follows: A government position is taken on a matter of scientific importance; policy directions are announced and scientific justifications for those policies are offered; strong objections from scientists follow; the scientific rationale is then abandoned or changed, but the policies based on that science remain, stuck in the same place… In these [three] cases, either religious conservatism or economically based political caution has played a determining role in administration policy.”
These dynamics are well understood. The questions of what to do about AIDS, climate change, and stem cells are political issues that involve considerations of science, and not scientific issues in which politics has intruded. Baltimore may not share the Bush Administration’s predisposition toward religious conservatism or economic precaution, but that does not render these perspectives illegitimate. Politics is about reconciling different perspectives through bargaining, negotiation, and compromise.
As I wrote here a while back on the issue of climate change, “In the end, those pressing the Bush Administration to admit the science of climate change may very well achieve this goal, but they will likely find it to be an empty victory as the Bush Administration can very easily admit the science and then justify its actions on a range of legitimate, non-scientific factors.”
And as Dan Sarewitz wrote on the pages of Newsday earlier this year, “the real problem is the illusion that these controversies can and should be resolved scientifically, and by scientists… the problem with these attacks on the Bush administration is that they hide behind the sanctity of science to advance an agenda that is itself political… But neither the Bush administration nor its scientific critics want to give up on the pretense that these controversies are about science. To do so would be to abandon the high ground created when one can claim to have ‘the facts’ on one's side. The resulting charade, where everyone pretends that science can save us from politics, undermines science by turning it into nothing more than ammunition for opposing ideologies.”
While focusing attention on (and precisely defining) the misuse of science is certainly worth attention, to keep suggesting that science dictates certain political outcomes can only serve to further politicize the scientific enterprise in ways that fosters the very policy gridlock and irrelevance of science that people like Baltimore say they wish to avoid.