Science and politics

by Judith Curry

“I’m reaching out to scientists this week about the election. How do you feel about it? Which of the candidates has the best plan, for you, in science and technology?”

The above question was emailed to me today by a reporter.

My response:

I am not happy with either the Democratic or Republican plans for science in the U.S.  Both sides seem to want to use and misuse science as a club to further their political agendas.  The Republicans seem to prefer to ignore science, while the Democrats cherry pick science to further their political agendas.

Here is the long response,some text from something that I’m working on:

Dutch regulatory lawyer Lucas Bergkamp summarizes the challenge in this way. Science has become an instrument used by politicians and agencies to arm themselves with powerful arguments in complex value-laden debates. Scientists have let the politicians hijack the scientific enterprise. Both policy makers and scientists exploit scientific uncertainty to avoid debate on the relation between science and politics, facts and values. Armed with science, politicians are able to avoid accountability for decisions. Serious debate is avoided because politicized science has purged doubt and skepticism. Activist climate science makes use of a series of strategies and tactics to influence public opinion and politics. Bergkamp concludes that climate science itself has come under siege.

Scientization of policy is a response to intractable political conflicts that transforms the political issues into scientific ones. The rationale for scientization is the belief that science can act as a neutral arbiter of policy — if we could only determine the facts of a matter, the appropriate course of action would become clear. The problem is that science is neither neutral nor capable of answering political questions. The answers that science gives depend on what questions are asked, which inevitably involves value judgments. Science is not designed to answer questions about how the world ought to be, which is the work of politics.

Policy makers are culpable in the misuse of science for policy making by:

  • regarding science as a vehicle to avoid ‘hot potato’ policy issues
  • expecting black-and-white answers to complex problems
  • demanding scientific arguments for their desired policies
  • using scientific facts as a substitute for matters of public concern.

Scientists are culpable in the misuse of science for policy making by:

  • naivete about expecting scientific evidence to drive policy
  • conflating evidence with expert judgment
  • playing power politics with their expertise
  • combining expert knowledge with values that entangle disputed facts with identity-defining group commitments.

In political debates, ‘I believe in science’ is a statement generally made by people who don’t understand much about it. They use such statements about science as a way of declaring belief in scientific proposition that is outside their knowledge and understanding. The belief of such individuals in climate change is often more akin to believing in Santa Claus than relating to actual understanding of science.

In the context of the climate change, ‘I believe in science’ uses the overall reputation of science to give authority to the climate change ‘consensus’, shielding it from questioning and skepticism. ‘I believe in science’ is a signifier of social group identity that supports massive government legislation to limit or ban fossil fuels. ‘Belief in science’ makes it appear that disagreement on this solution is equivalent to a rejection of the scientific method and worldview. When exposed to science that challenges their political biases, these same ‘believers’ are quick to claim ‘pseudo-science,’ without considering (or even understanding) the actual evidence or arguments.

On the other side of the climate debate, calls for ‘sound science’ are made that weaponize uncertainty and rigor to make it more difficult to use science in regulatory decision making. Individuals promoting ‘sound science’ work to amplify uncertainty, create doubt and undermine scientific discoveries that threaten their interests. The ‘sound science’ tactic exploits a fundamental feature of the scientific process: science does not produce absolute certainty but is provisional and subject to change in the face of new evidence.

Encroachment of values into science is unavoidable. Problems arise when:

  • Driven by external pressures or for their own political purposes, scientists ignore data and research paths that would make their political point weaker or undermine their ideological perspective.
  • Politicians interfere with the activities of science
  • Narrow framing of the scientific problem by policy makers, whereby government funding draws the efforts of scientists towards a narrow range of projects that supports preferred policies.
  • Politicians, advocacy groups, journalists and even scientists attempt to intimidate or otherwise silence scientists whose research is judged to interfere with their policy preferences.

The war on science is being fought on two fronts: politicians ignoring science; and using bad science to justify a political agenda.

In 2005, science journalist Chris Mooney published a best-selling book, The Republican War on Science, which examines the politics of science policy in the U.S. The book focuses on the behavior of the U.S. Republican party, particularly the administration of President George W. Bush. The book argues that the Bush administration regularly distorted and/or suppressed scientific research to further its own political aims.

Science journalist John Tierney provides a different perspective from Mooney’s, again with reference to U.S. politics. He correctly states that both sides cherry-pick research and misrepresent evidence to support their agendas, and that stupidity and dishonesty are bipartisan. He also argues that Conservatives just don’t have that much impact on science, asking “where are the victims?”

Tierney regards the real dangers to science to come from the political Left. The first threat from the Left is confirmation bias, since academics have traditionally leaned left politically. The second threat from the Left is its long tradition of mixing science and politics. Leftists have much more confidence in experts and the state, leading to temptations to politicize science. By contrast, Conservatives are concerned by what Friedrich Hayek called the ‘fatal conceit:’ the delusion that experts are wise enough to redesign society. Conservatives distrust central planners, preferring to protect individuals’ natural rights.

Posted on October 26, 2020 by curryja | Leave a comment

by Judith Curry

via Climate Etc.