Science Is Partisan, Like It Or Not

Science Is Partisan, Like It Or Not February 6, 2017


I’ve written about the March for Science already, but there’s another critique I wanted to address. This one is from a surprising source: Robert Young, a geologist and one of the authors of the famous North Carolina report that predicted rising sea levels from global warming, to which the Republican legislature responded by passing a law banning state agencies from taking these facts into account.

You’d think someone in his position would be the ideal person to speak out against politicized repression of science. And yet:

Talk is growing about a March for Science on Washington, similar to the Women’s March the day after President Trump’s inauguration. It is a terrible idea.

….[T]rying to recreate the pointedly political Women’s March will serve only to reinforce the narrative from skeptical conservatives that scientists are an interest group and politicize their data, research and findings for their own ends.

Note that he says “reinforce”, which is the only place in this essay he comes close to acknowledging something that most of us would find obvious: the culture war he fears is already happening, and scientists didn’t start it.

What we’re seeing in America today is the culmination of a long project by right-wingers to undermine the authority of science whenever it says something that’s inconvenient to religious or business interests. The assault has been going on for decades along multiple fronts: trying to ban evolution from schools or water it down with creationist pseudoscience; spreading misinformation about vaccines, birth control and abortion; fighting laws that protect endangered species or habitat; teaching historical facts that complicate a whitewashed national mythology; or conveying accurate information about the danger of climate change.

In all these areas and others, American conservatives have long sought to demonize science as a tool of a liberal agenda, rather than a source of objective truth that should be listened to whatever your political inclinations. They treat science as just one opinion among many and hold that scientific advice can and should be ignored whenever it conflicts with something the reigning party wants to do. (There’s liberal resistance to science as well, but it’s safe to say that it doesn’t form the backbone of the progressive political agenda the way it currently does with American conservatives.)

Why wouldn’t scientists want to organize and march, in the face of this unprecedented threat to their livelihoods and the advance of human knowledge? Young’s answer, basically, is that it might make people mad:

A march by scientists, while well intentioned, will serve only to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about, turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars and further drive the wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate.

Disappointingly, after flirting with acknowledging what’s really happening, he forgets about that and goes on to write as if he’s from an alternate universe where none of these political assaults ever took place. Scientists won’t be “turned into” another group caught up in the culture wars, nor will their protesting “politicize” science – because, like it or not, both of those things have already happened. The time to say you don’t want to start a fight isn’t when you’re already crouched behind the battlements with cannonballs whizzing over your head.

The only question now is how we respond. Will we stand up for science? Will we defend its authority against these attacks and treat it as a means of knowing that deserves to be heeded? Will we make the case that there’s an objective reality that can’t be ignored or denied? Or will we stand by and watch as extremists smear and disparage science and insist they can govern just fine using “alternative facts”?

Al Gore, bless his heart (as we say in the South), was well intentioned when he made “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006. But he did us no favors. So many of the conservative Southerners whom I speak to about climate change see it as a partisan issue largely because of that high-profile salvo fired by the former vice president.

Again, what goes unremarked-upon and unexamined is the bizarre idea, implicit in Young’s argument, that if a liberal says the science shows one thing, conservatives are obligated to disbelieve him!

Why did Gore’s climate-change documentary draw a hostile, partisan response? Why didn’t conservatives say, “Well, I may disagree with his political views, but the evidence of this problem is overwhelming, so I guess we’ll have to work together on solving it”? And what then are liberals supposed to do – never speak out about policy issues that relate to science in any way?

Here’s Young’s answer to that last question:

Rather than marching on Washington and in other locations around the country, I suggest that my fellow scientists march into local civic groups, churches, schools, county fairs and, privately, into the offices of elected officials. Make contact with that part of America that doesn’t know any scientists. Put a face on the debate. Help them understand what we do, and how we do it.

What he doesn’t explain is why he thinks this 1-on-1 strategy will be better received than a mass march. Why won’t it lead to the same degree of conservative rejection and disbelief?

There’s one answer that seems likely: A march implies an organized effort to influence policy – which means that scientists only seem non-threatening when conservatives don’t think they’re trying to make public policy based on science. When scientists share their knowledge in private conversations, if it’s less threatening, it’s precisely because you can listen to them or dismiss them as you see fit.

But coddling the ignorant, waiting patiently for them to come around, is a luxury we no longer have. The stakes are too high, the time is too short, and the consequences of a non-science-based public policy would be disastrous. That’s why it’s encouraging to see evidence that many more scientists are rejecting this quietist approach:

A political action committee that seeks to get more scientists and engineers to run for elective office, 314 Action, has seen a surge of interest in its programs, with more than 2,000 people registering at its website. The group is planning a training program for scientist-candidates, whether they want to run for local or state offices or Congress.

I wish an event as dire as the election of Donald Trump wasn’t what it took to galvanize the scientific community into action, but I’m glad to see it, nevertheless. I don’t expect we’ll have a majority of scientists in Congress any time soon – but you’ve got to admit, it would be a sight worth holding out for.

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