30 June 2009

The Rightful Place of Science? Within the Bosom of the Democratic Party

In the current Issues in Science and Technology Dan Sarewitz has an essay titled "The Rightful Place of Science" available here in PDF. Dan is a brilliant writer and a creative genius. It is amazing that he is not a major columnist for a leading newspaper or magazine.

Here are a few excerpts from his excellent piece on science and politics in the Obama era:

On Obama's stem cell policies:
. . .there is nothing at all anti-science about restricting the pursuit of scientific knowledge on the basis of moral concerns. Societies do this all the time; for example, with strict rules on human subjects research. The Bush and Obama policies differ only as a matter of degree; they are fundamentally similar in that neither one cedes moral authority to science and scientists. When it comes to embryonic stem cells, the “rightful place of science” remains a place that is located, debated, and governed through democratic political processes.
On Obama's decision to terminate Yucca Mountain's site characterization:
All of the major Democratic presidential candidates, seeking an edge in the 2008 election, opposed the site; shutting it down was one of Barack Obama’s campaign promises, which he fulfilled by cutting support for the program in the fiscal year 2010 budget, an action accompanied by no fanfare and no public announcement.

At this point it is tempting to write: “It’s hard to imagine a case where politics trumped science more decisively than in the case of Yucca Mountain, where 20 years of research were traded for five electoral votes and the support of a powerful senator,” which seems basically correct, but taken out of context it could be viewed as a criticism of President Obama, which it is not. But the point I want to make is only slightly more subtle: Faced with a complex amalgam of scientific and political factors, President Obama chose shortterm political gain over longer-term scientific assessment, and so decided to put an end to research aimed at characterizing the Yucca Mountain site. This decision can easily be portrayed in the same type of language that was used to attack President Bush’s politicization of science.
On science as a political carrot:
When President Obama was urgently seeking to push his economic stimulus package through Congress in the early days of his administration, he needed the support of several Republican senators to guard against Republican filibuster and to bolster the claim that the stimulus bill was bipartisan. Senator Arlen Specter, who suffers from Hodgkin’s disease, agreed to back the stimulus package on the condition that it includes $10 billion in additional funding for NIH. For this price a vote was bought and a filibuster-proof majority was achieved.

Now there is nothing at all wrong with making political deals like this; good politics is all about making deals. What’s interesting in this case is the pivotal political importance of a senator’s support for science. If Senator Specter (who, perhaps coincidentally, underwent a party conversion several months later) had asked for $10 billion for a new weapons system or for abstinence-only counseling programs, would his demand have been met?
Bottom line:
And so perhaps we have now discovered the rightful place of science: not on a pedestal, not impossibly insulated from politics and disputes about morality, but nestled within the bosom of the Democratic Party. Is this a good place for science to be? For the short term, increased budgets and increased influence for the scientific-technological elite will surely be good for the scientific enterprise itself. Serious attention to global environmental threats, to national energy security, to the complex difficulties of fostering technological innovation whose economic outcomes are not largely captured by the wealthy, are salutary priorities of the Obama administration and welcome correctives to the priorities of his predecessor.

But ownership of a powerful symbol can give rise to demagoguery and self-delusion. President Bush overplayed the national defense card in pursuit of an ideological vision that backfired with terrible consequences in Iraq. In turn, a scientific-technological elite unchecked by healthy skepticism and political pluralism may well indulge in its own excesses. Cults of expertise helped bring us the Vietnam War and the current economic meltdown. Uncritical belief in and promotion of the redemptive power of scientific and technological advance is implicated in some of the most difficult challenges facing humans today. In science, Democrats appear to have discovered a surprisingly potent political weapon. Let us hope they wield it with wisdom and humility.
Do read the whole thing.


  1. "President Bush overplayed the national defense card in pursuit of an ideological vision that backfired with terrible consequences in Iraq."

    Terrible consequences? Yeah, it really sucks that the Iraqi people have been freed from a vicious dictator, that a democracy has emerged on Iran's border to inspire the Iranian people, that one of the world's chief sponsors of terrorism has been removed, and the nuclear weapons program Saddam exported to Libya has been dismantled. How terrible.

    While he is certainly correct to point out that Democrats are full of it when they claim their policy preferences are based on science, it would appear that Sarewitz has his own issues with "uncritical belief".

  2. I agree essentially with Stan. One of the more salutary results of the Iraq war was Libya's 2003 disgorgement of nuclear weapons-related material including centrifuges acquired from Pakistan's AQ Khan's nuclear "black market" (see "Nuclear Jihadist" by Frantz and Collins). I believe that war also pushed Libya to settle the Lockerbie incident, and allowed the US more influence over Pakistan's house arrest of Khan and efforts against the Taliban and Al Queda.

    I further suggest that rather than being "within the bosom", science is more at the nipple of the public fisc - the charge of Democrats who with a complacent reporting media have no qualms about the burying of a certain EPA report or the last minute adding of hundreds of pages of law to the "Cap & Trade" bill. Eisenhower's fear of public policy being captive of a scientific-technological elite, I believe, is becoming more of a reality.

  3. More and more commentators are pointing out that Obama's method is generally to accept almost any compromise in the goal of getting something past. The idea that the results of Congressional sausage-making might in some cases be worse than getting nothing has not yet at least been something Obama recognizes.

    Obama uses his popularity and prestige to get an issue on the table, and to pull special interests to that table rather than have them be against change altogether. But he has clearly sent the message out that he will compromise as much as necessary to get his votes.

    As such we are likely to get a raft of reforms that are each a complex mishmash, and only time will tell if they help or hurt the causes that motivated them at first. Many people claim to be absolutely certain of the long-term impacts, but I think that climate models are far more reliable than their prognostications. For better or worse (and probably some of each), we will be discovering these impacts for years to come.

  4. "President Bush overplayed the national defense card in pursuit of an ideological vision that backfired with terrible consequences in Iraq."

    I see Stan has already commented on this statement. Before I comment, I want to say that I didn't vote for Bush (either time) and didn't support the military invasion of Iraq. (I instead supported paying the Iraqi military--below the rank of general--to depose Saddam and his sons, and to set up a democracy, with the the help of the U.S. military.)

    Let's try to look objectively at what has happened in Iraq:

    Is it not probable (i.e., >50% chance) that Saddam and his sons would have been in power at least for two more decades (i.e., to at least 2023) if the U.S., U.K., and allies had not removed him?

    Would Iraq and the rest of the world be a better place if Saddam Hussein and his sons were still in power, and remained in power to at least 2023?

    These are not rhetorical questions. In fact, it would be interesting to get Dan Sarewitz's answers to both of them.

  5. I agree that the way "Science" is used in the "righful place" discussion is reifying disparate things.. wolves, stem cells,research funds.. and a framing that is not useful for productive public discourse but ideal for "we are better than they are" political discussions.

    Going back to the science thing..I see this happening already with climate change research. There are large sums of money which go to large organizations who hire lots of scientist, who agitate for more money because (in the world I work in) "people managing resources need this information."

    Twice in the last month I have been in meetings and on conference calls where people who work with wildlife, fish or plants at the local level have passionately argued for a bottom up approach
    "Climate researchers, tell us generally what your models show; we will work from that information as local collaborative groups and with what we have observed in the real world as changes, and develop our own place-based mechanisms of adaptation."

    Anyway, my view is that Dan is right to worry; an aggressive lack of self-awareness by any group, including the Science Establishment is never a good thing.

  6. Just when will some people realize that the main question for anti-war protestors was never about whether Saddam should be deposed, it was about how many innocent civilians would have to die to achieve this feat. But of course the Bush administration cared nothing about that and neither do any other conservatives who profess to be liberators, however much they like to pretend otherwise. For the Bush administration it was about controlling Iraq's oil and protecting Israel. The sober, sensible world at least acknowledges this fact.

    The only justifiable reason to be pro-war in Iraq was to put an end to those Clinton administration sanctions which were killing more people that even the subsequent Bush administration war has. So neither side is any kind of moral winner here and the Iraqis remain big losers - still without the basic facilities they had under even Saddam's regime, having suffered massive losses and still suffering from an ongoing civil war. As Mark notes, it would have been so much better to use simple bribery.

    Mind you, it would have been a lot smarter for the USA not to have supported Saddam's rise to power in the first place - or indeed the regime of the Shah of Iran. But then that's blowback for you. These are the misplaced ideologies Sarewitz is alluding to - rather deeper than some people manage to scape up. Sometimes there are just no good answers to overly-simplistic questions.

  7. I find this so completely bizarre. Maybe you have to be a member of the "political class" to comprehend what is being said here.

    The author seems to be referring to something called Science, clearly a proper noun. As it would need to be to have a "place".

    WhHat I fear is that people now hold "science" to mean "indisputable facts", something that has got us into a right mess in climate science, rather than a "perpetual competition of ideas and beliefs".

  8. I know this is in the worst possible taste under webiquette, but this blog has led me to overturn one of my prior beliefs; the "scientific consensus" is a contradiction in term.


  9. jgedes,

    I'll ignore your vicious slanders and simply say that your lack of understanding of the facts is exceeded only by your failure to employ basic logic.