Science and Politics

Friday, 9th December 2016

From Dec. 9, 2016

Well, I think it’s safe to say that I disagreed with pretty much everything in this article, but the reason for posting it is that it is at least an argument. The argument is that the real group that is opposed to science is the left. Now, I think the categories of Left and Right obscure more than they illuminate, and this article trades on those obscurities. The left is treated as a monolith, and so the only “diversity” in science that the writer cares about, and the one he thinks is missing, are voices from the right. He argues that the left is more interested in character assassination than real science. He argues that the real politicization of science lies on the left, and the right is pursuing disinterested research by considering all the options rather than ruling some out of court in advance because they are not “politically correct” (a phrase I have always hated, and which, to his credit, he doesn’t actually use, but which nevertheless hovers over the essay).

I think every one of his points can be addressed. Is the “left”‘s record in science perfect? Of course not (depending, again, on how we’re defining the “left”, which remains a very fuzzy category, as does, for that matter, the “right”). We could adopt the favorite tactic of some on the right – we could say “but the right is worse!!!”. But that doesn’t get us anywhere. I think the more interesting thing here is, in fact, not scientific at all but philosophical. There is a model of science being assumed in this essay that seems, to put it mildly, outdated, in an age of complexity theory, cybernetics, and so forth. The models are not as simple and straightforward as this writer seems to think they ideally should be.

The essay ends as follows: “To preserve their integrity, scientists should avoid politics and embrace the skeptical rigor that their profession requires. They need to start welcoming conservatives and others who will spot their biases and violate their taboos. Making these changes won’t be easy, but the first step is simple: stop pretending that the threats to science are coming from the Right. Look in the other direction—or in the mirror.”

Many problems here. Can scientists “avoid politics”? Really? Is it really the case that the left infuses science with politics whereas the right conducts disinterested research? Really? And, will conservatives really be the ones to spot biases and taboos? Can they spot their own biases and taboos? Of course not.

Science is hard. It’s hard to do well. There are checks and balances, but they don’t lie in politicizing science the way that this writer wants to do, by positioning conservatives as the true rational voices and the left as political and as having agendas. That’s so obviously self-serving it’s hard to take seriously. There are better ways – interdisciplinarity, for instance, the real kind, not the kind that administrators promote, is one way. The limits on scientific imagination do not come so much from political constraints and agendas as the inability to think past the models that have worked well in the past. There would be other ways. None of them would involve the politicization that this writer wants to engage in, the framing of the left as essentially agenda-driven while the right is essentially reason-driven. That’s a framing no one should fall for.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *