Human Exceptionalism

“Politics in the Guise of Pure Science “

I have been warning for some time that ideological advocacy often masks as objective scientific reporting–both in the media and the journals–allowing political activists to promote various agendas by bootstrapping their views to the widespread respect society has for the scientific process. Now a much bigger fish than SHS has expressed the same concern. John Tierney, science columnist for the New York Times (of all places, since some of its stories are classics in conflating politics/ideology and science) ponders the problem, riffing off of a book by Roger Pielke Jr. called The Honest Broker. From Tierney’s column:

Most researchers, Dr. Pielke writes, like to think of themselves in one of two roles: as a pure researcher who remains aloof from messy politics, or an impartial arbiter offering expert answers to politicians’ questions. Either way, they believe their research can point the way to correct public policies, and sometimes it does–when the science is clear and people’s values aren’t in conflict… But too often, Dr. Pielke says, they pose as impartial experts pointing politicians to the only option that makes scientific sense. To bolster their case, they’re prone to exaggerate their expertise (like enumerating the catastrophes that would occur if their policies aren’t adopted), while denigrating their political opponents as “unqualified” or “unscientific.”

I am afraid this phenomenon reflects the toxic cultural times in which we live. Science, like everything else in society is going show business–by which I mean it is driven to a fairly large degree by the desire for money, hope for fame, and ideological stridency. The field increasingly reminds me of the cruel social pecking order we often see develop among high school kids, in which the cool or hep students–to use the terminology of my time–have all the fun while the nerds find themselves socially rejected, or even, targeted for bullying. Indeed, scientists who dare to challenge the “in” view about publicly provocative issues are often viciously attacked and even driven from their careers–as I have certainly witnessed happen to more than one friend because they took the anti-cloning/ESCR view in the stem cell debates.

Tierney mentions a different example of trying to shoot the messenger of unpopular views from Pielke’s book. Several years ago, the John P. Holdren, now President Obama’s science adviser, pulled a Torquemada when Bjorn Lomborg became an apostate to the Science Establishment’s ideological view about the environment:

Dr. Holdren called it his “scientific duty” to expose the “complete incompetence” of the book’s author, Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish political scientist. Dr. Holdren was one of the authors of an extraordinary 11-page attack on the book that ran in Scientific American under the headline, “Science defends itself against ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist'”–as if “science” spoke with one voice. After reviewing the criticisms, Dr. Pielke concludes that a more accurate headline would have been, “Our political perspective defends itself against the political agenda of ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist.'”

I think Tierney completely understates McCarthyite atmosphere that stifles free thinking and intellectual freedom within the scientific community. But good on him and Dr. Pielke for noticing that science is being corrupted by politics and ideology. It is one thing for an outsider to sound the alarm. But when a respected voices from the choir loft speak up, perhaps “the scientists” will find the courage and humility to change.

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