Trust Me, I’m A Scientist

Scientific American published a fascinating article today in which they grade the four presidential candidates “on science” by crowdsourcing feedback on the candidates’ answers to twenty questions to their many bedoctorated readers. There is a lot to say here.

First, the results! They conclude that when it comes to “science,” the candidates can be ranked as follows: Hillary Clinton, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, Donald Trump. If you think that the readers of Scientific American would have compiled a different candidate hierarchy before reading their responses, I have a used car to sell you.

The point is not that the graders were reading their pre-existing political biases into their analysis of the candidates’ remarks on “science.” Rather, the point is that pretending that “science” is some area uniquely carved off from normal “politics,” where people with PhDs in biology can hold forth with unsoiled objectivity on the merits of the candidates’ points of view, is absurd.

As the scope of the questions — ranging from “innovation” to climate change to “the global economy” — suggests, there is not a single political question that can be discussed without reference to science and technology. And therefore it is impossible to talk about science and technology without also talking about the broader sociopolitical networks into which they have been assembled.

This is not a bad thing. Of course Scientific American posed questions that were inherently political: those are the questions people care about! The problem comes when the classification of certain questions as scientific masks the politics involved and restricts access to decision-making and debate.

Witness, for instance, Scientific American‘s dismissal of Jill Stein’s call for science policy that is “more responsive” to the “preferences and needs of average citizens.” They write that this “raises some concern because it could be a recipe for allowing anti-scientific beliefs to influence science policy.” The subtle tautology of this evaluation is remarkable: the scientists that Scientific American sets up as the ultimate authorities on questions of science policy conclude that scientists in fact ought to be the ultimate authorities on questions of science policy!

The article was thus logically fated from its conception to be, more than anything, an exercise in determining the candidates’ adherence to the liberal-technocratic paradigm for which “pro-science” often serves as shorthand (hence why one could have easily predicted how the candidates would ultimately rank without actually reading any of their answers).

So the democratization of science policy is rejected out of hand, even though it is wealthy, educated elites and not ordinary voters who are driving the Republican Party’s opposition to climate action. Stein’s preference for renewable energy over nuclear power is castigated by referencing “cost” and “political feasibility” even though these are highly debatable assertions. Comprehensive climate action will indeed be politically difficult. That is precisely why it is important for people who care about addressing climate change to admit that their agenda is a political project. We’ve tried to have science speak for itself on climate change. That strategy has unequivocally failed.

I’m voting for Clinton, not Jill Stein, even though my own views are far to the left of Clinton’s. I’m not afraid to admit that I am making a political choice, not simply voting the way “science” tells me I ought to. That kind of hatred of politics, that desire to wipe out messiness and disagreement in favor of someone speaking the authoritative truth, is what has actually driven many people to Stein, and, I think, to Donald Trump as well. I know firsthand that scientists wrestle with uncertainty, negotiation, strategy, and complexity more frequently than just about anyone. It is crucial for them to embrace those aspects of their experience in public.


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