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An intellectual journal called The New Atlantis has an excellent 10-year-record of working to “clarify the nation’s moral and political understanding of all areas of technology.” The Winter/Spring 2013 edition contains a must-read editorial titled “The Record of Our Scientist-in-Chief.”
That editorial is likely the most incisive and concise examination of the politicization of science in modern America you will read this year. The headline is taken from the obsequious title the director of the National Institutes of Health awarded Obama upon a recent introduction for yet another of the president’s endless campaign stops.
Obama tried to make a little joke about that unearned honorific, but The New Atlantis was not amused:
“Given my grades in physics, I’m not sure [I’m] deserving,” said the president — before going on to note that “I hold science in proper esteem, so maybe that gives me a little credit.” This was an echo of his inaugural promise to “restore science to its rightful place.” Four years into his administration, with another four years to go, we are now well positioned to revisit that promise — to reconsider its meaning and to see whether the scientist-in-chief has lived up to the pledge even on its own terms.
SPOILER ALERT: The New Atlantis explains how Obama hasn’t come close.
The editors note how “politicians, journalists, and academics regularly throw around the terms ‘pro-science’ and ‘anti-science’ to denigrate their opponents and to advance their own views.” The Heartland Institute knows a thing or two about that. According to the Economist magazine, Heartland is “the world’s most-prominent think tank tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change.”
Despite eight international conferences on climate change — featuring some of the most esteemed scientists in the world — and reams of research that question the hypothesis of catastrophic man-caused global warming, Heartland is regularly derided by some “politicians, journalists, and academics” as “anti-science.” The New Atlantis explains the corrosive effect such rhetoric.
This rhetoric is often effective because the American people hold science and scientists in great regard: for decades, surveys show, Americans have had more confidence in the leadership of the scientific and medical communities than in that of lawmakers, organized religion, the press, and most other institutions. So posing as a defender of science and attacking its supposed enemies is an easy way to score political points.
Funny how attacking scientists who follow data that counters a particular political agenda works to discourage them from presenting data that questions the “consensus.” Heartland provides a safe harbor for academics who follow the scientific method, but the attacks are real and 100 percent counter to that tradition. I always wonder what Richard Feynman would think of the state of science today.
Back to The New Atlantis piece, which laments that “the good standing of science is all too often abused by those who invoke its authority as a way to shut down policy debates.” Who is the leader of abusing that authority? You get three guesses, and the first two don’t count.
An examination of President Obama’s first four years in office shows that, unsurprisingly, his administration has followed the advice of science only insofar as it has supported or justified his political agenda.
And Obama’s agenda has been all about increasing government spending, and not necessarily on useful scientific endeavors.
For instance, at the April 2013 press conference announcing his proposed brain-mapping initiative, the president repeated a claim that he had made in his most recent State of the Union address: “every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar.”
Eh, not so much. As the editorial explains, Obama’s claim was based on a single study that even the journal Nature criticized for including the salaries of the researchers as benefits rather than costs. Never let it be said that science can shake Obama’s dedication to Keynesian economics.
The New Atlantis spends a few paragraphs breaking down Obama’s promotion of crony capitalism (Solyndra, et. al.) while noting that the “private sector spends twice as much on R&D as the federal government.” There’s also a good bit of critique of Obama’s waffling on the Keystone XL pipeline and his opposition to storing nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain. You should definitely read the whole thing. But let’s get to the end, points on this theme made well:
In spite of the claims made by our scientist-in-chief and his allies that they, unlike their conservative political opponents, hold science in the “proper esteem,” the politicization of science is in many ways a greater temptation for the left than for conservatives. The Obama administration’s simplistic equation of government-funded scientific research with innovation appeals to the left’s impulse for economic collectivism … And the conceit of putting science in its “rightful place” above politics, although drawing from many motivations, also neatly matches the progressive desire to shift the policy process away from democratic oversight and toward the centralized control of government agencies which can implement technocratic reforms.
Isn’t that convenient for the leftist mindset? Pretending to esteem “science” — which the public respects without giving it much thought — gives the left the “high ground” and shuts down all debate. That is exactly why Heartland, nearly alone among prominent think tanks, maintains it is vital to question the “consensus” and “settled science” when it comes to global warming. If you concede that man is causing a global catastrophe by uplifting the human condition via cheap energy and the advancement of technology, all you have left is negotiating a government-directed reduction of our standard of living and control over our economy and liberty.
The New Atlantis continues:
Science is a vital part of American democracy and rightly enjoys a special position of trust and, on questions about the natural world, of epistemic authority. But this authority is based in no small part on the perception that science is an objective, disinterested means of pursuing the truth. Elevating science to a position of political authority is bound to change that perception, and indeed to corrupt the scientific spirit of disinterested objectivity.
To put this in terms that the left will understand, there should be a “wall of separation” between science and state. To involve either in the other is to foster corruption of both. One last bit about Obama from the editorial, which makes the important distinction of how “the state” and our democratic political form are not one in the same:
At this halfway mark in his presidency, we continue to disagree with President Obama’s implication that restoring science to its “rightful place” means putting it above politics. Rather, preserving the rightful place of science means remembering that its indispensable contribution to the crafting of policy must be balanced by the contributions of ethics, culture, economics, religion, and other sources of wisdom, and that science, like the rest of society, must be governed democratically.
Amen. When Obama talks of putting science above “politics” he means putting it above criticism of the people into a place that the state can use to control the people. But “the people” must have a say, and “the people” include a lot of scientists that will discover data that is inconvenient for the aims of the state. It must always be so if science is to have any meaning.