Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Political Irrelevance of Science

Advocacy Prefers Belief to Reason

~ Scientists and their painstakingly supported conclusions are now routinely ignored on matters of public debate. Why? Don't they pursue truth with rigor and impartiality? Can't such evidence-driven inquiry provide objective guidance on best available science, best practice and thus best policy?

It can, but the assumption that politics seeks the best policy is manifestly wrong. Politicians need a rigorous and objective technique for formulating best policy like a fish needs a bicycle. It's a tool they neither need nor are able to use.

Arlo and Janice cartoon on science and politics

To deflect the worth of science and denigrate its value as a policy tool, the perception of science is distorted and twisted into one of 3 devalued views or models of what science is and what scientists do:
  1. The Ivory Tower. Scientists toil away (whether at universities or elsewhere) on esoteric and typically irrelevant investigations, seeking to resolve questions that few pose and on which fewer still care about the answer. The pursuit of such knowledge which many deem useless appears self-absorbed and inapplicable to real world concerns and problems.
  2. The Debating Society. Like two warring camps, scientists fight endlessly over arcane points that seem almost artificially constructed to be divorced from real world concerns. Like World War I trench warfare, the fight is brutal, hand-to-hand, and never results in a decisive victory by either side. While each side may score some points, the debate never ends.
  3. The Kumbayah Chorus. In this model all science is an effort at building a grand consensus by getting everyone together, airing all views and converging on some deeper and enduring truth. Scientists should be allowed, in this view, to continue to engage until agreement, even if, in the meantime, ice ages come and go, fish sprout limbs and black holes grow and dissipate.
It would be deeply depressing were we forced to decide amongst these three, as their single commonality is lack of relevance and practicality—under none of these scenarios is anything decided or anything useful actually accomplished. Fortunately, none of these caricatures is real.

The disconnect between science and policy-making comes from trying to mate two beasts that cannot produce fecund offspring under any circumstance because they're genetically incompatible.

While science is evidence-based, politics is advocacy-based. Using principles of evidence in politics would serve only to highlight motives, typically venal and unsavory, that are better and more effectively presented when cloaked in ostensibly high-minded and broad benefits rather than their true and self-interested rationales.

The failure lies not with science, which brings hypotheses and vetted inquiry forward with regularity. Rather, the fault lies with politics, and the pandering grifters who dominate its practice, for failing to apply the decision-making tools science and scientists naively offer.

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