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David Goldston Some Thoughts on Politics and Science M UCH OF WHAT HAS BEEN W RITTEN LATELY ABOUT POLITICS A N D SCIENCE suggests that the intersection of the two has become far more treach­ erous because of the actions and attitudes of the Bush administration. But while this adm inistration has certainly helped keep the issue in the news, the interaction of politics and science is being altered more by fundamental, systemic, and probably long-term political trends than by the policies of a single adm inistration. The m ost salient characteristic o f contem porary American poli­ tics is the increasing polarization of the political elite. (I say the “elite” because, perhaps for the first tim e in US history, the polarization of the elite is occurring w hen the general public seems largely apathetic or withdrawn. This is not a tim e when, to use a phrase from the 1960s, “democracy is in the streets.”) The polarization is causing, am ong other things, a scram ble by politicians to be heard above the noise, to sound like m ore than just another partisan, to find a line of argum ent th at will both confirm the views o f th eir “cam p” and enable th em to convince others to m ove tow ard th eir pole on an issue. And “science” fits th e bill; indeed, it seems to be ju st about the only area of hum an endeavor th at does. In the political arena, “science” still has the air of objectivity, of offering up incontestable facts. For that reason, science may be replac­ ing patriotism as the “last refuge of the scoundrel.” Everyone in politics now tries to frame his or her position as the one and only view that is justified by “sound science.” This is in some ways a sincere and salutary Roundtable Discussion 1033 development, but it also places an enormous and often insupportable burden on science and distorts debates. And while this political trend reflects a kind of reverence for science, it may end up leaving science in tatters. Politicians may end up loving science to death. The m ost deleterious result of this embrace of science is that it obscures debates about values—debates that need to occur to make clear and coherent decisions. A case study of this occurred in 1997 when the Clinton adm inistration proposed tighter standards for ground-level ozone. The short-term effects of ozone are not subject to m uch debate: for a given level of ozone, experts can predict the likely num ber of excess hospital admissions for asthm a and other respiratoiy illnesses. The issue in setting ozone standards under the Clean Air Act therefore comes down to deciding how m any excess hospital adm issions are acceptable as public policy. That is not a science question. Yet, instead of discussing the direct if difficult question of accept­ able hospital admissions, partisans on both sides of the debate, inside and outside Congress, tried to argue that their proposed ozone standard was the level backed by “the science.” Each side marshaled scientists to m ake their case, none of whom, to my knowledge, ever suggested that they were not answering a science question. The stem cell debate is another example of the same phenom ­ enon. That debate obviously has to be inform ed by science and by scientists who can offer their assessments of the potential of stem cell research and w ho can also weigh in on w hat should be factual ques­ tions, such as the num ber o f stem cell lines available to researchers. But on the fundam entals of the stem cell debate—w hether stem cell research is ethical—scientific opinion should not be accorded a place of privilege. The ethical questions are not science questions, and no side of the debate should be labeled “pro-” or “anti-” science. The lines betw een science and policy are not always clear-cut, of course, but political debate and scientific integrity would both be enhanced if politicians, scientists, journalists, and the public at least made an effort not to frame every issue as one of science...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 1033-1036
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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