Monday, December 15, 2008

BB3: Mooney and Kirshenbaum: The Political Voice of Science

This is the ninth in a series of posts on presentations given at Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark"

You can find a list of all Atheist Ethicist blog postings covering Beyond Belief 3 at the Introduction post

And I would like to encourage you to give a contribution to the Science Network, who makes these presentations available for free.

Our next presenters at the Beyond Belief conference were Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. They came to speak about science gaining a voice in the political process. (See: Beyond Belief 3: Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum)

Mooney is the author of the book, The Republican War on Science, which is about the way the Republican party censored silence and replaced it with an institution of propaganda where 'truth' was defined as "that which supports the Administration policies". Mooney and Kirshenbaumwere responsible for the attempt to have a presidential debate focusing on science issues – Science Debate 2008. They are continuing to work on projects that will give science a voice in the political process.

In this presentation, they focused on telling us how weak the scientific voice currently is, and evidence that it is getting weaker. Media outlets are firing their science writers and closing those parts of their news organizations devoted to science and technology. The entertainment media depicts scientists solely as "geeks or freeks" – as people who are trying to take over the world or who, at best, are blind to “the truth” that is supposedly "out there" (paranormal, occult, and religious entities).

Making Science Relevant

So, the question is, how do we make science relevant to the political process.

The first point that I want to make is that science is already relevant. That's the problem. I am puzzled by the tendency that science advocates have for talking about making science relevant to public decision-making, as if there is an option for science to be irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that science is relevant to decision making whether we want it to be or not. Policy makers ignore science at their peril . . . and ours.

What is the value of science?

Science is a tool for making predictions. "If we do nothing, what will happen?", "If we do X, what will happen?"

From the beginning of history, people have known the value of being able to predict the future. Ancient leaders would pay good money for people who could make reliable predictions – predicting things as various as the outcome of a war, the selection of a particular ruler, the next harvest.

For thousands of years, people did not have reliable ways of predicting the future. They turned to astrologers, various forms of divination from the reading of entrails, tea leaves, and bones thrown down on a particular design, and the reading of palms or cards. Usually, these methods were controlled by priests, who commanded great power.

The one dominant value of science is that it is the only instrument that actually gives us a reliable way of predicting the results of various forms of action. Science predicts the courses of hurricanes and of rocks hurling through space. It predicts what happens to to a human being when certain chemicals enter the system, and what will happen to the sun at the end of its life (and when it will happen). It predicts the effects of adding greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, what will happen if a particular mass of cells discovered in a woman’s breast is left alone, and what will happen under various forms of treatment.

The problem is not one of making science relevant to our daily lives. Science provides us with the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the energy we use to heat our homes, the electricity we use to power our toys, immunizations from disease and treatments for disease that we cannot immunize ourselves against, the tools for communicating around the world or for travelling to places that we would never see if all we had to rely on was walking.

The Bush Administration's attitude towards science goes hand-in-hand with the epic failure of his administration. He shunned the predictive power of science and went, instead, with his gut or what he thought God whispered into his ear when he prayed for guidance. He failed precisely because he refused to show respect for the one set of tools that we have for looking at a set of data and computing the likely results.

He KNEW that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He KNEW that the Iraqi People would greet us as liberators and immediately establish a prosperous democracy. He KNEW that tax cuts would bring economic prosperity. He KNEW that deregulated bankers would bring about that which is in the best interests of themselves and their customers. He KNEW a lot of things – while, at the same time, he had a total lack of respect for evidence or the opinions of experts who have actually studied the relevant data.

Those of us who are concerned about the state of science in this country are not concerned because we found something that we really like – like an artist or a piece of scenery – and we simply happen to want other people to value it like we do. We do not see science as one brand of bottled water that we want people to buy – even though it is substantially identical to every other brand of bottled water (and some non-bottled water).

Our interest in science is more like that of telling a blindfolded driver that he is heading for a cliff. If he doesn’t believe us – if the driver ignores those who can actually see where the car is going and what will happen when it gets there – then we are in for a very unpleasant future.

Science Issues

Another form of presentation that I disagree with is the idea that there are 'science issues' and 'non-science issues'. Global warming and stem-cell research are considered science issues because these are things that scientists care about. The war in Iraq and the financial meltdown are non-science issues.

However, every single policy decision has a set of facts in common. We are confronted with a set of options. The very act of deciding which option to take has to do with assessing what will happen as the result of taking any particular action. Science is the one and only instrument for making predictions that we have that actually works.

The question of how the people in Iraq will react to an American attack, or how the economy will react to the infusion of $700 billion in cash delivered in a particular way, is just as much a scientific question as the question of how the body will react to ingesting a particular chemical or the question of how the earth will react to the impact of a 700 ton asteroid.

If you are involved in making a distinction, then you are involved in asking and answering the question, "What will the results be of doing A versus doing B?" And that is just the type of question that science is uniquely qualified to answer.

The cost of being anti-science – the cost of ignoring science – is that we seriously handicap our ability to make smart decisions. The cost of ignoring science on any issue means that we fail to avoid the death and suffering that science could have predicted.

In this sense, we do not actually need a 'science debate'. Every debate that a politician engages in is a science debate – and it should be viewed and evaluated as such. What does the debate tells us about what the politician knows about the results of various policy options, and what types of evidence is that politician looking at to get those answers?


This point is actually the beginning of my look at Chris Mooney and company’s presentation at the Beyond Belief conference. It illustrates two differences in the perspective with which I approach the issue of the political relevance of science that are not widely shared. It is a view that says that it makes no sense to talk about how to make science relevant – science is already relevant. It is also a view that does not divide political questions into "science" and "non-science" questions.

Every political question is a question involving choices of outcomes, and that involves making predictions, and that is what science is for. To ignore science is to ignore the best tool available for making predictions as to the results of our actions. That means making poor choices - choices that cost lives and increase human suffering.

That is why science is relevant, and people fail to realize this fact at their peril.

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