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Science Is Often Merely Politics in Another Form

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An interesting column in Nature acknowledges the power nexus between "science" and the political establishment. From "The Elephant in the Room We Can't Ignore," by Colin Macilwain:

The playwright Bertolt Brecht had a good line on expertise. In his plays, doctors, lawyers and other 'experts' are generally portrayed in threes. They squabble haplessly among themselves, each manoeuvring into the position that most elevates themselves in the eyes of their aristocratic paymaster.

And that, sadly, is the role to which senior scientific leaders have sometimes reduced themselves. In the main, they have been happy to accept the autocracy of politics and finance, even, like the president of the European Research Council, hanging around at the annual meeting of business leaders at Davos in Switzerland, hoping to pick up crumbs from the rich man's table.

Right. Science tends to sway with the politics because that is the fount of research funding.

Macilwain doesn't want scientists to become apolitical, but rather, to become anti-establishment in the cause of pushing politics harder to the left than the scientific establishment already is:

The problem extends down into the community itself. We like to talk about 'engaging the public', but many scientists really just want to talk at them. And too many ordinary scientists hold politicians in utter intellectual contempt -- even though it is the scientists who have chosen a career that allows them to pursue relatively simple problems (such as building a machine to detect gravitational waves) rather than genuinely difficult ones (such as running a social-care programme in a small town).

And those senior scientists who do engage with the government or public -- as scientific advisers, for example -- often take up highly political positions without acknowledging that they are doing so. For example, they support free-trade agreements that cede the right of democratic governments to control things such as cigarette advertising or pesticide use without hard, scientific evidence. This is a political position that is pursued with great dedication by global corporations -- and that is haplessly bought into by many scientists without a thought for its consequences.

Can you imagine? Letting countries make sovereign decisions!

Macilwain's problem isn't that scientists are political, but insufficiently transgressive in their politics. But he has acknowledged an important point we need to remember next time we hear "the scientists" claim that those who oppose establishment political views on controversial issues such as global warming or embryonic stem cell research are "anti-science."

Image credit: Tom Arthur [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.