Most politicians these days are comfortable with the idea that science shouldn't be politicized, whether they are liberal or conservative, or even regarding contentious issues like global warming (a.k.a. "climate change"). But too often simplistic comments like "I'm in favor of science" or "They're against science," flow easily in the political stream. In order to know whether or not science and politics are mixing, it is necessary to be clear on what is the nature of each.
Modern science has more influence than its ancient and medieval predecessors, primarily because unlike scientists of the past, today's scientists are not under the dominance of religion in free, republican governments that encourage and protect scientific investigation.
Science is best when it does not follow a political agenda, to be sure, but scientists are human and are as subject to passion as anyone else. It is true that scientists' commitment to objectivity, or a detachment from their objects of study, is a powerful security for their integrity. But that is no absolute guarantee.
More significant than a commitment to unbiased research is a sense of wonder, which is to say a philosophic attitude. That means a willingness to admit that scientists don't know everything, or that it is just a matter of time until they do. That hubristic attitude is fortified by a dogmatic insistence on the virtual infallibility of scientific method.
The truth is, no methodology, no matter how rigorous, is a barrier to the unwise or the unscrupulous. If others in the scientific enterprise are unaware of, or overlook, misbegotten science, their fellow citizens can be victimized.
So-called "global warming deniers" like myself are at a disadvantage, for we are not scientists. But if conclusions reached are based on either inadequate or ambiguous data, there is good reason to be skeptical. No less should we be skeptical if huge changes in our way of life are proposed in the name of science.
Science and philosophy were at one time inseparable and even indistinguishable, except that the former sought to determine what is true and cannot be otherwise while the latter was open to the truth, even to the point of questioning what is most dear to us, namely, our religious and political opinions.
That modern science largely lacks a philosophic spirit is evidenced by the fact that questions about the world are more closed than open. I mean that our experience of science is as an authoritative institution that has declared for once and for all that the universe is a product of blind chance rather than intelligent design and that human nature "evolves." Such inquiry as is authorized, on both cosmic and mundane matters, is designed to validate, not question, so-called "settled science."
Politics, by contrast, is inherently controversial, for reasonable people (and unreasonable people) can disagree about who should be elected and what policies they should pursue. But there is, or ought to be, a settled framework in which citizens can freely debate the issues. More than this, the political principles which are the foundation of our political institutions must be respected and adhered to.
Unfortunately, even such bulwarks as our Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are openly or secretly mocked and disrespected by both scientists and non-scientists. These days their common object is to "transform" our society into a centralized state ruled by alleged experts who are convinced that government, in all its complexity, is best when it strives to be scientific.
In fact, progressivism, the creed of most Democratic and some Republican politicians today, draws its inspiration from science. But, as noted, scientists, political or otherwise, are not immune from bias, and not every political viewpoint is biased. Indeed, governing in accordance with the principle that all human beings are created equal is not a bias, but is the necessary condition for doing justice and serving the common good.
Science would benefit from more openness, leaving intelligent persons free to pursue conclusions no matter what their consequences for "settled science." When the theory of continental drift finally was accepted by the scientific community, it was quietly inserted into textbooks in a manner reminiscent of Soviet rewriting of history. True science is not orthodoxy.
And politics depends on that kind of science which, while aware of the great number and variety of regimes in the world, admits that human nature has fixed limits and that we are happiest when we govern ourselves. Oppression is against our nature.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of "Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at email@example.com.