Last Thursday on The Colbert Report, Peter Agre – winner of a Nobel in Chemistry in 2003 – offered to trade his Nobel medal – for two weeks, in exchange for two weeks of the show, so as to further the mission of Scientists and Engineers for America (SEA) – which is essentially to provide a platform for scientists to communicate with the public about the value of science, and thereby support the election of “public officials who respect evidence and understand the importance of using scientific and engineering advice in making public policy” (video link pt 1 and pt 2). To no avail. Stephen said “Forget it.” He had originally offered to trade a Peabody award, an Emmy, a Times Most Influential People of the Year award, and a few other awards I have never heard of – that were of no interest to Agre.
Although it is significant and refreshing to see scientists begin to come to terms with the need to communicate with the rest of the public, it made me wonder what scientists would say if they did have the Colbert Report for two weeks, and whether it would make any difference. Though Peter Agre was articulate, frankly, I think Stephen is much better than most scientists at conveying the value of science for the common good. If you have any doubt about this, watch this video clip of The Word from a couple of weeks ago, when SEA was first launched. (And Stephen, should he happen to read this, has an open invitation to membership on the Post-Normal Times Advisory Board.)
The launch of SEA, was also covered by The New York Times, and sparked commentary in the Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal, and in several of the science blogs about whether it could in fact be non-partisan, as it claims to absolutely be. Kevin Vranes correctly notes the paradox and suggests that demonstrating this non-partisanship will be their greatest challenge. However, supporting both Republican and Democratic candidates, as he suggests in a follow-up comment, would not solve anything.
This is an issue that goes to the core of the problem of using science to justify and support policy decisions, which are typically, uh, partisan. Non-partisanship might be possible when there are generally shared values that the purpose of science and any other form of knowledge is to further a particular vision of human well-being, and about what the problem is that science is specifically being asked to address. Disagreements would then be limited to technical matters regarding the most efficient way to do so – and a normal approach to science would suffice. But problems are rarely simple and straightforward enough to do that. At 3 Quarks Daily, Alon Levy posted a good discussion of Thomas Kuhn, who, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions defined normal science as as working within a particular paradigm or theoretical framework which then guides the selection of relevant facts while obscuring others – which makes it impossible to make decisions based only on evidence.
When science enters the policy arena, it is to justify particular policies or to clarify choices and trade-offs in relation to various goals and images of the good life that are often in conflict with one another and that have uncertain consequences. In an ideal world, where everybody plays by the same rules, these value conflicts would be clarified if not already obvious. But it is easier to create doubt about science with sciencey arguments about obscure technicalities than to argue that public safety and health is not a government responsibility – and also get elected. And in these Post-Normal Times, it has become partisan to believe that government should even have a role in supporting the common good, or to defend the constitution, or to believe that there should even be a government at all – and that all votes should be counted. (psst – in case you haven’t noticed, in the US, a bill was just signed into law that eliminates the writ of Habeas Corpus – obscure legal text that once provided safeguards against arbitrary imprisonment and insured a right to a trial by jury – without which all other rights established in the United States Constitution are hypothetical, as is the need for public policies to be justified with any kind of evidence or rational argument. Lest I digress, for more on that subject see videos of commentary by Keith Olbermann – The beginning of the end of America and The death of Habeas Corpus). Overlooked in claims of non-partisanship is that science can be, and is being and has historically been used as both an instrument of destruction as well as of salvation – a point discussed at length in a new book by Jerry Ravetz, The No-Nonsense Guide to Science (more on that later).
The claim of non-partisanship is also a nice ploy for “the scientific community [to put] themselves above the common man” – as Stephen Colbert put it – and to stay above the fray of politics which has become a dirty word that no one wants to be associated with. Least of all politicians, who often get elected by “running against Washington” or by making a campaign issue out of not being professional politicians. Just this evening, in a debate among candidates for the US Senate, Maryland Lt. Governor Michael Steele accused Representative Ben Cardin of being “good at policy,” as if that were a bad thing for a legislator. Then, to stay above it all, controversial decisions have often been justified by appealing to the authority of either religion or science, but these days, more to religion as scientific findings are increasingly at odds with indefensible policies of the current leadership. Conversely, conflicts of all sorts, including scientific, are sometimes dismissed as “mere politics” thus sidestepping the need to actually respond to well-founded criticism. But this just reinforces the fantasy that scientists and decision-makers are somehow outside the system that they tinker with – using policy, economic and technological instruments, rather than part of it, with the same basic needs as everyone else.
The stated vision of SEA is of “a future where wise science and technology policy can help every American live in a safe and clean environment, enjoy quality health and education, and benefit from a strong system of national defense.” So they get kudos for clarifying the values they support. However, achieving this noble objective is not just about framing the message of science but has implications for the practice of science itself, and the framing of relevant research questions. This is more obvious in the field of public health, whose practitioners might be looked to as role models by environmental and other scientists who have come out of a more elitist scientific culture that has been less comfortable in the policy arena. In fact, the key example that Agre used to make a case for the value of science was Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine. Doctors and others in the field of public health have a code of ethics that requires them to engage in advocating policies necessary to promote public health and the best interests of their patients – and also inspired me early in my own career.
The formation of SEA and other initiatives like the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), for which the objective was to demonstrate links between ecosystems and human well-being, suggests this elitist tradition in science might just be changing. But what became apparent in the massive undertaking that was the MA was that these benefits are difficult to quantify with existing data – this is because much of existing research was not driven by these kinds of questions, and is difficult to put into the context of real places other than those actually studied. So to date, the MA has had more influence on research directions and priorities than on actual policy. In the policy arena, and in a post-normal approach to science, criteria for “good science” include relevance to context, rather than just technical soundness. Scientific knowledge that is irrelevant or that cannot be communicated to those who have a need for it could be defined as an autistic approach to science that underlies common madness. (More on autistic v post-normal science here.)