For the Conservation Curious

Just another weblog

The Politics of Science March 31, 2010

I wanted to start this blog off with a quote from President Harry S. Truman that recently appeared in a Climate Progress blog. Truman was responding to McCarthy-era attacks that accused people of being Communists. McCarthyism now refers to “making accusations of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without proper regard for evidence” (Wikipedia). If you follow any of the climate change news out there, you can see that Truman’s quote is as timely now as it was back then…
“Continuous research by our best scientists is the key to American scientific leadership and true national security. This indispensable work may be made impossible by the creation of an atmosphere in which no man feels safe against the public airing of unfounded rumors, gossip, and vilification. Such an atmosphere is un-American…. Now and in the years ahead, we need, more than anything else, the honest and uncompromising common sense of science. Science means a method of thought. That method is characterized by open-mindedness, honesty, perseverance, and, above all, by an unflinching passion for knowledge and truth. When more of the peoples of the world have learned the ways of thought of the scientist, we shall have better reason to expect lasting peace and a fuller life for all.” (emphasis added is mine)


“A fuller life for all”; I like that phrase a lot.  To think that science can do such a thing is not so far-fetched. Think of how scientific breakthroughs have increased life expectancy, even in developing countries, through medicines, surgical procedures, prosthetics and transplantations.  Science has improved fuel efficiency of vehicles, created mechanisms for alternative energy sources, improved agricultural output and turned salt water into potable water.  It seems like the boundaries of science and how it can improve our lives are limitless.  Yet there are people out there right now that question science, or even go so far as to bash science and scientists, because of political ideologies. 
You cannot fully separate science and policy, like the separation of church and state.  For science must be used to effectively guide policies on health care, pollution abatement, endangered species protection and climate change.  While all of those policy areas can be contentious at times it is the last – climate change – that has been drawing much of the fire lately.  Congress is in the process of working on climate change legislation.  Whether or not you think that they should pass something like this, you should recognise the need for the application of science into their policy decisions.  For science is really nothing but “knowledge,” and our politicians should be knowledgeable about the policy issues that they are dealing with.  Unfortunately their party affiliation has a lot to do with whether or not they listen to science; whether or not they listen to reason.
Listen to certain media spokespersons on cable news channels and you may get the impression that scientists are wrong, that they are manipulating data, that they are lying to the public to push a certain agenda.  But why would scientists risk their credibility, their tenure at their academic institution and their major funding sources to further a cause?  Scientists value their standing in the academic and scientific communities more than just about anything else – their livelihoods depend on getting papers published, being asked to speak at symposia, creating something new through their research, etc.  Having their name attached to something that is untrue or false would be a death sentence to their scientific careers.  So I ask again, why would they make this stuff up?
The truth is, they are not making this up.  The evidence is overwhelmingly supportive of their findings and statements.  If you look closely at who is calling scientists liars it leans far to one side of the political spectrum.  I do not believe that political side hates the planet.  They want their great, great grandkids to be around just the same as the other side does.  But what I believe is causing the rift is the typical political squabbling that always happens between the two parties.  When one side says A is true, the other side says B is true, and no one will see eye to eye.  Unless we can find a few champions to bridge the partisan gap, our futures and the continuation of quality of life for all on the planet may be in jeopardy.
Change is scary to many, and certain changes can threaten people’s livelihoods.  But ultimately changes based on science, ie. grounded in truth and knowledge, will lead to better policy decisions and improvements.  This must be the case with climate change as with all policy issues on the table.  Economics are important, truly, but where will our economy if temperatures continue to rise, floods become more common, precipitation becomes more erratic and species continue to decline and disappear?  True, some manufacturers – of air conditioners, fans, boats, sunscreen, and insect repellant – may make out like bandits for a while, but others – of snowmobiles, skis and furnaces – may lose out, and much sooner than we might think.
My call to action would be for people to put aside their political leanings, whether ultra-conservative or uber-liberal, and think just in terms of science versus fiction.  I can’t speak for every scientist but those that I do know, I trust, and can say with certainty that they are not out to push an agenda.  They are simply out there expanding their minds and in the process hoping to expand others’ as well.  We cannot let the political party divide doom us to the dangerous and potentially irreversible effects of climate change.





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