I have rarely seen such a politically vapid proposition as the one that Daniel Sarewitz managed to get published in Nature. “Science must be seen to bridge the political divide“, he says. He’s worried about the politicization of science, and he seems to think it’s all the scientists’ faults.
To prevent science from continuing its worrying slide towards politicization, here’s a New Year’s resolution for scientists, especially in the United States: gain the confidence of people and politicians across the political spectrum by demonstrating that science is bipartisan.
What the hell does that even mean? Does he think the scientific institutions in this country are all arms of one political party? Has he even considered the possiblity that it isn’t science dogmatically accepting the goals of one political party, but rather, that the other party has so willfully and enthusiastically embraced anti-scientific sentiment that it is not in our own interest to support them?
He cites a letter from a long list of highly respected scientists, including a group of Nobelists, who openly endorsed Barack Obama for president. He deplores this. Why? Because many of them already had a history of supporting Democratic candidates.
But even Nobel prizewinners are citizens with political preferences. Of the 43 (out of 68) signatories on record as having made past political donations, only five had ever contributed to a Republican candidate, and none did so in the last election cycle. If the laureates are speaking on behalf of science, then science is revealing itself, like the unions, the civil service, environmentalists and tort lawyers, to be a Democratic interest, not a democratic one.
Yes? So? There is a reason most scientists tend to vote Democratic: because the Republican party is a puppet of the evangelical Christian right and the irrational reactionary Tea Party. Scientists will tend to vote for the party that best supports scientific positions and doesn’t promote anti-scientific bullshit…not because party bosses are telling them to stay in line, but because that’s what scientists care about.
When your party fields a set of presidential candidates that includes evolution-deniers and climate-change deniers, the casual disregard for scientific evidence is not going to encourage scientists that you are actually on their side. When your party is representated extravagantly by the Texas Board of Education, you’re going to be perceived as anti-science.
Sarewitz ignores all the flaming science-denialism of the far right wing of the Republican party to pretend that both parties are essentially the same.
This is dangerous for science and for the nation. The claim that Republicans are anti-science is a staple of Democratic political rhetoric, but bipartisan support among politicians for national investment in science, especially basic research, is still strong. For more than 40 years, US government science spending has commanded a remarkably stable 10% of the annual expenditure for non-defence discretionary programmes. In good economic times, science budgets have gone up; in bad times, they have gone down. There have been more good times than bad, and science has prospered.
Both parties recognize the utility of science and technology; neither really embrace it, with the Republicans being far, far worse. They appointed John Shimkus to head the Economy and Environment committee; the Shimkus who immediately announced that global climate change isn’t occurring because the Bible promised it wouldn’t. Marco Rubio could babble that there is some legitimate scientific doubt about whether the earth is 6000 or 4.5 billion years old — and he’s a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. The official Republican party platform in 2012 demanded an end to abortion and stem cell research.
Now why should scientists embrace all that? Are we supposed to pretend that doesn’t matter, because Republican approval of military and industrial research means overall level of funding to NIH/NSF won’t change?
Note that I’m not saying the Democratic party is flawless. Far from it. I’ve moaned about Tom Harkin’s alternative medicine boondoggle before; I know that Democrats are about as likely as Republicans to be anti-vaccination, and are worse about opposing genetically modified organisms. Picking either of these teams of bozos is a matter of compromise, but the differences are clear, and the Republican clowns are flagrantly anti-science, and proud of it.
So Sarewitz piously bleats out this nonsense, and then, as you might expect, offers no serious answers to how scientists are supposed to be “non-partisan.” Here’s the sum total of his advice:
To connect scientific advice to bipartisanship would benefit political debate. Volatile issues, such as the regulation of environmental and public-health risks, often lead to accusations of ‘junk science’ from opposing sides. Politicians would find it more difficult to attack science endorsed by avowedly bipartisan groups of scientists, and more difficult to justify their policy preferences by scientific claims that were contradicted by bipartisan panels.
During the cold war, scientists from America and the Soviet Union developed lines of communication to improve the prospects for peace. Given the bitter ideological divisions in the United States today, scientists could reach across the political divide once again and set an example for all.
“Reach across the political divide”? What? How? Scientists are not a voting bloc in congress. They aren’t trying to reach compromises with a group of people — they’re trying to understand the natural world, and when one party consistently defies reality with theological nonsense, we’re not going to reach out to them. We’re going to tell them they’re wrong.
There is another strategy for members of the electorate to take other than compromise: it is to advocate for the party that best fits the values of your group. Right now, the Democrats, imperfectly and with reservations, does a somewhat better job of meeting the expectations of most scientists. Why the hell should we support an anti-science political party? Because bipartisanship is a virtue unto itself? It isn’t.
Sarewitz is simply a middling idiot.