Can They Mix?

They need to mix, of course. Science illuminates problems that require political solutions, such as global warming, epidemics, earthquakes, and so on. It also creates opportunities for technological advancements that can be immensely beneficial to us all — if and when politicians take up the challenge of making them available beyond what markets can do on their own.

In the Science section of the New York Times this Tuesday, John Tierney comments on Obama’s nomination of Dr. John P. Holdren as his science advisor. Tierney argues scientists too often pass off their own political views as scientific truths, and he cites examples of Holdren’s alarmist predictions and intemperate “debating tactics.” Referring to Roger Pielke Jr.’s new book, The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics, a book that tried to clarify these issues,Tierney notes Holdren’s harsh criticism of colleagues as well as his all-too-confident prediction that a billion people would die by 2020 as a result of global warming. (To see the Times article, click here.)

My point is that it is easy to understand how “scientific” debates about such issues as global warming or stem cell research or abortion can escalate into virtual shouting matches. Some issues are felt to be simply too potent, and some facts too insistent, especially when some else is playing them down. How to retain scientific objectivity and restraint, while also engaging in one’s rights as a citizen and advisor to advocate for action when action seems essential?

As Pielke’ book suggests, it is useful to have a clearer understanding of one’s proper role as a scientist when working with politicians, but that is not enough: it also requires an awareness of the inner and interpersonal forces that pull us into a fight. Enemies are always dangerous, but all the more so when they prevent us from seeing them as thoughtful alternatives to our own points of view. We don’t converse with enemies. We want to vanquish them.

Scientists, like the rest of us, can easily succumb to adolescent competitiveness or adult grandiosity. We all are vulnerable to an inflated sense of our own importance – or of the importance of the issues we are invested in. And if we are part of a group committed to political activity, it is even more difficult to restrain ourselves.

Perhaps public awareness of the danger – the danger that science will become unduly politicized – can act as a restraint on such debates. Perhaps the political groups themselves, becoming more fearful of the danger, can remind their members of their need for appropriate restraint. The most effective advice often comes from the friends who have our best interests at heart or the colleagues we trust.