Science and Politics

It’s a dark dreary December day with a downright deluge descending outside to add to the alliteration.  Fortunately, it being almost Christmas, this weekend is offering a glut of crosswords with which I’ve been occupying myself while waiting for a break in the rain.

Among the puzzles I’ve done was a moderately challenging one in the New Statesman.  I have a subscription to the New Statesman, which means that I get it delivered in the post approximately two days after everyone else has had a chance to read it. After finishing the crossword, which contain a number of hidden (unclued) famous pseudonyms, I had a look at the rest of the magazine and discovered that this issue, the Christmas one, was edited by Brian Cox (who needs no introduction) and Robin Ince (who I believe is a comedian of some sort). It’s nice to see science featured so strongly in a political magazine, of course, but I did raise an eyebrow when I read this (about the LHC) in a piece written by Professor Cox:

The machine itself is 27 kilometres in circumference and is constructed from 9,300 superconducting electromagnets operating at -271.3°C. There is no known place in the universe that cold outside laboratories on earth…

Not so. The cryogenic systems on ESA’s Planck mission achieved a stable operating temperature at the 0.1 K level. This experiment has now reached the end of its lifetime and is warming up, but  the Herschel Space Observatory with a temperature of 1.4 K is still cooler than the Large Hadron Collider. Moreover, there are natural phenomena involving very low temperatures. The Boomerang Nebula has a measured temperature of −272.15°C, also lower than the LHC.  How does this system manage to cool itself down below the temperature of the cosmic microwave background, I hear you asking.  A detailed model is presented here; it’s “supercooled” because it is expanding so quickly compared to the rate at which it is absorbing CMB photons.

Anyway, if this all seems a bit pedantic then I suppose it is, but if prominent science advocates can’t be bothered to check their facts on things they claim to be authorities about, one wonders why the public show pay them any attention in the broader sphere. Fame and influence bring with them difficult responsibilities.

That brings me to another piece in the same issue, this one co-authored by Cox and Ince, about Science and Society entitled Politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science. I’d realised that there was a bit of a Twitter storm brewing about this item, but had to wait until the horse and cart arrived with my snail mail copy before I could try figure out what it was about. I still haven’t because although it’s not a particularly focussed piece it doesn’t seem to say anything all that controversial. In fact it just struck me that it seems to be a bit self-contradictory, on the one hand arguing that politicians should understand science better and on the other calling for a separation of science and politics.   There are two more detailed rejoinders here and here.

For my part I’ll just say that I think it is neither possible nor desirable to separate science from politics.  That’s because, whether we like it or not, we need them both. Science may help us understand the world around us, and (to a greater or lesser degree of reliability) predict its behaviour, but it does not make decisions for us. Cox and Ince argue that

Science is the framework within which we reach conclusions about the natural world. These conclusions are always preliminary, always open to revision, but they are the best we can do.

I’d put it differently, in terms of probabilities and evidence rather than “conclusions”, but I basically agree. The problem is that at some point we have to make decision which may not depend solely on the interpretation of evidence but on a host of other factors that science can say nothing about. Definite choices have to be made, even when the evidence is ambiguous. In other words we have to bring closure, much as we do when a jury delivers a verdict in a court of law, which is something that science on its own can rarely do. Mere opinion certainly counts in that context, and so it should. The point is that science is done by people, not machines. People decide what questions to ask, and what assumptions to proceed from. Choices of starting point are political (in the widest sense of the word) and sometimes what you get out of a scientific investigation  is little more than what you put in.

It’s always going to a problem in a democratic society that scientific knowledge is confined to a relatively small number of experts. We can do our best to educate as many as possible about what we do, but we’re always going to struggle to explain ourselves adequately. There will always be conspiracy theories and crackpots of various kinds. The way to proceed is not to retreat into a bunker and say “Trust me, I’m a scientist” but to be more open about the doubts and uncertainties and to present a more realistic picture of the strengths and limitations of science. That means to engage with public debate, not by preaching the gospel of science as if it held all the answers, but by acknowledging that science is a people thing and that as such it belongs in politics as much as politics belongs in it.

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12 Responses to “Science and Politics”

  1. Brian Cox said Santa uses neutrinos to get around the world in one night on The One Show last Christmas

  2. Good post! Just one small question: You say “at some point we have to make decisions” – isn’t that a bit like saying ‘there must be a place where science stops and politics begins’ ? Of course there is in reality no such clear-cut cut-off point between science and politics, but I think you and Ince/Cox are basically saying the same thing, the problem is language sort of gets in the way with words like ‘point’ or ‘stop’ or ‘begin’…..

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t think there’s a place where science stops and politics begins – what I was trying to say is that the boundaries are not as clear as many imagine. You can’t keep the politics out of science any more than you can or would want to keep science out of politics.

      • I totally agree. They are intertwined at every moment. However we have two concepts, science and politics and when talking about decision making, evidence etc. etc. , it is hard to keep them superimposed. Given the language we have, it is much easier to say things that make them appear separate or discontinuous , especially when writing short editorials for example, then to stress their continuity and togetherness, so to speak. But I might be wrong…

  3. Ali TT (@AWTaylor83) Says:

    Brigitte, would it be simplistic to say your two concepts could be described as the political affect on science (funding, policy directions, economics etc) and the effect of science/scientific on policy making, e.g. correct usage of evidence?

    As for the main blog, I agree with the final sentence in particular. We musn’t elevate scientists to something we are not- as people we can, at times, be as susceptible to bias, arrogance and opinion-led thinking as much as politicians or media commentators.

  4. I wholly agree. I understand the politicians want certainty but there is no reason for scientists to acquiesce in this. I cringe whenever I hear expressions such as “the science is settled”. It is very rarely settled. Even when it is “settled” due to numerous falsification tests, its still open to question (and should be questioned).

    Its impossible to find any (good) research findings which don’t come with uncertainties (even if only qualitatively treated). Society needs to be mature enough to accept that our current understanding of the science implies that hypothesis-X is correct with uncertainties that are small/fair/large etc. We must take a decision in light of this and be prepared to get it wrong.

    We should be standing up to correct politicians when they speak on scientific matters with a certainty which isn’t warranted. Unfortunately, to rise to the top in science (usually) means being politically attuned and unwilling to rock the boat. Furthermore, challenging the leadership can be unwise for younger scientists starting their careers. The death of tenure makes speaking out more difficult still. I rather suspect we’ll carry on acquiescing.

    • And one of the ways pseudoscience and especially medical quackery gets traction is by offering certainties where science can’t. The failure to properly educate people as to what scientific uncertainly means, and why absolute certainty is almost always a hallmark of fraud, is a pressing problem IMO.

    • “I cringe whenever I hear expressions such as “the science is settled”. It is very rarely settled. Even when it is “settled” due to numerous falsification tests, its still open to question (and should be questioned).”

      Yes, in some sense you are right, though this is often misinterpreted to mean “well, science can’t say for sure, so it could be anything, really” which is rubbish.

      Asimov makes the point well here:

  5. Science is pure search of truth. No place for showmanship,religion, politics, power or even conventional wisdom. That is why it is so interesting and our nature is ever dynamic with hide and seek to the children of science. But a lot of prizes and greed to manipulate has spoiled the adventure in it.

  6. [...] articles appeared, including two on these pages by Rebecca Higgitt and Jack Stilgoe, this by Peter Coles, and a provocatively trite little blogpost (author’s own words) which was dissected by Martin [...]

  7. [...] Original editorial Responding blog posts included: Becky Higgitt’s Jon Butterworth Peter Coles’ Martin Robbins’ Jack [...]

  8. [...] I thought I’d do a quick rehash of an old post which is vaguely relevant to the still simmering controversy generated by the Cox-Ince editorial I blogged about before Christmas. [...]

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