Sunday, August 08, 2010

Is Science too Authoritarian?

In his recent article, Science Turns Authoritarian, American Enterprise Institute scholar Kenneth Green argues that science is losing its credibility because it has let “itself be co-opted by politics.”

Green begins by referencing a Wired article written by a non-scientist who feels that the scientific community is in need of better public relations, partly in the form of celebrities who inundate media testifying to the glories of science, as if that would affect one way or another the value of science. Green says at first that he doubts science is suffering from bad PR, but rather that science “is not losing its credibility because people no longer like or believe in the idea of scientific discovery, but because science has taken on an authoritarian tone, and has let itself be co-opted by pressure groups who want the government to force people to change their behavior.” He goes on and on and finally arrives at the conclusion that science is indeed suffering from bad PR. Whatever.

I can sense a huge eye-roll coming from the scientific community, as if Green, whose conclusion contradicts his initial thesis, has any clue as to what science is or does. Green's biggest criticism is that the “language” in which scientific findings are reported have become increasingly “authoritarian” with use of phrases such as “should” or “must”. He claims that science in the past simply stated the effects of, say, smoking or increased salt intake, and left the behavior modification to the rest of us. Green uses climate change as an example of a recent departure of this tradition, and decries the implication that science says we “must” reduce greenhouse gas production. Newsflash: science doesn’t care one iota what Green or the UN or anyone else does with the information.

The problem is that the reporting on the climate change debate is done by non-scientists and, yes, many of them do indeed inflict their conclusion on the debate, both sides of the debate. The United Nations, Friends of the Earth and the World Wildlife Fund, all quoted in the article, are all policy-making bodies, not scientific bodies. Green, in his concluding paragraph, states “If science wants to redeem itself and regain its place with the public’s affection, scientists need to come out every time some politician says, “The science says we must…” and reply, “Science only tells us what is. It does not, and can never tell us what we should or must do.”” I’ll be blunt. Science does not have to “redeem itself” to Green or anyone else and science is not telling you or anyone what you should or must do. Reporters are. Science—the method of discovery based on empiricism and reduction—has nothing for which to apologize. “Scholars” such as Green would do well to be less concerned with the relentless march of science as it answers important questions, and more concerned with the deniers of scientific findings who distort those truths for other reasons. Leave science to the scientists.

No comments: