The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

The politicization of science

“Talk of the Nation: Science Friday”: is an excellent weekly national radio program that brings experts and callers together to discuss current science issues. This week, Ira Flatow discussed the politicization of science – the perceived increase in policy influencing science, rather than science influencing policy – with guests Chris Mooney (“The Republican War on Science”) and Tom Bethel (“The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science”).

Bethel’s thesis on the show centered on the ideas that government should not be the largest provider of money for science in this country, and that “scientific consensus” doesn’t confer rightness on an idea. He tended to avoid the central thesis of his book – that liberal dogma drives science. Mooney tended to be the second to speak in each topic, putting him in the position of always having to refute in the debate. However, Mooney is quite a capable speaker and never does so from authority, but rather as one who has closely researched and considered the scientific process and the behavior of scientists. He managed at all times in the rebuttal to challenge Bethel’s often rambling statements on evolution, climate change, and the funding of science.

For instance, let’s consider Bethel’s point about the government being a large supported of science. Mooney was careful and quick to note that the government is critical when it comes to basic research, which I thought was an excellent point. Mooney also stressed in his comments that partnerships between private industry and public research are key to making progress, not the dominance of one over the other. However, I was pleased to see that he countered with the need to do risky basic research, something industry almost never touches anymore.

Bethel’s other main point – that scientific consensus doesn’t confer rightness – is one of those arguments that Sagan included in his “Baloney Detection Kit”. An argument is made that appeals to reason – in other words, “just because most scientists think it’s right doesn’t make it so”. I recently myself made the argument that “wishing intelligent design to be a science doesn’t make it so”, so you could assume at first that Bethel and I are arguing the same way. Just because a group of scientists states that a thing is so doesn’t make it so.

However, Bethel’s “appeal to reason” was hollow, and Mooney called him on it. It’s a sleight-of-hand trick that Bethel pulled, appealing to America’s “rebellious” nature (the same nature that is appealed to by proponents of “design”). One has to press “pause” on rebellion for a moment and think: why do scientists come to a consensus? When a majority of scientists agree a statement to be correct, why is it so? Is it just because they wish it, or think it?

The answer is “No”. Scientific consensus is different from other kinds of consensus, for the simple fact that it is **scientific**. It is based on the scientific method: a lone scientist, or a collaboration of scientists, conduct an experiment and discover a fact in their data that doesn’t agree with mainstream science. They publish it, and/or report it to their colleagues at conferences. Debate occurs, spurring more research, and the data are confirmed. More experiments result, more hypotheses result, and many years later a majority of scientists are in agreement over the original claim. Why? Because experiment, repeatable by many groups in many ways, confirms the same result.

Scientific consensus doesn’t confer “rightness”, to avoid Bethel’s normative terminology, but confers the title of being the most accurate information about a given subject. Evolution was not born from the mind of Darwin and his contemporaries just because they felt unease with their religion – that wouldn’t be a scientific consensus. Rather, because the overwhelming amount of data pointed to diversification by natural selection, the theory of evolution became the most accurate description of the natural world. It tells us how species arise, how transitions can occur, how diseases become harmless with time, or deadly with time. Climate change was not the dream of some lonely scientists who went about to their colleagues crying foul and saying “It’s so! It’s so!” It was born of decades of careful study of atmospheric data, ice core data, laboratory experiments, and even the study of other planets.

Bethel is one of those dangerous poster children who staple themselves to phone poles, speaking from authority rather than from expertise. That was the fundamental difference between Mooney and Bethel – Bethel had a “father knows the truth from listening to a few people, father knows best” tone, while Mooney always argued from evidence and experiment, the way a person versed in science would do.

To close, and to illustrate the complete lack of understanding Bethel exhibited as he made his ramblings, let me point out his statement about Mars and climate change. He denied that humans cause climate change, saying that the research has only been going on for 30 years and it will take much longer than that to convince him. He pointed to those who note the melting of the Earth polar icecaps, and said that nobody knows what’s really causing that. Paraphrasing, he then said, “The icecaps on Mars are melting, so what’s causing that, eh?” This is the funniest thing he could have said. You see, the Martian atmosphere is 95% carbon dioxide [NASAMarsData], the very same greenhouse gas that humans have been pumping into the Earth atmosphere for over a century, piling our CO2 on top of the natural amount in the air. The Martian icecaps are largely dry ice (frozen C02), and when the summer arrives it mostly sublimates and leaves behind a central icecap consisting of water [Greve]. Thus, the waning of the icecap is due to the fact that its composition is largely CO2, and heat easily sublimates it back into the atmosphere. It is ironic that Bethel chose Mars for this smug outburst about melting icecaps, a world choked by CO2, whose icecaps wane as dry ice sublimates in the summer, leaving behind a minority of water frozen at the very pole.

.. [NASAMarsData] “”:

.. [Greve] “”: