A Plague o’ Both Your Houses

“A plague o’ both your houses!

They have made worm’s meat of me”

Mercutio knew what he was talking about. In Romeo and Juliet, it is not just his own life but also youthful love that is crushed by the blind animosity between the Capulets and Montagues; on the U.S. policy stage, it is the standing of science that it is at stake in the polarized interaction of Democrats and Republicans.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (Scientific Integrity in Policy Making: Investigation of the Bush Administration’s Abuse of Science), Chris Mooney (The Republican War on Science), Michael Spector (“Political Science,” The New Yorker, March 13, 2006), and many others have drawn attention to the many ways that the Bush administration has given primacy to economic or cultural or religious values over scientific analysis. Industry trade groups tell tales of how Democrats play fast and loose with science by exaggerating the risks associated with pesticide residues on food, silicone breast implants, or nuclear waste. Republican sins against science are real and deserve criticism, but the party in power has more occasion to sin. Given the opportunity, Democrats are still capable of subjugating science to their political vision.

The reality is that science has a place in policymaking, but policy will be an amalgam of science, economics, political philosophy, culture, ethics, and human irrationality. Scientists need to be part of that messy process, but they need to be honest about the extent to which their opinions spring from scientific analysis and from other factors. Scientists need to be as objective and dispassionate as possible in their professional assessment of scientific evidence, but they also need to recognize their humanity in public policy debates. One can care deeply about the importance of wilderness to the human spirit, of free markets to the operation of democracy, of economic equity in access to technology, or of economic development in the introduction of new technology, but that is not science.

One can also have economic or professional self interests and cultural biases. A stem cell researcher will want government support for that research, a nuclear engineer will want to see nuclear power plants built. Scientists, like all highly educated professionals, have succeeded through the use of their rational skills and are less likely than the average person to trust nonrational explanations of the world. Science is not inherently antireligious, but it should not be surprising that scientists are less likely to seek religious explanations for what they do not understand. The culture of science is well suited to solving scientific problems, but that cultural mindset might not be the best approach to policymaking.

What seems worrisome in today’s political climate is that the values of many scientists are becoming conflated with the values of science itself. Scientists should point out when science is ignored or distorted in policy debates, and they should speak out when they believe that wrongheaded social or cultural values are driving bad policy decisions. But they should not act as if these two impulses are the same. There is a science, and there is a culture of science. Both deserve respect, but the culture of science rests on a much more subjective foundation.

The distortion of scientific rationality is most clearly illustrated in the foolishness of the parallel tracks of the precautionary principle and sound science. In their purest forms, the precautionary principle would allow no activity to take place until it could be proved safe, and sound science would allow any activity unless it could be proved to directly cause harm. Every rational person knows that it is impossible to prove that something is absolutely safe or harmful. Both extremes in this debate invoke science, but both are ignoring an essential principle of science: the weight of the evidence.

Scientific evidence can play a role in many policy decisions, but scientists have to be scrupulously clear in explaining the weight of the evidence to policymakers. The case for genes playing in role in shaping human abilities and interests is pretty strong. The case for the overall genetic profile of a particular group determining the success of that group in a given endeavor is, to say the least, a tad weaker. Scientists understand weight of evidence. So does Larry Summers. But as we have seen, it is important to acknowledge the importance of this principle and to make fine distinctions when speaking to the public.

We can see this playing out in the climate change debate. Some combatants act out this drama with the same dialogue that they used in the 1980s: It’s science. No, it’s a theory. From the beginning it should have been a debate about the weight of the evidence. Then, it would be easier to see that what has been happening over the past two decades is that the weight of the evidence has been building for the case for anthropogenic global warming and that the climate models are gradually providing a clearer picture of what we can expect. This is what James Hansen is trying to explain. We should also be careful to note that this does not necessarily imply that the Kyoto Protocol or more stringent fuel efficiency standards are necessarily the best policy responses. Agreement on the science does not end the policy debate, but it does clarify it.

The excessive politicization of science can open a Pandora’s box that will benefit neither policy nor science. Witness the California stem cell initiative. Because scientists were so upset by the efforts of religious conservatives to block stem cell research, they turned a scientific issue into a political free for all. The successful referendum to create a state fund to support stem cell research has opened the door to democratic priority setting in research. Is this what scientists want after many years of fighting for the right of the scientific community to guide research spending? Does anyone believe that the result of this initiative will be that stem cell research receives the level of support it deserves relative to other research areas or that the best research projects within stem cell research will be funded? Of course stem cell research deserves government support, but this is not the way to make that happen.

Science is not Republican or Democratic. Scientists can be either. They should speak out on energy policy, the war in Iraq, federal support for education, and they should work for their favorite candidates. They should use their scientific knowledge when appropriate, and they should boldly assert the values that guide their choices in all areas of public policy. But they should think twice before asserting that either political party speaks for science. So much of the political debate is dishearteningly predictable. Nothing could be worse for science. Indeed, the unpredictability of science is essential to its well-being and what gives it the power to break political logjams. We have all learned to be prepared to discover that what we have always believed to be true in science has been overturned by new research. New discoveries are not likely to change our core social and political values, but they could force us to change position on particular policy decisions. Too tight a connection between science and one political party will make it more difficult to see new scientific developments with fresh eyes and to accept the implications for policy. If scientists are slow to change with the weight of evidence, what can we expect from policymakers?

Cite this Article

Finneran, Kevin. “A Plague o’ Both Your Houses.” Issues in Science and Technology 22, no. 3 (Spring 2006).

Vol. XXII, No. 3, Spring 2006