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Politics and Science: How their Interplay Creates Public Policy
A Social Research Conference at The New School, New York


Alan Miller
posted 3 July 2006

The New School was abuzz with high profile scientists and policy makers for this two day conference on the relationship between politics and science, convened by Social Research. The organisers encouraged participants to consider ‘the increasing politicisation of science’. Indeed, journalist Jim Holt, in New York Times Magazine recently observed that ‘three of the nations most contentious political issues - global warming, stem-cell research and the teaching of intelligent design - are scientific in character.’ Interrogating the role of policy in the key areas of energy, the environment and public health, the event was a welcome departure from some of the more hysterically minded junk-science infused ‘debates’ that pass for serious discussion.

Eric Cohen, director of the Biotechnology and American Democracy programme at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (and editor of The New Atlantis) opened up nicely when he referred to Tolstoy’s simple yet challenging question regarding humans; namely ‘what to do…and how to do it’. Later on during this session on health, which covered many topics including therapeutic stem-cell research, it was suggested by William Hurburt MD that life is a continuous journey, from the moment of embryo fertilisation onwards. Hurburt, Consulting Professor of Neurology at Stanford University Medical Center and Member on the President’s Council on Bioethics refuted my suggestion that he was adding a spiritualist component to what we should consider as a purely scientific consideration. When I asked him to commit to the principle of unfettered scientific enquiry, where scientists hold the line in a climate which can at times be hostile, he was not prepared to do so. The idea that there is a ‘line of life’ from the moment of fertilisation is a denigration of what we consider to be human life, where we ascribe judgment and value to personhood - and instead attempts to mystify our humanity by claiming some elements of scientific truth to justify a particular view that derives from faith. Namely, that there is an absolute obligation to develop all embryos that are fertilised. However, some speakers rightly made the point in subsequent sessions, that IVF treatment has largely been accepted because of the positive benefits it has brought so many families (over 500,000 children in the US are from IVF treatment) despite the fact that this process destroys significant numbers of fertilised embryos.

The accusation that a cabal of right-wingers who are ever intent on reining in science per se is, of course, somewhat dubious. Often, liberals who feel anxious about their inability to win over the public decisively end up behaving like petulant children who don’t want to play with the older kids as they are a bit scared - and exaggerate the power of their opponents.

Neal Lane, Science Adviser to President Clinton and Former Director of the National Science Foundation correctly pointed out that ‘we don’t here much about the Enlightenment any more’ when talking about Ben Franklin in his address to the audience in the final session of the first day. Bob Kerrey (President of The New School and Former US Senator from Nebraska) engaged Lane in a question and answer session playing Devil's advocate. However, one would have liked to have heard a somewhat more rigorous set of questions to grips in the current malaise with scientific thinking across the political spectrum. Making jibes about the president is easy, although it is far harder to evaluate why so many more people are currently inspired to vote on American Idol than for major political candidates and parties - or for that matter, why many distrust the scientific community as being representative of ‘major corporate interests’ or simply not to be trusted. While anyone can (and so many have) lampoon Dubya, not so many have been able to explain succinctly why often the public attitude to scientists is one of caution and mistrust - men in white suits are viewed with suspicion and their motives often questioned.

It is within this context that when the discussion turns to global warming, alarmist claims and juvenile rants have sadly been all too common. However, a very sober ambience ensued for the session on the environment, with luminaries including Paul Ehrlich, President, Center for Conservation Biology and Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University and James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. The session had a jovial kick off, with good-humoured banter between Steven Hayward of the AEI and Ehrlich. Despite their differences of opinion, both agreed that the process of scientific investigation must encourage disagreements in order to clarify and progress. On this point, while Ehrlich noted that much he had written about in his massively popular 1968 book The Population Bomb did not come true, resources and population were still a concern and he went on to illustrate his point by quoting the numbers of people currently in existence compared to when he was born and when he wrote the book.

This all lead up nicely to James Hansen’s presentation. This was Hansen’s first major public appearance since news reports on 29 January revealed that officials at NASA headquarters have tried to prevent him from undercutting Bush administration and environmental policies. Hansen, who has been arguing since 1988 that long term effects of gas emissions and carbon dioxide will be deleterious, went on to say that the levels of heating up that have occurred and will continue to occur due to the last 100 years will leave the earth ‘a different planet’ unless we do something to stop the heating up imminently. However, while his presentations were comprehensive, it struck me that there was a leap that went from the unknown impact of our activity to a certainty that if we did not stop it would necessarily mean terrible outcomes. Rather, surely the point of rational enquiry is that we can evaluate how best to work out strategies and solutions to solve potential problems. This would be best conceived too in the context of appropriating technological and engineering innovations based on society moving forwards confidently, not fearfully darting around fearful of its own shadow. In fact, John Tierney, the New York Times op-ed journalist, suggests that environmentalism has become a new faith.

The finale, a round table discussion featuring eight prominent protagonists and moderated by Ida Flatow, Talk of The Nation host and science correspondent for NPR aimed to reflect on what was to be done now, in terms of policy and indeed science generally. David Goldston, Chief of Staff, House Committee on Science made some sound points but then went on to declare that ‘people are put off by all the arguing…’. Ruth Wooden President of Public Agenda agreed with him, saying ‘studies have shown this’. I was more inclined to agree with the point that Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jursisprudence Princeton University and Member of the Presidents Council on Bioethics made; which is that the arguments have to be had out in public. I went on to question Mr Goldston on this point and ask whether rather than too many ideas and arguments repelling the public, was it not the case that the technocratic, small minded and managerial nature of the disputes ensured little enthusiasm from the public. Indeed, I wondered, had not reason itself become doubted by the very leaders who are concerned by the low regard of science in the public imagination? After all, throughout history people have been prepared to live (and die) for principles and big ideas. Perhaps what is missing is some inspiring leadership with compelling ideas? Could we not, I asked, referring back to Lane’s point the evening before, aim for a new Enlightenment, where humans were put at the heart of the matter - as a force of progress rather than continually presented as mad, bad and dangerous? Mr Goldston responded that it was not reason that had come under attack but rather the partisan nature of an ever increasing red/ blue divide that alienated people and kept them away. The hallmark of any good event surely must be people leaving, intellectually stimulated, with perhaps a few new questions having had some good and tough debates. This certainly passed that litmus test. If only we could have a few more like it.


Alan Miller is director of the NY Salon in New York

 

 
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