Science or Politics? — a short story

Posted on 2018 July 29

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Science is a process of discovery, not an end state, and its consensus of the moment should not be enshrined in the law and imposed at gunpoint. — Jeffrey Tucker

“These small animals cannot get past a thirty-foot-tall barrier. It interferes with their ability to move about. And because of climate change — which we caused — their populations will suffer because they cannot migrate north past the wall as temperatures increase. The wall therefore constitutes a significant danger to those habitats.”

“Two questions. First, you said ‘We caused climate change.’”

“What, you don’t agree?”

“I think nearly everyone in this auditorium concurs with you on that. Why bring it up?”

“Well, we need to remind our fellow scientists, as well as members of the media in attendance, of the seriousness of these human-caused problems and the need to do something about it.”

“Then you’ve just answered my second question.” 

“Which was…?”

“Is this a science conference or a political rally?”

“I beg your pardon—”

“It can only be one or the other.”

“This is science! We’re reporting our research. And it’s our duty to warn others that the president’s cockamamie immigration wall will do great damage to the environment.”

“It sounds like you’re doing agitprop. It certainly isn’t science, not if your announcement makes predictions you haven’t tested, and not if you’re sounding alarm bells before other researchers have replicated your results.”

“Look, I don’t know what degree mill you got your fake diploma from, sir, but—”

“As it happens, I got my PhD from the same university as you. We’re fellow alumni but several years apart.”

“And apparently dozens of I-Q points apart as well.”

“That may be, professor, but it’s easy to see that blending science with political action dilutes the science and damages its reputation.”

“But I’m reporting the facts!”

“You’re reporting some data and your personal moral views about that data. Data are objective, but moralizing is subjective and not a part of science. When you use your own research to throw down in the political arena, you no longer can be neutral and dispassionate about your data. From here on out, you’re seriously biased. And that’s sad, because I read your report and it’s good work. The data speak for themselves. Clearly there’s a danger that the wall might cause disruption in migration patterns. That’s all you need to say.”

“But people don’t listen! We need to wake them up.”

“If you want to do politics, take off your lab coat and go on a campaign. But when headlines scream, ‘Scientist Takes Sides Against President’, people get confused about whether science is truly unbiased. We need public support for good research far more than we need to use science as a battering ram against a particular government policy.”

“But this is an urgent matter!”

“There are a lot of urgent matters. And science can help. But if you scream ‘The sky is falling’ at every urgency, pretty soon no one will listen.”

“Look, I’ve thought this through carefully. And I’m not as dumb as you seem to believe.”

“I don’t think you’re dumb at all. Still, scientists tend to think of themselves as an intellectual elite, sometimes to the point where they believe they’re exempt from the thinking fallacies of other people. They assume they’re beyond bias and fail to double-check their logic when they get emotionally involved in a topic. Thus they can fool themselves worse than almost anybody.”

“Let me guess. Next, you’re going to suggest we back off and simply do more research. That’s what our opponents always say, because they know it takes time to do studies, and then they debate against the findings and suggest we do even more research, all of which cause delay. And we need action now.

“Science is humble. It’s methodical and plodding. Yet it leads to disease cures, abundant food, high-tech cities, smartphones, and space travel. And, over time, it tends to solve those emerging problems that get us into a panic. When we freak out, we force the research and bend it out of shape and then use our findings like cudgels against our enemies. And then people stop trusting us, support for science dwindles, and in the long run we all suffer. So please … please … don’t waste the good name of science by using it as a political weapon.”

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