Democrats & Liberals Archives

The Politics of Scientific Truth

In responding to Jack Matel’s post across the way, I hit upon a subject that has long been of concern to me: political interaction with scientific matters. We are a high-tech, scientific culture at heart, and such matters are incredibly important to our society.

The idea in Matel’s post is that somehow Anti-Americanism was the root of the refusal of needed polio vaccine in Nigeria. But even if that’s the case, the real issue is much more complex.

Ignorance is a world-wide problem. Even here people misunderstand evolution, medical science, physics- you name it. The scientific mindset is one that rejects the convenience of conventional wisdom for the rigor and skepticism of methods that take little for granted without testing.

Sometimes it's a matter of power. Those in possession of the truth have more power. If you can get people to believe that you know something they don't, you can wield tremendous influence.

But what if you're wrong? Well, then you will act to keep your ignorance a secret. You will reject farely accurate claims that you don't know what you're talking about. You'll cast recriminations on those who disagree with you, and your followers, emotionally primed to agree with you, will mistrust your critics.

If you're still wrong, though, anything that comes of your successful persuasion of others will go somewhat, if not totally awry. Worse, people will be brought into a certain kind of denial, slowing the correction of that error.

The Republican party, has been party to such perpetuations in the last thirty years, siding with Big Tobacco, creationists, racists, and others who approach scientific truth as an abstract exercise in influence and control.

Reading William Dembski's Intelligent Design, I found out one of his reasons for advocating Intelligent Design (The theory that divine influence can be measured empirically in lifeforms) was the classic creationist rationale that evolution created negative social effects by taking God out of the equation.

I read this, and an alarm goes off. The truth is the truth. People can always act inhumanely and/or immorally on the basis of facts that bear more neutrality or complexity than they percieve. That doesn't mean the evidence supports them. In essence, ID and Creationist advocates only oppose one mistake of interpretation with one of their own.

The fact is, science is not kind to dogma. It's too willing to go back to the drawing board. Some dogmatists, though, take advantage of this changeability, and they use it to either discredit science or justify radical theories of their own on the basis of upcoming paradigm shift. But again, these ideas are often insufficiently understood. Science is not meant to be written in stone. Facts and theory are meant to shift, because science puts things to the test. Some theories and some ideas, as they are currently formulated, will fail, become discredited. It is also meant to change, to follow the trail of evidence and confirmed theory towards the truth.

It is important to note that sciences aim is not vindication, but the painstaking refinement of theories towards the object of truth. That means that the unsettled nature of science is not evidence of it's unreliability, but rather it's robust, vital search for the truth. Scientific theories may change, but the change is directed, guided. That's important in understanding paradigm shift, too.

It's rarely any more convenient in vindicating pet theories than science itself is. Just because you think your theory is the next big thing, doesn't mean you're right. Most science is grunt-work, follow-up. Imagination must meet method, chasing down the clues, confirming necessary implications of the theories.

But of course, some people look at science as a kind of religion, as philosophy on steroids. Paradigm shift is a seductive idea to those people, who see science in mostly social terms. The new overturns the old, sweeps away the outdated ideas of one's opponents.

However, if you know the real story about such shifts, they are often not so radical as they seem. Take Einstein, for example.

Einstein didn't make Newton obsolete in the classical realm. Force times mass still equals acceleration. Equal and opposite reactions still accompany actions. And gravity still works in generally the same fashion. What Einstein did was to refine Newton's picture of gravity, of light, and of objects as they accelerate towards the speed of light. But figuring that out created all kinds of new avenues of discovery. Where Einstein cleared Newton away, he did not put God, or some rules written in stone, but rather explained more things in a better fashion.

Science frustrates many politicians and others seeking power, either by stubbornly insisting on an inconvenient but well-founded theory, or by shifting the ground of supporting evidence beneath the feet of those with vested interests. So, often the relationship is one of convenient lies and omissions.

In the end, though, such lies and omissions create more friction in the machinery of government and society and thereby more needless, stupid conflicts that could be easily resolved by a practical perspective on the scientific evidence.

There are those who rightly question the value of making permanent policy on the basis of theory that may not remain permanently applicable. So what do we do? We insist on reliability. It won't be perfect, but nothing is. The perfect, in the real world, should not be the enemy of the good. We should get used to the idea that we won't get things completely right, but not the idea that the pursuit of the truth is impractical, or just not politically savvy.

The truth will set us free, but only if we are willing to cast aside illusions for its sake. True control of our lives and our freedoms comes from being as informed, as undecieved, and as undeluded as is possible. Only then can we deal with those who know or claim to know as equals. Only then does our democracy and our system of government work like it should.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at January 13, 2005 9:50 AM