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Science and politics

Science and politics need counselling, not a separation
Jack Stilgoe
The Guardian, 21 December 2012
 http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2012/dec/21/science-policy-brian-cox?CMP=twt_fd

*Brian Cox and Robin Ince say they're fighting for the status of science, but they're picking the wrong fight

A piece by Brian Cox and Robin Ince in the New Statesman has excited that corner of the Twittersphere concerned with things scientific. Their argument is that, because science has been twisted and undermined by politicians, there needs to be clearer separation between scientific truths and political values.

I think it's worth spending some time thinking about what's going on here. As corroborative evidence, I'd also like to submit Royal Society president Paul Nurse's recent anniversary address (pdf).
 http://royalsociety.org/uploadedFiles/Royal_Society_Content/about-us/history/anniversary/2012-11-30_Anniversary%20Address.pdf

I welcome the recent involvement of Cox and Ince in a debate that has long been dominated by scientific grandees. They and Nurse are thoughtful people interested in the relationship between science and society, and they work hard to improve it.

Those of us who teach and write about science policy, the philosophy of science and the history of science can join a clichéd academic chorus of "it's more complicated than that". The historians can remind Nurse that scientists are not as sceptical of their own ideas as he would like us to believe. The philosophers can tell Cox and Ince that there is no single "scientific method". The sociologists can point out that Nature (oddly capitalised, as @green_gambit pointed out) does not speak for itself. And the policy wonks can wryly observe that advocates of "evidence-based policy" seem to forget their mantra when it comes to science policy.

Such rejoinders are healthy and important, but they miss a bigger point. Cox, Ince and Nurse are fighting for the status of science. They are standing up for science in the face of an imagined enemy. My problem with their rhetoric is that it is bad politics. They are picking the wrong fight and giving the wrong impression about science. Their aim is to boost the credibility of science, but the effect is the opposite.

All three call for a separation between science and politics. Cox and Ince want "a place where science stops and politics begins". Nurse wants to "keep science as far as is possible from political, ideological and religious influence". But their own rhetorical tangles demonstrate just how hard this is.

Cox and Ince are right to say: "The loud criticism of climate science is motivated in the main not by technical objections, but by the difficult political choices with which it confronts us." But they are wrong to equate the rantings of climate change deniers as "an attack on the scientific method". To say such things only confirms the deniers' suspicions that science is trying to close off its discussions. Science is strong enough to withstand and benefit from scepticism, even if that scepticism is more disorganised than scientists would like.

Climate science cannot be separated from climate politics, and this is a good thing. Nurse laments that scientists are "only human". This is a good thing too. Many climate scientists are driven by a personal desire to describe and solve a big problem, and most of them are funded because their work is seen as politically important as well as scientifically interesting.

Moving along the litany of controversies involving science to GM crops, Nurse claims that the scientific consensus view is that regulatory procedures for GM crops "should be similar to those used for conventionally produced crop plants". Renewed enthusiasm for GM crops in the UK is seen as a welcome "return to the science". To my ears, those statements sound rather, well, political. As I have argued before, science never had one view on GM crops.
 http://jackstilgoe.wordpress.com/2012/02/21/anti-anti-science/

In the past few decades, the UK has seen greatly improved debates about science and technology. Successive governments have realised the importance of investing in science. They no longer pretend that science has all the answers. The lessons from controversies over GM crops and mad cow disease (BSE) led to what the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee called "a new humility on the part of science in the face of public attitudes". There are echoes of this in Nurse's speech. He admits that Climategate illustrated how important areas of science may have been too secretive. He says, "Scientists have to listen to the public." But such statements cannot disguise his distaste for public and political debate. He caricatures public opposition to GM crops as being based on mistaken unease about eating "food containing genes", downplaying serious public concerns about corporate control of the world's food supply.

Churchill was right to have argued that science should be "on tap, not on top". For Cox and Ince, this won't do. For policy, they call science an "adjudicator above opinion". But policy debates can rarely be reduced to questions of fact. Science cannot tell us what food to eat, nor can it tell us what to do about climate change. It can certainly help, but only if we understand its limits, its uncertainties and its politics.

Cox, Ince and Nurse want science to matter to politics and the public. But they are too defensive. Nobody is suggesting, as Cox and Ince fear, that we abandon science. Those who claim to fight for science, by shoring up the boundaries around science, retreat from political relevance, belittling science and damaging its public credibility.

(And please, scientists, don't point out that the Twittersphere can't have corners).

Jack Stilgoe teaches science policy at University College London