07 September 2011

Science has a politics problem

Scientists are understandably upset that presidential candidates (and the President himself) see a political upside to ignoring their work.    And, as scientists often do, they're analyzing this.  Stuff like comparing the brains of liberals and conservatives.

Sure, some liberals are scared of things like genetically modified foods or animal testing, as John Timmer points out.  But to me this is largely a GOP phenomena.  Normally I don't get all that wrapped up in the crazy statements that political candidates make early in the presidential primary; generally these statements are designed simply to get attention and then walked back once the cameras are rolling.   You know, like "social security is a ponzi scheme." Whatever.  

But I hope my scientist friends also look at the "meta-analysis" of this issue coming from noteworthy people in the GOP.  Mike Lofgren, until recently a veteran GOP congressional staffer, wrote a stunningly candid piece for Truth Out that explains how the current "lunatics" leading his party prompted his retirement.  This in particular struck me:
A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.
 A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters' confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that "they are all crooks," and that "government is no good," further leading them to think, "a plague on both your houses" and "the parties are like two kids in a school yard." This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s - a distrust that has been stoked by Republican rhetoric at every turn ("Government is the problem," declared Ronald Reagan in 1980).
Get that?  Lofgren, a Republican, is claiming that the GOP strategy is to destroy the government so they can rule it.  And that strategy relies on an ignorant public full of "low information voters."

Of course, implicit in this self-destruct strategy is the willful attacks on any expertise that might save us.   Jonah Goldberg, one of the leading "intellectuals" of the right from his perch at National Review wrote a recent article called "Seduced by the Cult of Experts" where he proudly asserts:
The cult of experts has acolytes in all ideological camps, but its most institutionalized following is on the left. The Left needs to believe in the authority of experts because without that authority, almost no economic intervention can be justified. If you concede that you have no idea whether your remedy will work, it’s going to be hard to sell it to the patient. Market-based ideologies don’t have that problem because markets expect events in ways experts never can.
Outstanding, isn't it? "The Left" has to believe not in the merits of any argument being put forward but in the authority of those making the arguments, because if the rest of us pay attention to things like education or experience we might actually have to accept expensive things like, say, taking the lead out of paint. Thank Heavens markets don't have to worry about such silly things.

Ironically the folks at The Economist have the audacity to suggest otherwise:
...markets reward expertise handsomely. Unemployment rates fall and compensation rises as one obtains more education. Holders of advanced degrees do best in the labour market. Mr Goldberg may not value expertise, but markets do. That doesn't mean, of course, that we should turn over governance of a country and its economy to a Council of Learned Citizens. It does mean, however, that when elected officials are carrying out the important business of government it is a very good idea for those officials to rely on the analysis of experts. It's what the market would do.
To me this is a very simple issue. There's currently a political upside to ignoring science. If you want politicians to accept science, you have to show them the political downside of disregarding it. Scientists don't do that very well.  They don't speak the language politicians understand.  They don't donate money in large amounts.   They don't work with politically-savvy PR firms to develop real strategies and test messages.   They don't conduct outreach on a large scale in the way that critics of science do - ways that would address that "low-information voter" thing.

In this way scientists are no different than any other "special interest."  Most special interests claim not to be "special" at all - rather they feel they are integral to our success as a nation or more.   Scientists could certainly make that claim.  But inside the Beltway, there's a long line of interests all claiming to be central to our mutual prosperity.   Science is at a huge disadvantage because by definition it speaks with several voices, not one.


Gerty-Z said...

As a scientist, I totally agree with you that we have a problem with politics. The question is what can we do about it? Yes, it would be great if more scientists could be engaged with their politicians. But right now it is hard enough to keep a lab going, especially as a new PI. Funding sucks (another thing that might be different if we had more political clout) and my day is already pretty full with trying to startup my research program.

I guess it just seems to me that we are always complaining about our "politics problems" but I don't know what to do about it. I support AAAS and even give them money, and I call my elected officials when something catches my attention. What am I missing?

tmbtx said...

I think the politics problem is a symptom of a cultural problem. The majority of Americans tend to be in the "science and math are hard" camp. This, combined with a view that scientists come across as "elitist" and you have an environment that's ripe for bad politics.

And let's face it, we're not very good at communicating to non-scientists. I try, but I don't do it very well. Who do we have as a communicator lately aside from Bill Nye? Creationist-bashers don't count as communicators.

A third point would be the state of public education. We're not going to get great science teachers by offering teachers $25k starting salaries. This leads to a continuous cycle of very poor public understanding. I can still remember my 5th grade teacher telling us to go visit the Redwood forests before California fell into the ocean.

David said...

Gerty, your challenges are essentially the same as any working person trying to make ends meet. Small business owners may not be running a lab, but they have similar demands on their time in terms of developing products, selling, etc. Nobody has time.

The organizations that claim to represent you are totally overmatched by industrial PAC's. There's "big oil," "big pharma," "too-big-to-fail banks," agriculture interests, and so on. AAAS, for example, doesn't invest a tenth of what these groups do in politics or political communication. Most of other groups that want to advocate are either 501(c)3 corporations that are restricted from lobbying or just staffed with people who don't have a lot of experience.

Most importantly there's no STRATEGY that outlines priorities and goals, and no entity that can implement it with discipline over time. That's where you have to start.

David said...

tmbtx, it's not that there's a "science and math are hard" camp, it's that science and math are ACTUALLY HARD. That's why the only people who do them well tend to be really smart. ;)

As for coming off as elitist, that's a communications issue. For example, Bill Clinton is a brilliant man, but he doesn't come off as elitist.

As for paying teachers a reasonable wage, to me that's just common sense and long overdue.

tmbtx said...

So who's going to volunteer to drop their scientific endeavors to craft a strategy to advance an agenda?

crickets chirping...

Is there anyone aside from AAAS? Who does it now? Maybe you can augment this blog post with some links to job openings in science and public policy. I'd be tempted, but I wouldn't know the first place to look for this kind of work.

Gerty-Z said...

I agree totally with tmbtx. It is great to say that "we need to have more lobbyists that care about science". but pragmatically what can we actually DO?

Anonymous said...

Consider applying for a AAAS Science Policy Fellowship:


A previous post-doc from my lab is doing one and is learning a lot about science policy and how to improve it.