politicizing science the right way
Last week, we talked about why science needs to be more visible in politics, and why it’s folly to assume that scientists could function without politicians who understand the value of their work and drag societies into the future in spite of their desire to follow. Today, let’s consider the counterpoint brought to us by the same pundits who specialize in political horse races because it’s one of the crucial steps of any scientific through process to self-criticize. But what exactly is wrong with fighting against the War on Science and working towards a Science Party? Well, right now it would mean backing Democrats in their quest to regain control of Congress in 2018 and writing off the GOP as a lost cause, which leads us into the dark, dark realms of polls and brutal realities of partisan affiliations. And as the numbers show, Republicans who back Trump voice a much lower support for science funding, scientists being given influence over policy, and science education. This data, according to popular science columnist Daniel Engber, means that the planned march of scientists on the White House is bound to fall on deaf ears and do very little to sway minds that have already been made up.
Here’s the thing though. Those of us in the STEM community already know all of this. Sure, we put up with our fair share of lefty woo, but it’s far more common for us to deal with angry right wing polemics condemning us to the fiery bowels of Hell for doubting creationism in all its forms, and perhaps as an odd quirk from the days when this blog was syndicated, some of the most vitriolic anti-scientific feedback I received was from readers from Texas, one of the most anti-science states in the union. Even when I still thought that it was unwise to make science more political, it seemed like scientists had very little choice but to support Democrats precisely because Republicans playing to their base constantly attack research and secular, fact-based education. It isn’t surprising then that 314 Action, the organization searching for scientists ready to run for public office, is strictly partisan and backs only Democratic candidates with the resulting political narrative being that scientists are just one more facet of the liberal uproar in the face of a far right populist assault on their very way of life and fundamental beliefs.
But all this means is that scientists working with Democrats today are in a marriage of convenience. We need a political party to back us, we have two to choose from, and one is busy demonizing us to an increasingly hostile and anti-intellectual core. Yet the message from the STEM community isn’t along the lines of declaring that the capital gains tax should be increased or that it is imperative for us to restore union memberships while pursuing free trade. Those are purely political and economic stances. No, what scientists want to say is that a) we’re here, we do studies and experiments, we have facts, and we’re not afraid to use them en masse, and b) explain that science isn’t some liberal elitist thing, but something everyone needs and uses. That the fallacy of “agree to disagree my good chum” doesn’t work with issues we studied in depth and understand thoroughly enough to suggest policies because one of the most important things about math and science is that no matter how far left or far right you are, the experiments and the math will always show you the same results as to your political rivals, and pretending that science could be voted on, or is “just a matter of interpretation” is malicious ignorance.
When people typically think of science, they think of what they see in news, on blogs, and brought up in random political debates, and the media does a very shitty job of covering real studies and innovations. Even an enthusiastic amateur who really wants to share something interesting could really mess up by misrepresenting the scope and mechanics of what’s going on. Just for example, take this story about the AI behind Google’s translation service, in which it’s credited with coming up with its own language. If you are totally unfamiliar with artificial neural networks and the principles of propositional calculus, it sounds like a computer came to life. It gets eyeballs and shares in a hurry and fuels belief in the coming of the Technological Singularity. But if you’re well versed in AI, you see a machine doing some cool math. Math is a scary subject to many people and no one wants to write about it because few people will read it, unlike the awesome article about a computer inventing a language on its own (but not really). As a result, people come away knowing less about a scientific field of inquiry than if they didn’t read anything, then tell their friends about how computers are now thinking up languages.
This brings us back to the polls in which people show a vociferous distrust in science and scientists. They’re actually voicing their distrust in caricatures of science and technology they see on the news and manipulated by marketers looking to sell something, or distorted by PR professionals looking to skew it to the benefit of a client who doesn’t like the implications of the data, or just what they heard from friends and coworkers not happy that they might have to change a habit or quit a favorite hobby in light of the findings. All of these popular factoids are turned into simplistic answers to complex problems we see growing more and more untethered from reality, then quickly, with little debate, codified into law that often punishes scientists for the temerity to let data get in the way of ideology. That’s the actual War on Science, not “elites” vs. populists, not liberals vs. conservatives; it’s ignorance and dogma vs. the volumes of peer reviewed research and genuine expertise, conspiracies and pseudoscience vs. actual events and the pursuit of real knowledge. To what party a political hack who wants to muzzle any dissenting expert belongs is not even a secondary concern, it’s the muzzling we’re worried about.
All those scientists and engineers who will march in D.C. won’t be there for a statement on how bad Republicans are to then praise Democrats. They’ll be there to remind voters that if they choose to follow a political party that praises a disdainful attitude towards science and education, they’ll be worse off in the long run, even if the damage takes a long time to register. Instead of the media or politicians speaking for them and further contributing to all the existing misunderstandings, they want to speak for themselves and see if showing a human face to the world will move the polls in the favor. And this is why the existing polls are both useful but irrelevant to what we’re seeing from the political awakening of the STEM community. Maybe it won’t make much of a difference in the short run, but it will at least show that science is not something to distort and kick around without consequences any longer, and that scientists and engineers will no longer just sigh and shrug in reply to some story or political debate that maligns or distorts their work. They’ll fight back and demand to set the record straight.