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    Scientization Of Politics: Why Political Scientists Suddenly Love Biology
    By Hank Campbell | October 26th 2012 11:06 AM | 24 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0® and co-author of "Science Left Behind".

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    The scientization of politics is taking a cultural or political world view and rationalizing it using science. Since it is election time in America, it has been open season on Republicans, with social scientists, who are around 99% Democrats, looking for ways to convince people to vote for their candidates - but they want to look impartial doing it.

    The latest tool in that cultural arsenal is a shocking misunderstanding of biology - all biology, from genes to hormones to epigenetics.  It happened again in Nature this week.  Now, Nature has endorsed President Obama, this is no shock because they also endorsed him in 2008, along with the rest of science media and most academic scientists who also duplicated that this year.  'Right wing' people are only 16% of even real science academia - and they are a lot less in the social sciences and science media, so even though President Obama has committed the exact same sins against science that President Bush did and Republicans have historically outfunded Democrats in science, academics and science media are going to like him anyway, and then rationalize why.  That's why we have scientization of politics as a term.

    But why endorse political scientists and social psychologists claiming to be experts in biology?  Aren't you, Nature, just adding to the public's misunderstanding of science when you do that?  It isn't necessarily the fault of the writer.  Anyone under the age of 30 who got a journalism degree from a California university has a political skew, and freelancers want to be published so they know they have to write what editors want to read - but editors at Nature should know better than to embrace the latest popular tripe. Instead, we get the modern journalistic failsafe - sentences like "increasing number of studies suggest" which, let's be honest, can mean anything to anyone.

    Only after telling us that we are hard-wired with responses to gay marriage and immigration - no, seriously - does write Lizzie Buchen note "Many of the studies linking biology to politics remain controversial and unreplicated". In other words, they are not science, so why devote 2.000 words to them in a science journal? 

    What we don't get for the next 2,000 words is evidence. Instead, we get a psychologist telling us we are naive if we think people vote on politics because they want to keep their money or help someone else. Then we get a political scientist whose self-described motivation is "I'd like to see people have a little less chutzpah about their political beliefs". The only thing approaching evidence is an ancient study of twins that excited Journal of Theoretical Politics readers but no scientists, with a tenuous claim that identical twins shared the political beliefs of their parents slightly more than fraternal ones.

    That original twins study went nowhere in science, the geneticist behind it says, but in the 2000s more political scientists discovered it and, no surprise, 'replicated' it by doing similar twin surveys in the US.  In an entire Nature article on a supposed biological link to political beliefs, a biology claim gets mentioned one time, and it is a paper on surveys of twins from 1986. The rest is all political scientists and in a few instances they are not even discussing published surveys, they are instead unpublished claims about surveys by a political scientist that get stated as evidence by a journalist.

    Only political scientist Evan Charney of Duke University is noted as balking at the idea that conservatives are biologicaly more resistant to change and therefore more resistant to gay marriage and illegal immigration.  Chaney also notes some self-awareness no one else in the article has; that he and most people in his field are liberals or even hard-left progressives and that bias could impact their search for science-ed up links between politics and biology.

    The scientization of politics is big in 2012 because it has worked so well for the last few years. The closing of the Yucca mountain project, which was intended to store hazardous nuclear waste, was among the more shocking displays of blatant scientization of politics I have ever witnessed. Despite it being the best solution for nuclear waste, determined by exhaustive science studies over the last 25 years, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada did not want it, so he got President Obama to cancel it in 2009, and then they looked for science reasons to do so.

    Dawn Stover wrote on the issue in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
    Two decades later, Obama leaned on science for the political result he wanted. When the music stopped, taxpayers and nuclear power plant operators found themselves right back where they started: with no waste-disposal solution in sight. 
    But who called it out, besides Science 2.0 and the writer cited above?  No one. Instead, in 2009 press secretary Robert Gibbs, said "I think the President has come down on whether or not [Yucca Mountain] makes sense based on the science" - but he did exactly the opposite of what the science actually said and now we are left with lots of different facilities for storing nuclear waste instead of one safe, state-of-the-art one in a remote location.

    Despite the consensus of science and the overwhelming consensus of nuclear scientists, the left wing and its advocacy groups like Greenpeace and Union of Concerned Scientists are overwhelmingly against nuclear power.  Is anyone at Nature examining the biological reason why progressives are so fearful and conservative when it comes to energy and food and medical research?  Did that anti-science event factor into Nature's determination that the Republican candidate is worse than the Democrat?  No, instead their key reason for endorsing a Democrat is a 2009 stimulus plan and that Obama made a minor modification to the US policy on human embryonic stem cell research - yet they frame it as that he "reversed an executive order" and note that they don't know how Romney feels about hESC research, despite the fact that he has supported science every time he spoke on science issues. Invoking hESC research 10 years after it was relevant is really reaching.

    What else has resulted from the increased scientization of politics over the last few years?  Science is now being completely ignored because academic scientists and science media won't call out anti-science positions by Democrats - both candidates know academia is voting one way and science has nothing to do with it, despite what editors in Nature's UK offices claim, so it is safe to just ignore science issues.  Science is a $140 billion constituency and if scientists actually voted on science issues the way the elderly do, or religious people, or teachers, they would be a powerful force.

    By academia being blatantly partisan, we have a situation where neither candidate pays much attention to science. Global warming?  Barely a mention this election, despite it getting token representation in the Democratic party platform - by contrast, God and the capitol of Israel got lots of attention even though they were not in the DNC platform.  And Democrats are far more anti-science on pressing short term issues, like food biology and medical research. President Obama could only hurt himself wading into those waters when 53 out of 55 members of Congress who lobbied the FDA to put national warning labels on GM food are Democrats.  Romney also knows that people who are anti-vaccine and anti-GMO are not voting for a Republican.

    Wouldn't it be great if, instead of politics being a subjective world view, the scientization of politics had a science basis?  Actual biology? Unfortunately, reductionism is not so easy, despite the desires of partisan academic political and social scientists with science envy.

    Comments

    A piece of antiscience history which, I feel, is often overlooked was that Phil Johnson got the idea for Intelligent Design while at UC Berkley during the "science wars" in the early/mid 1990s.

    Hank
    Do you feel like that was (well, is) scientization of politics?  I never heard of it until 2004 but that makes some sense - I was living in Pennsylvania in the 1990s so California coming up with something kooky was just California being California, to those of us elsewhere.  They came up with ebonics across the street from Berkeley at the same time.

    However, even by 2004 I know that biologists were skewed politically. After the Dover decision on teaching ID, every biologist discussing it said something like 'even a Republican judge had to agree' and when someone educated says something so shockingly stupid, you know their political filter is in place.  Other things, like Republicans being against any sort of global warming legislation, were politicization of science rather than scientization of politics.
    There are those who would disagree with me but I think it was.

    There's a Fellow at the Discovery Institute named Steve Fuller who's a left-wing sociologist and he actually testified at the Dover Trial that there was a need for "Affirmative Action" for Intelligent Design.

    Of course, the biggest critics of left-wing attacks on science are left-wing scientists who think it makes the left look bad. I think all academics should be concerned about it making academics look like a bunch of clowns.

    Of course it all gets tied into the Sokal Hoax and the book Fashionable Nonsense -- http://www.amazon.com/Fashionable-Nonsense-Postmodern-Intellectuals-Scie...

    I can't say I agree with Sokal going around playing tricks on people to prove his point and so forth. Still, a lot more attention went to people saying that Global Warming was a hoax or that tobacco smoke didn't cause cancer, but, left-wing academics have been leading the charge against science for a good four decades now.

    In fact, my dad actually dealt with persons called "deconstructionists" thought science was bunk because "everything is a social convention" back in the early 70s.

    Hank
    Sure, the 70s were the postmodernist heyday, Paul Feyerabend and all that (Berkeley again), but when the original postmodernists had given way to an even goofier generation of pseudo-philosophers, who lacked the ability to think or even had a pretense of loving science the way Feyerabend claimed, is what led to the Sokal affair. He wasn't playing tricks, he was proving what everyone knew; philosophy had become sophistry and linguistic nonsense - and he was right.
    Your description of the Union of Concerned Scientists is wrong on two counts. UCS is not left wing, nor is it against nuclear power. We are pro nuclear safety. For more information on our perspective, see http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear_power/nuclear_power_and_global_warming/ucs....

    As for whether Yucca Mountain was a suitable site for long-term storage of nuclear waste, not all scientists agreed. For example, Thomas Cochran, a physicist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, was not convinced. For more on Cochran's perspective, see http://docs.nrdc.org/nuclear/files/nuc_08010701a.pdf.
    -- Elliott Negin, Union of Concerned Scientists

    Hank
    Not all scientists agree on climate change either, yet the consensus of climate scientists is what counts.  And the consensus among nuclear scientists is that it is safe and would be a whole lot safer if activists - and your employer was founded to be against everything nuclear so you are not exempt from blame - hadn't driven it out of the country.

    How many of your over 100 employees are Republican, if you are so non-partisan?   In reality, there are 3 crucial issues facing America and your company is against the science consensus on two of them; food and energy.  Only on global warming do you think scientists are not out to kill us all.
    Hank: I don't know if there is a survey out there that shows a scientific consensus on the safety of nuclear power. If there is, please send me a link. Safety is relative, no? Some energy sources are safer than others. And UCS has made a good case that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and plant owners could do a better job ensuring the safety of U.S. reactors. Some plant owners do an admirable job, some don't. In any case, I doubt you read our official position on nuclear power. I urge you to do that.

    I don't have any idea what political party my colleagues prefer. And we are free to support whatever candidates we like in our personal lives. But our organization does not endorse candidates or parties. That's what I mean by nonpartisan.

    What consensus on food and energy are we against? Are you suggesting that all scientists in the energy field endorse nuclear power over other energy sources or subscribe to the idea that nuclear power couldn't be safer? Are you suggesting that all food scientists endorse genetically engineered crops, even when they have not significantly increased yields, if at all? If you exclude industry scientists and scientists who rely on industry funding, you would find different opinions among independent scientists on these issues.

    The evidence for human-induced climate change is overwhelming. The evidence that GE crops are beneficial is decidedly not overwhelming, nor is the evidence that nuclear power is "safe."

    Hank
    The evidence for human-induced climate change is overwhelming. The evidence that GE crops are beneficial is decidedly not overwhelming, nor is the evidence that nuclear power is "safe."
    That is cherry picking. Hundreds of millions of people have been fed over the last 15 years without a single stomachache due to GMOs yet that is 'not overwhelming' whereas the evidence for climate change is?  

    Saying you are 'non-partisan' is silly when your platform just happens to match the anti-science left on all three key points. During the Bush administration you issued dozens of complaints about the manipulation and control of science for political reasons yet have not found a single instance during the last four years, despite President Obama doing the exact same thing you gathered 4,000 signatures about back then.   You'll have to excuse us for being skeptical you are nonpartisan just because you don't 'officially' endorse candidates but implicitly are afraid to go after the anti-science policies of anyone with a Democrat before their name.  Even in your criticisms of the FDA you won't mention Democrats the way you used to harp on Republicans, you simply say it is evil corporations now.
    Hank: This will be my last response.

    UCS has reviewed the independent scientific literature on GE crops in the United States and concluded that the promise of GE crops has not been realized, and that the biotech industry overstates their benefits. See http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/our-failing-food-system/genet... for more information.

    Under the Obama administration federal agencies have been working on new, stronger scientific integrity standards. We have been monitoring their progress. For more information, see http://www.ucsusa.org/scientific_integrity/solutions/agency-specific_sol.... We have been particularly concerned about the Food and Drug Administration. For more information on that, see http://www.ucsusa.org/scientific_integrity/solutions/agency-specific_sol.... What we haven't seen in this administration is the wholesale censoring of federal scientists, which is what we saw during the Bush administration.

    Hank
    Oddly, the scientists working on the BP oil spill were quite vocal on their disgust for the wholesale censoring of science that occurred under the Obama administration.  So the environment and the FDA would seem to be two really big ones to impartial people.  Can you name more instances of Republicans censoring science in this wholesale form you claim?  I can't.   But I am not a paid advocate.

    So your position now is that UCS is in support of GMOs, they just have not been realized and they are overhyped, just like human embryonic stem cell research was during the Bush years and part of the reason you labeled him anti-science?  I'm happy to quote you as saying UCS is all for GMOs, despite everything your fundraising campaigns claim - I'll give you a free ad here for a million readers.
    Instead of making unfounded accusations, I invite you to take a look at our website. In fact, UCS was highly critical of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for underestimating the extent of the BP oil spill. We also criticized the Minerals Management Service for its role. (See http://www.ucsusa.org/scientific_integrity/abuses_of_science/deepwater-h... and http://www.ucsusa.org/scientific_integrity/abuses_of_science/mms-badscie....)

    The Bush administration's efforts to censor federal scientists, especially on climate change and endangered species, were widely reported by the mainstream press. Check out the book "Undermining Science: Suppression and Distortion in the Bush Administration" by Seth Shulman. You can find it on Amazon.

    Finally, you are misrepresenting what I said about genetically engineered crops. According to independent scientific studies, biotech companies have misrepresented and overstated the benefits of their products. In fact, traditional breeding methods have been much more successful over the last 15 years. If you would like to know more about our position on GE crops, I again invite you to take a look at our website.

    Hank
    These are simple questions.  Is UCS anti-GMO or not? Is UCS anti-nuclear power or not?  Like when Bush was president, there is no waffling and qualifications and nuance, it is black or white.  Unless things are only black and white when a Republican is in office.
    Hank, you make some good points in this article (and in your book), but the either/or fallacy you're invoking in your response here creates a false choice, whoever is in office. Why use it if you're criticizing someone else for doing the same thing? Asking whether someone is for GMOs or against them -- or for nuclear power or against it -- is a way of seducing an audience (or interlocutor) into thinking there really are only two choices when there most often are quite a few others. People on both sides of the political divide use this type of selective contrast to short circuit constructive debate, but what we need right now from boths sides is not reductive reasoning but engagement with complexity, especially when it comes to science-based issues.

    As a politically independent non-scientists, I personally would like to better understand what I should think about GMOs. However, it does not help me to hear the GMOs-are-100%-good vs. GMOs-are-100%-bad case made over and over again in the interest of winning a political rather than a scientific argument. I don't care what your politics or Elliot's or UCS's are. Instead, what I do care about is whether GMOs are 100% good all the time in every case or if they are good some of the time but there is some reason to be cautious some of the time. Because GMOs are here to stay whether we like it or not. The 100% anti-GMO position may be held by some radical environmentalists, but it's unrealistic. The argument to be had -- and that I want to hear -- is how public policy (and individual consumers) should deal with them. It's not a for-or-against argument. From what I can tell, UCS isn't AEI but it isn't Greenpeace, either. Why not have a nuanced conversation about how the science should inform policy rather than a reductive one about the politics?

    Just my two cents ...

    Hank
    You make a fine point but I am writing about an either/or choice - so it is necessary to show the flaws of that argument by making solid arguments for the other side.

    To then say 'there is no right answer' or something like 'these issues are too complex' would feel wishy-washy to me. So instead I note that the reasons Nature uses for its political endorsement are not evidence-based and then I show why.  Am I endorsing Romney?  No. What I am endorsing is the idea that if scientists voted on science issues, they would not vote 84% for a guy who did the exact same things Bush did.

    There is no 100% safe for GMOs, though I echo your sentiment I would like to get closer.  I am certainly not in the bag for big companies - not Monsanto, not Merck, not anyone - and I have criticized them all in quantity. I ridicule anti-vaccine people but if someone tells me that HPV vaccines should be as mandatory as MMR, I am going after them; there is a benefit analysis versus economic cost that HPV falls on the wrong side of. With GMOs, and unlike organic sprouts, there has never been an instance of anyone getting ill - that is hundreds of millions of people over a decade.  So the benefit analysis versus risk is clear.

    Saying we need to be cautious about GMOs until they can be proven 100% safe but then getting into an automobile and driving 60 miles per hour defies logic. The former is far, far safer than the latter.

    I like your last sentence but you are holding me to a rather unfair standard.  99 science writers are making reductive arguments to endorse Pres. Obama but you want 1 to be nuanced and balanced.  That is the last thing from balance.  In the book (and thank you for reading it!) we obviously don't make it about political parties and seek to parse out the kooks, but even then we had to focus on the left, because corporate science media has taken two issues - evolution and global warming - and declared them the only two controversies in science.  So that they can criticize right wing people.
    UvaE
    Given the recent science track record of both parties, why would a science journal like Nature want to endorse anyone? 

    Hank
    I think even the first part of your sentence could be eliminated and still be valid; why would a science journal endorse anyone?  Like academia itself, science media has become overwhelmingly partisan.
    Actually, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff (federal staff & research center) of scientists and engineers had found in the Jaczko-suppressed (insult #1) Volume 3 of the Yucca Mountain Safety Evaluation Report that Yucca Mt. that it was safe (insult #2), but Obama and Reid forced the Secretary of Energy into a 180 turnaround to speak out against Yucca in spite of his earlier public stance (insult #3) and all this BEFORE the NRC technical staff had come to its conclusion (wag the dog), and, before the DOE application had opportunity to be argued in the light of day. Why? Because the scientists and engineers would demonstrate how it could be licensed safely, and the politicians could not fight that battle and win it. So, they corrupted the process. Ugh.

    Hank
    Jaczko was a former aide to Harry Reid, so no surprise in his efforts to withhold information from his own commission. What is more surprising is that Stephen Chu, an energy physicist, caved so easily and withdrew it because of Reid's objection.  That is why Yucca is the gold standard example of the scientization of politics.  The science was blatantly ignored for political convenience but the two groups I cited in this article cheered the decision because it matches their anti-science beliefs.
    Well put, Fred. I couldn't agree more.

    Hank
    Obama, Romney pander on U.S. nuclear waste - the scientization of politics is not just Democrats, obviously.  In the primaries, Romney had no use for wind power yet now says it is awesome.  And Obama (and Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid) claim they love nuclear power - just like the marketing guy for UCS says UCS does above - but they want it somewhere else.  Like Pluto. Romney could stand apart from Obama and for science and endorse a safe Yucca mountain installation again but the NIMBY-ism of Nevada people means he would be risking 6 electoral votes. 

    Pres. Obama flip-flopped on everything once he got the presidential seal and that was bad - in Romney's case, flip-flopping would be a good thing.
    Hanks, thanks for linking to my column on the "scientization" of politics. As I mentioned in the column, although White House press secretary Gibbs suggested that the decision to abandon Yucca Mountain was based on science, the Energy Department later explained that Yucca Mountain was taken off the table because it was impossible to resolve Nevada's objections to the site. Scientifically speaking, the jury is still out on whether Yucca Mountain would be a safe place to store radioactive waste for thousands of years. Although the Energy Department approved Yucca Mountain, an independent US Nuclear Technical Waste Review Board said the Energy Department's performance estimates suffered from "gaps in data and basic understanding."

    Hank
    Sure, I thought it was wonderfully honest for a group that is against nuclear science and in the advocacy business to criticize both the left and the right in an article. In modern times, too often the trenches are clearly drawn, so at least your group is superior to UCS, Greenpeace and others who refuse to criticize any Democrat, no matter what they do to manipulate science for their goals.

    While you feel the jury may be out on Yucca Mountain (it isn't, no science consensus has ever been 100% and never will be - there is a greater consensus on Yucca mountain and nuclear power than there is on climate change) the jury is not out that a modern single location for waste is superior to dozens of different locations that are far more risky. I would hope that people who are concerned about nuclear waste would embrace a state-of-the-art facility.
    If you're speaking about the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, it is definitely not "against nuclear science." To the contrary, the Bulletin was founded by nuclear scientists and engineers, and continues to publish their views and analyses from a broad range of perspectives. Although we regularly explore ways to prevent catastrophe from the intentional or accidental use of nuclear, carbon-based and biology- based technologies, the Bulletin does not advocate for or against nuclear energy.

    Hank
    Fair enough. We can all live without nuclear weapons and I concede that I regard science as a libertarian endeavor and how is it used is for policy makers to determine (and limit) so my filter is a little different than yours - and Bulletin is critical of Iran and N Korea also, so I applaud that.  They seem to have stopped the cheerleading every time it is shown nuclear power usage has declined so perhaps today they are not advocating against nuclear energy. That has obviously not been the case historically, there has just been no new nuclear power in the US for 15 years to lobby against.
     
    Most politically neutral pro-science energy people are less pleased that someone whose primary qualification was being against Yucca Mountain is once again running the NRC, put there by the very guy who has been the poster child for politicization of science regarding Yucca Mountain.  But I linked to you specifically because you called out the blatant politics of the Yucca decision, even if the Bulletin Science and Security Board chair was against the project.

    We can't tell developing nations to use a rational approach regarding science and energy and the example we set is saying no nuclear scientist is qualified to steer our policy on nuclear power but an environmental activist is. We don't have a geologist running the NIH and we need an energy scientist running the NRC too.