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March 13, 2012

Though many theorists have hypothesized that the two are mutually necessary to support each other, democracy and science do not exactly make a two-way street. Just as science can provide evidentiary support for claims about good policy, politics, at its best, can provide monetary support for good science that doesn’t have to meet some private firm’s production goal. But there are pitfalls to this relationship, especially when the political system starts attaching conditions to the support it provides and refuses to accept the conclusions that are independently reached.

This troubled relationship extends beyond this ridiculously overblown contraception debate, which has its basis entirely in religious doctrine and not at all public policy. And it goes far beyond the global warming “debate,” where the scientific community is undermined by politicians crediting the opinions of those who do not engage in the scientific method by preferring the conclusions they reach. You see how deeply troubled our political relationship with science goes when Senators like James Inhofe (R-OK) claim that the Bible is sufficient refutation of global warming. There’s something seriously wrong with our epistemological values.

Genesis 8:22 [says] that ‘as long as the earth remains there will be seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night,’ my point is, God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.

The reason for this trouble is communication. Scientists are notoriously obtuse, inaccessible, and pretentious, and can alienate audiences that are not predisposed to the same (like the writer of this piece). The fact that they have an interest in getting their statements and opinions right, rather than getting them popular is exactly why the public has a Freudian resentment of elites rather than admiration.

Hence, Neil DeGrasse Tyson: widely published and highly regarded astrophysicist, communicator extraordinaire and general badass. And his eloquent, if ignored, defense of NASA and its budgetary woes also make him an economist of sorts because he identifies the opportunity costs that go ignored in the mindless Congressional budgetary battles that fail to consider consequences beyond their own reelection opportunities. But science has consequences both intellectual and inspirational in nature, and those spheres rarely have lobbying groups working on their behalf.

Tyson is important to the world of science because he understands the importance of selling science to the public. He is perhaps the only active “celebrity scientist,” by virtue of his repeated appearances on The Daily Show, Reddit, The Big Bang Theory, and so on. And everyone who profiles this rock star existence cannot help but be surprised at his efficacy as a communicator.

If Tyson inspires the public to believe that science is worth protecting, then he will deserve a Nobel prize (but probably in Peace, rather than physics).

That’s because the public sector’s support for independence science is critical in a world when private firms have readily shown their willingness to engage in dangerous regulatory capture. Science has a tendency of being corrupted and overshadowed by industry that can control and reverse the scientific outcomes when regulated by politics. E.g., “After pork producers contacted his supervisors, a USDA microbiologist was prevented from publishing research showing that emissions from industrial hog farms contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria“; “A few weeks before a CDC advisory panel met to discuss revising federal lead standards, two scientists with ties to the lead industry were added to the panel. The committee voted against tightening the standards“; and “To counter a study that found that formaldehyde caused cancer in rats, a formaldehyde company commissioned its own study. That study-which found no association between the chemical and cancer-exposed only one-third the number of rats to formaldehyde for half as long as the original study. A formaldehyde association quickly publicized the results and argued before the Consumer Product Safety Commission that they indicated “no chronic health effects from exposure to the level of formaldehyde normally encountered in the home.”

If we don’t work to establish a stronger scientific backbone, through public support of groups that act scientifically (i.e., by consensus, using the scientific method, etc.), we are basically saying that we don’t care to know how we know what we know. Or, for that matter, who is tampering with with what we “know.”

The Truth is not something we vote on.


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