Science and Politics: An A-to-Z Guide to Issues and Controversies


Edited by: Brent S. Steel

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      About the Editor

      Brent S. Steel is professor of Political Science and director of the Public Policy Graduate Program at Oregon State University. He received a BA in Economics and Government from Eastern Washington University and a PhD and MA in Political Science from Washington State University. Dr. Steel is on the editorial boards of Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy, Political Research Quarterly, and the Journal of Public Affairs and Development. He teaches courses in science and politics, public policy, research methods, environmental policy, and sustainable development. He has worked on sustainable development and policy issues in Africa, Asia, Eastern and Western Europe, South America, North America, and Russia. He has published numerous journal articles, book chapters, and books concerning public policy in areas such as forestry, rangelands, endangered species, coastal and marine issues, environmental issues, and sustainable development. He is the coauthor of State and Local Government: Prospects for Sustainability (Oxford University Press, 2011) and a contributing author to Acting as if Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability (Environmental Law Institute, 2012).


      Scott Akins Oregon State University

      Leslie R. Alm Boise State University

      Daniel Brian Andersen Oregon State University

      Rebecca Arce Oregon State University

      Dana Lee Baker Washington State University

      David Bernell Oregon State University

      Stephen Bocking Trent University

      Helen Briassoulis University of the Aegean

      Annemarie Bridy University of Idaho College of Law

      Thomas Brister Wake Forest University

      M. Alex Brown Oregon State University

      Jeremy T. Bruskotter The Ohio State University

      Dylan Bugden Oregon State University

      Stanley M. Caress University of West Georgia

      David P. Carter University of Colorado Denver

      Stephen J. Ceccoli Rhodes College

      Cara A. Chiaraluce University of California, Davis

      Joseph O. Clark Oregon State University

      Derron Coles Oregon State University

      Lori A. Cramer Oregon State University

      Ian T. Davidson Oregon State University

      Anthony Dell’Aera Union College

      John C. Dernbach Widener University

      Kimberly A. Downing University of Cincinnati

      Kathryn T. Dzurec-Dunton Georgetown University Health Policy Institute

      Jeremy Eckstein Oregon State University

      Brian Elbel New York University School of Medicine and Wagner School of Public Service

      Nora Engel Maastricht University

      Kelly L. Erickson University of Puget Sound

      Amber Esping Texas Christian University

      Hillary Fishler Oregon State University

      A. Lee Fritschler George Mason University

      Joan Fujimura University of Wisconsin–Madison

      Snehalatha Gantla Oregon State University

      Tamas Golya Oregon State University

      Brian J. Gullekson Oregon State University

      Daniel Hauser Oregon State University

      Tanya Heikkila University of Colorado Denver

      Anne Ellen Henderson Notre Dame of Maryland University

      Sarah L. Henderson Oregon State University

      John R. Hermann Trinity University

      Krissi Mary Hewitt Oregon State University

      Vanessa E. Holfeltz Oregon State University

      Elizabeth Houser Oregon State University

      Monica Hubbard Boise State University

      Abdullah H. M. Husain Oregon State University

      Shana M. Judge University of New Mexico

      Zachary Kallenborn University of Puget Sound

      Łukasz Kamieński Jagiellonian University

      Nina Therese Kasniunas Goucher College

      Karen M. Kedrowski Winthrop University

      Rogan Kersh Wake Forest University

      David Kinkela SUNY Fredonia

      Anna Kirkland University of Michigan

      Philipp Kneis Oregon State University

      Elise Korejwa Oregon State University

      Denise Lach Oregon State University

      Karl Leib Christian Brothers University

      Nicholas P. Lovrich, Jr. Washington State University

      Kevin Makinson Oregon State University

      Brian Martin University of Wollongong

      Christopher Mathews Oregon State University

      Deborah R. McFarlane University of New Mexico

      Edward J. Miller University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point

      Russell W. Mills Bowling Green State University

      Clayton Mosher Washington State University Vancouver

      Jarrod Olson Oregon State University

      Jeremiah Osborne-Gowey Oregon State University

      Madhukar Pai McGill University

      Ashley N. Parker Oregon State University

      Michelle C. Pautz University of Dayton

      John C. Pierce University of Kansas

      Jonathan J. Pierce University of Colorado Denver

      John J. Pitney, Jr. Claremont McKenna College

      Dwaine Plaza Oregon State University

      Jonathan A. Plucker University of Connecticut

      Kimala Price San Diego State University

      Ramya Rajagopalan University of Wisconsin–Madison

      Elisha Renne University of Michigan

      David B. Resnik National Institutes of Health

      Juan D. Rogers Georgia Institute of Technology

      John M. Rothgeb, Jr. Miami University (Ohio)

      Catherine E. Rudder George Mason University

      Lawrence Ruiz Oregon State University

      Matthew Shapiro Illinois Institute of Technology

      Mehra Shirazi Oregon State University

      Saba Siddiki Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis

      Christopher Simon University of Utah

      Daniel Sledge University of Texas at Arlington

      Dennis Soden University of Texas at El Paso

      Andrew D. Spaeth Oregon State University

      Bonnie Stabile George Mason University

      Brent S. Steel Oregon State University

      Mark Stephan Washington State University

      Glen Sussman Old Dominion University

      Brendon Swedlow Northern Illinois University

      Casey Lynn Taylor Oregon State University

      Mark Zachary Taylor Georgia Institute of Technology

      Paul Thiers Washington State University

      Robert D. Thompson, Jr. Oregon State University

      Mindy B. Tinkle University of New Mexico

      Chris Toumey University of South Carolina NanoCenter

      Adrian Treves University of Wisconsin–Madison

      Andrew Valls Oregon State University

      Rebecca Warner Oregon State University

      Jonathan G. Way Eastern Coyote Research and Clark University

      Edward P. Weber Oregon State University

      Christopher M. Weible University of Colorado Denver

      Leslie Wickman Azusa Pacific University

      Russell Williford Oregon State University

      Kirsten Winters Oregon State University

      Stephanie L. Witt Boise State University

      Erika Allen Wolters Oregon State University


      Recent U.S. partisan squabbles over science issues in the news such as the scope (or even existence) of global warming/climate change and the ethics of stem cell research are indicative of a larger tendency for scientific research agendas and practices to become entangled with major ideological divisions in the public arena. This politicization of science—be it basic science, medical science, or the applied sciences and technology—is deepened by the key role of government funding in scientific research and development, making public financial support a source of controversy that injects even more politics into the realm of scientific research. Science and Politics: An A-to-Z Guide to Issues and Controversies explores the nexus of politics and science over time, in both the United States and many other countries. The chapters contained in this volume explore health, environmental, technological, and social/cultural issues relating to science and politics; concerns relating to regulation and the practice of science; and key historical and contemporary events that have shaped our contemporary view of how science and politics intersect. For example, John Dernbach’s chapter, “Sustainable Development,” examines the politicization of sustainability science along ideological lines in recent years; Denise Lach and Rebecca Warner’s chapter on gender discrimination in science discusses how culture affects who becomes a scientist and thereby affects the types of science being conducted; and Jonathan Pierce, Christopher Weible, and Tanya Heikkila discuss how the science and practice of hydraulic fracturing is framed by both proponents and opponents to influence public acceptability of the process.

      Science, Politics, and Policy

      In the United States and many other countries in the world, there has been a call by policy makers, private and public managers, international organizations, and citizen groups for science-based public policy (Guston and Sarewitz 2006; Johnson et al. 1999). Many of those expressing confidence in science-directed public policy have faith that scientists and the scientific information they provide can improve the quality of complex public policy decisions (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1996). An outgrowth of the philosophy of “logical positivism,” the common assumption shared among those whose faith in science is strong is that where science is relevant to policy issues, neutral and dispassionate scientists can and should facilitate the development of public policy by providing scientific insight into policy makers and the interested public.

      There are many in opposition to this view, however, who believe science is more often used for undesirable policy purposes such as rationalizing and legitimating self-serving decisions made by economic and/or political elites (Ezrahi 1980). This latter view has been supported by postmodern perspectives, which have gained prominence among scholars who study science as a social institution. Postmodernists generally argue that the authority of science and scientific narratives are socially constructed by scientists and users of the scientific information rather than “true” by some objective, universal standard. In the postmodern conception of reality, science and the scientists who practice that form of knowledge seeking are considered just one of numerous sources of insight concerning public policy issues (Collingridge and Reeve 1986; Ravetz 1990). This introductory chapter will review a range of opinions on what the scientific process requires and the political consequences of those opinions. It will also discuss several prominent viewpoints pertaining to the proper role of science and scientists in the public policy decision-making process.

      Science and the Scientific Process

      In the broadest sense, science can be defined as a method or process by which we seek to explain some type of natural phenomenon, historical event, or pattern of observed behavior. The related field of technology entails the application of science to practical ends (Goggin 1986). The process of scientific inquiry involves both theory (logic sequences) and the systematic observation and measurement of phenomena. Scientists, at the core level of their work, are interested in arriving at an understanding of why things occur as they do. In the process of scientific research, scientists continually move back and forth between the development of theory and the empirical observation associated with the testing of theoretically derived hypotheses concerning observable phenomena.

      The conventional model of the scientific process broadly applied in the physical, biological, and social sciences typically starts at the theory step first. Hypotheses (which are falsifiable statements about relationships existing between or among events or linking situational factors) are derived from a relevant theory, and then these statements are subjected to systematic empirical testing. This general process is referred to as deduction. An alternative starting point is available at the stage of systematic observation. Some researchers make numerous systematic observations, look for discernible patterns in the data collected from those many observations, and then from these patterns come to some tentative views about what theory might account for those patterns. The findings adduced from systematic observation are characterized as “empirical generalizations,” and they are often used to construct new or modify existing theoretical statements. This process is known as induction.

      The important point to remember here is that science and the scientific method involve both deduction and induction for the development and refinement of scientific understanding. While individual scientists generally rely primarily upon one or the other approach to the scientific method in their own work, either approach is fully acceptable and broadly in evidence in the scientific literature. Research teams composed of numerous scientists often feature a combination of inductive and deductive methodologies.

      Thomas Kuhn, in his classic treatise The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970), argued that scientists of necessity operate within the framework of conceptual “paradigms,” logical frameworks, which reflect prevailing assumptions and accepted logical premises within a particular scientific community. Scientific communities tend to form a consensus on what is the most credible explanation of major phenomena in a particular area of study. For example, in the history of the physical sciences major paradigms have included Copernicus’s theory of motion, Newton’s laws of physics, and Einstein’s theory of relativity. In the biological sciences the Darwinian theory of evolution, Pasteur’s theory of microorganism-caused disease, and the Mendelian laws of heredity represent major paradigms. Kuhn argued that a reading of the history of science would suggest that one paradigm or grand theory dominates a scientific community for an extended period of time—that is, its key provisions are considered scientific “knowledge”—until shortcomings or “anomalies” associated with that paradigm become so troublesome that a new paradigm is required to take its place.

      Scientific progress is seen as the succession from one paradigm to the next—that is, from a partially correct view of reality to a more complete one. From the historical perspective supplied by Kuhn, it would seem clear that science is most properly viewed as a dynamic process where contemporary paradigms, or grand theories and their derivatives, are neither absolutely true nor completely false, but rather represent more or less useful ways of viewing the world as it is understood at any one particular time. What is accepted today as “factual” may tomorrow be shown to be only a partial insight. As demographer Ron Lesthaeghe has argued (1998, 3): “Few philosophers or scientists today believe that scientific knowledge is only proven knowledge—that nothing exists without absolute proof. … Science is in a continually changing state as a result of scientific criticism.”

      The widely read biologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich remind us that science is a dynamic process “constantly evolving as new ideas and new data become available,” and note that new ideas and hypotheses must be submitted to empirical evaluation to determine the extent to which they are able to withstand the test of sceptical scientists:

      (New) ideas are not accepted without question; scientists attempt first to disprove a new hypothesis. In many cases, they can evaluate new ideas by doing experiments and then submitting the results to a battery of statistical tests to see whether the results are “significant.” A “significant” result is often defined as one for which the probability that it happened by chance alone is less than 5 percent (.05), and a “highly significant” result is defined as one for which the probability of chance result is less than 1 percent (.01). For example, five consecutive heads in five flips of a coin would be a significant result, suggesting that the coin was loaded or the flipper dishonest, since the odds of getting five consecutive heads by chance is about 0.03. (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1996, 28)

      Perhaps the strongest and most unquestioning supporters of the ability of science and the scientific method to predict various phenomena in the physical and social world accurately and objectively are adherents to the school of “logical positivism.” This school of thought has its roots in the Post-Enlightenment scientific revolution, which took place in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This virtual revolution in thought came to be identified with the writings of the noted philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857). Early supporters of this approach to human understanding “believed that scientific method and practice distinguished the people of the West from civilizations that the West had conquered” and that science “was a matter of truth” (Pyeson and Sheets-Pyeson 1999, 5). According to Comte, the scientific method was objective (i.e., “value free”), and as a consequence its systematic use could bring about a new age of prosperity by imparting greater human insight into the workings of natural and social systems. He believed that virtually “all inquiries into nature would become more like mathematical physics” (Pyeson and Sheets-Pyeson 1999, 5). Comte postulated the existence of three principal stages in the development of human knowledge. The first stage was theological, where human explanations of reality were dominated by superstitions and prejudices. The second stage was metaphysical, wherein people attempted to comprehend and reason about reality but were unable to support their contentions with appropriate facts or empirical evidence. The third and final stage was positive, wherein assumptions about reality were replaced with empirical evidence generated by scientists systematically employing the scientific method.

      While logical positivism has evolved into a highly diverse school of thought with multiple perspectives and approaches, there are some common themes prevalent among many adherents. They include the belief that: (1) science can provide universal truths or “facts” about our world, (2) the knowledge produced by science is potentially objective, (3) scientific knowledge can lead to general societal progress, (4) human reason should be the ultimate judge of right and wrong, and (5), scientists must be free to follow the laws of reason in an open society. In summary, “positivism has generally represented the belief in a logically ordered, objective reality that we can come to know” (Babbie 1998, 50).

      Questioning Logical Positivism

      In recent decades the various ideas associated with some of the tenets of logical positivism have come under serious attack. Few contemporary natural or social scientists would agree completely with Comte’s portrait of a logically ordered, objective reality that can be understood through the tireless application of the scientific method (Babbie 1998, 49–51). Babbie correctly notes that most scientists would agree that personal feelings (including politics) can and do influence the problems scientists choose to make the subject of their study, what phenomena they choose to observe, and what particular conclusions they draw from their observations (Babbie 1998, 50). For example, the results of a national survey of U.S. scientists—both academic and government— involved in ecology research indicate that most scientists believe there are a number of valuable sources of insight into ecological processes and issues beyond that of the application of conventional science (Steel, Lach, and Warner 2009). They also tended to agree that scientific research results are frequently open to variable interpretations, that it is impossible to eliminate values and value judgments from the interpretation of scientific data, and that nonscientists can make thoughtful judgments about the same phenomena studied by scientists using different forms of rational deliberation. As the 1986 Nobel Prize winner John Charles Polanyi has stated, “Science is done by scientists, and since scientists are people, the progress of science depends more on scientific judgment than on scientific instruments” (1995, 7).

      While many scientists would agree that science is not value-free and that alternative sources of information beyond those produced by the application of conventional science to societal problems can lead to the development of valid judgments about many public policy issues, most would agree with scientist Roger Levien (1979) that basic science and applied scientific technology can play important and useful roles in the public policy process. Levien argues that there are three principal ways that science and technology can contribute to the solving of societal problems. First, scientists can help provide citizens and decision makers a “common understanding” of the key dimensions of the problem being addressed. Second, science can then “describe and invent options for the solution” of the problem. Levien believes that once the problem has been identified and explained by scientists, appropriate solutions can be identified:

      Prospective solutions must be thoroughly spelled out and prepared for the analysis of their consequences. This is again a task for which the specialized knowledge of the scientific and technological disciplines and the skills and tools of the analyst are essential. … The scientific and technological communities can contribute new options to the repertoire of the political decision-makers. (1979, 47–48)

      According to Levien, the third significant way science can contribute to the resolution of policy problems is by estimating “the consequences of proposed solutions.” He writes the following in this regard:

      Here the important contribution can be the provision of a specific comparison of the probable outcomes of each of the options being considered, paying careful attention to their multi-dimensionality (economic, social, environmental, political effects, as well as other), their sequence through time (from 0 to 50 years in the future or more, depending on the case), and their distribution over space and population groups. (1979, 48)

      The traditional scientific approach—also called “normal science” by Thomas Kuhn—has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years when applied to many public policy issues. Some observers have called this the “science wars” in the United States (see Ross 1996). The conventional model of science is seen by many as inadequate for various reasons. The combination of the complexity of the problems faced and the known limits of human measurement and analytical abilities come together to constrain the power of science in this area of governmental responsibility. As Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz have noted from their own work on environmental science and policy:

      Anyone trying to comprehend the problems of “the environment” might well be bewildered by their number, variety and complication. There is a natural temptation to try to reduce them to simpler, more manageable elements, as with mathematical models and computer simulations. This, after all, has been the successful programme of Western science and technology up to now. But environmental problems have features, which prevent reductionist approaches from having any but the most limited useful effect. These (features) are what we mean when we use the term “complexity.” Complexity is a property of certain sorts of systems; it distinguishes them from those, which are simple, or merely complicated. Simple systems can be captured (in theory or in practice) by a deterministic, linear causal analysis. Such are the classic scientific explanations, notably those of high-prestige fields like mathematical physics. Sometimes such a system requires more variables for its explanation or control than can be neatly managed in its theory. (1999, n.p.)

      Sarewitz, Pielke, and Byerly (2000) further argue that analytical prediction—that is, finding empirical support for a research hypothesis—is not the same thing as predicting the outcomes associated with a law or a public policy. The prediction of these outcomes is inescapably more complicated because of the number of ecological, social, and economic (not to mention political) variables involved in giving rise to public policy outcomes. This state of affairs leads Funtowicz and Ravetz (1999) to conclude:

      This situation is a new one for policy makers. In one sense the environment is in the domain of Science; the phenomena of concern are located in the world of nature. Yet the tasks are totally different from those traditionally conceived for Western science. For that, it was a matter of conquest and control of Nature; now we must manage, accommodate and adjust. We know that we are no longer, and never really were, the “masters and possessors of Nature” that Descartes imagined for our role in the world. (1999, n.p.)

      Even scientists who are highly optimistic about their role in informing the policy process are inclined to be cautious concerning their efforts to provide correct predictions for policy makers (Allen et al. 2001). At the same time, however, as a collective group, scientists tend to be strong advocates of the value of science and the scientific method to society. They generally believe that “science still deserves to be privileged, because it is still the best game in town” (Allen et al. 2001).

      Perhaps one of the most cynical and penetrating critiques concerning science and the scientific method comes from the postmodern perspective. Postmodernism is primarily concerned with the validity of “truth claims.” Postmodernists argue that in contemporary societies knowledge is incorrectly equated with science and the scientific method; other forms of insight such as narratives (oral histories, individual perspectives, ethnographic accounts, etc.) are considered to be inferior to science because they are “subjective” and/or “soft” forms of information. They further argue that virtually all formal language and nearly all prominent abstract ideas are fundamental expressions of power, and that scientific writings are little more than a clever means used to reinforce the “authority of the powerful”— namely, Western culture, and most especially that of privileged white males. Historian Leo Marx has characterized this postmodernist perspective as follows:

      If we consider the adjectives usually invoked to characterize scientific knowledge—objective, factual, precise, quantifiable, verifiable, hard—it is not difficult to imagine the gender role assigned to science. From the perspective of a feminist historian of science, this vocabulary merely confirms the long history … of what might be called the masculinization of the scientific mindset. By contrast, the adjectives routinely applied to humanistic knowledge are subjective, interpretive, imprecise, unverifiable, ambiguous, and soft. Science and technology have been conspicuously male-dominated enterprises … distinctively male values are inextricably blended into the dominant outlook of Western science. (1994, 17)

      Postmodernists reject positivism and the scientific method, and they argue that it has no special or privileged claim to truth (i.e., the accurate depiction of reality).

      Another contemporary critique of science comes from a group of critics that has been dubbed the neo-Luddites. The original “Luddites” were textile workers who revolted against the use of machines to replace human labor in English textile mills in the early 1800s. There has been a revival of this term to describe those opposed to modern science, technology, and the culture of industrial capitalism. Neo-Luddites continue to raise moral arguments against the way modern technology, and the scientific research that it stems from, work to change society in undesirable ways. Examples of works describing this perspective include Kirkpatrick Sale’s Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution—Lessons for the Computer Age (1995a), and Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information by James Brook and Iain Boal (1995). Neo-Luddism “is a philosophy that respects tradition, intuition, spirituality, the senses, human relationships, the work of the hand, and the disorderly and unpredictable nature of reality, as opposed to a mechanistic or reductionist construct of the world. It questions the domination of science and the elevation of efficiency to a superior value” (Fox 2002). According to Sale’s analysis of neo-Luddites:

      These neo-Luddites are more numerous today than one might assume, techno-pessimists without the power and access of the techno-optimists but still with a not-insignificant voice, shelves of books and documents and reports, and increasing numbers of followers—maybe a quarter of the adult population, according to a Newsweek survey. They are to be found on the radical and direct-action side of contemporary environmentalism, particularly in the American West; they are on the dissenting edges of academic economics and ecology departments, generally of the no-growth school; they are everywhere in Indian Country throughout the Americas, representing a traditional biocentrism against the anthropocentric norm; they are activists fighting against nuclear power, irradiated food, clear-cutting, animal experiments, toxic waste, and the killing of whales, among the many aspects of the high-tech onslaught. (1995b, n.p.)

      Yet another contemporary critique of established science emanates primarily from politicians, interest groups, and public policy advocates who are politically conservative or “right-wing” (Helvarg 1994; Mooney 2005; Ross 1996; Wilkinson 1998). Biologists Paul and Anne Erhlich have labeled this antiscience attack from the political right “brown-lash,” a sentiment reflecting the belief that most scientific research concerning the environment is badly biased and inclined to overstate risks. Some of the major works that are critical of science as viewed from this perspective include Aaron Wildavsky’s But Is It True? A Citizen’s Guide to Environmental Health and Safety Issues (1995); Ronald Bailey’s Eco-Scam: The Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse (1993); Ben Bolch and Harold Lyons’s Apocalypse Not: Science, Economics, and Environmentalism (1993); and Wilfred Beckerman’s Small Is Stupid: Blowing the Whistle on the Greens (1995).

      The following passage, taken from Bolch and Lyons, exemplifies this critical perspective:

      Scientists, especially academic scientists, are easily flattered with cocktail parties and press conferences, and can be counted on for a steady stream of new ideas. But even if no completely new problems are discovered, advancing techniques of scientific measurement guarantee that smaller and smaller levels of problem substances can be identified in an increasing number of things, such as polar ice or mother’s milk. (1993, 23)

      Another prominent critique of conventional science and scientists can be found among some activists in the world’s various Green political parties. For example, while modern environmentalism has utilized and continues to make use of information supplied by science and scientists (e.g., Rachel Carson), there are those in the environmental movement who believe science is too often used for destructive purposes (Porwitt 2000). This critique finds its roots in the 1960s and 1970s, when many people became concerned that the widespread use of some products of high technology—nuclear power, powerful pesticides and fungicides, genetic engineering, etc.—may pose serious threats to public health and the natural environment. A widely read example of this perspective is E. F. Schumacher’s book Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973). The current debate about the banning of genetically altered American foods and agricultural products by the European Community serves as an example of environmentalists acting on their belief that scientific research in this area can lead to much harm to the global ecosystem and to human health. British Green Party activist Jonathon Porwitt has written along these critical lines in Seeing Green: The Politics of Ecology Explained. The following passage is telling in this regard:

      There are those who would still have us believe that science itself is neutral, yet more and more it is being put to ideological uses to support particular interests, especially by those who already wield the power in our society. Science is simply not geared up to cope with the priority problems of humanity. It is the already privileged sectors of the developed economies that seem to get most of the benefits, spurred on by those whose interests can hardly be described as neutral. These “technocrats” have ensured that the principal measure of civilization should be technological progress rather than wisdom. (1985, 50)

      A final critique of science, and one that is prominent in many of the chapters in this book, is the age-old conflict between science and religion. This conflict includes those who believe that science and religion are completely incompatible, such as pro-science evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne (2009) and antiscience Archbishop John S. Habgood (1964). There is also an emerging group of scholars such as Karl W. Giberson (2008) and Kenneth R. Miller (2008), who believe religion and science can be compatible. However, a classic example of a religious critique of science comes from Young Earth Creation advocates, who believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis in the Bible that describes God creating the Earth in six 24-hour days approximately 10,000 years ago (James-Griffiths 2004). Most scientists, on the other hand, believe the earth was created over four billion years ago, with life forms first appearing over two billion years ago.

      An example of a literal, antiscience perspective comes from Dr. J. F. Griggs’s “Evolution 101” curriculum for children:

      The first thing a Christian needs to know about the evolution controversy is that a large majority of scientists are atheists, most of whom prefer to call themselves humanists. It is unclear whether some are atheists first and evolutionists second or became atheists after becoming evolutionists. Both groups are adamant that God must be excised from the public mind and that evolution is the perfect weapon to do the job. While only a small minority of the population at large, the atheists dominate the scientific community in our schools, universities and government research projects. (2013, n.p.)

      For an alternative viewpoint, many pro-science advocates would concur with Jerry Coyne’s description of the inherent tension between science and religion (2009):

      True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers. It is also true that some of the tensions disappear when the literal reading of the Bible is renounced, as it is by all but the most primitive of JudeoChristian sensibilities. But tension remains. The real question is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? (2009, n.p.)

      Many chapters in this book will discuss the impact of religious beliefs on science and politics in greater detail, including but not limited to conflict over the public-school science curriculum, climate change, abortion, birth control, sex education, evolution, and women’s health.

      Science and Politics in Conflict

      In 1962 a research scientist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by the name of Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. The book detailed the threats posed by DDT and other pesticides to public health and to wildlife, including America’s national symbol—the bald eagle. The title of the book invokes a spring season absent songbirds as they become extinct due to the unregulated use of pesticides. In response to the book’s publication, the chemical industry, whose pesticides, fungicides, and insecticides were singled out for regulation, attempted to have the book suppressed and launched a concerted challenge to its scientific findings. When the CBS television network scheduled a news report on Carson’s scathing book about the chemical industry and what it was doing to the nation’s rivers and groundwater, two major corporate sponsors cancelled their network contracts. Despite these industry efforts, Carson’s pioneering work led to the banning of the use of DDT and alerted the public to the dangers of chemical pollution of the environment

      According to Margaret Rossiter, while it is not broadly recognized, the fact of the matter is that science has been an important feature of public policy in the United States throughout the twentieth century. Rossiter noted:

      Clearly, science in one form or another was very much involved in many of the central issues of post-World War II public policy. It penetrated such key areas as diplomacy, economics, health, safety, and education at all levels: In fact, science and politics were so intertwined that periodic shifts in the so-called national agenda loomed large and required layers of science administrators to mediate between them. (1986, 293)

      The mainstream approach concerning the role of science and scientific information in the policy process is an outgrowth of the philosophy of logical positivism as discussed above. It assumes that where science is relevant to public policy issues, scientists can and should facilitate the development of management decisions by providing scientific information to policy makers and to the interested public. As Arild Underdal has suggested, informed public policy “requires that findings and insights from relevant research be transformed into, and actively utilized as, premises for policy decisions” (2000, 3). The purpose of science as a collective social enterprise, and the aim of scientists viewed as contributors to that enterprise, is to develop explanations for why our physical and social world are as they are, and to describe and explain what policy options are most appropriate for addressing particular problems (see Powell 1999).

      The role of scientists from this mainstream and “normal science” perspective is to provide relevant expertise about scientific data and theories that other actors in the policy-making process can use to make decisions for which they are responsible; scientists are not to make these decisions themselves, nor ought they become advocates of particular policy positions. Scientists are not to become directly involved in environmental policy implementation, nor ought they to become “advocates” in the way Rachel Carson did. Within the normal science framework, science itself should be revered by governmental managers, and it should enjoy a special place of honor in public policy formation. Scientists can lose their credibility if they cross the line between science and policy—that is, between scientific analysis and day-to-day politics. They should be called upon as the need arises, and as policy makers, managers, and the public may require.

      At the end of the twentieth century a second, newly emerging conception of the proper role of science and scientists has arisen to challenge the normal science perspective. This new “proactive approach” is focused not so much on the authority of scientific information as on the proper roles accorded research scientists in public policy management. Advocates of the proactive approach propose that persons trained as scientists should become more fully integrated into policy development processes (Lee 1993). It suggests that scientists need to come out of their laboratories and in from their field studies to engage directly in public policy decisions within public agencies and elsewhere (e.g., providing expert testimony in courts, serving in staff roles on legislative committees, participating in public hearings). It is argued that there is an urgent need for more science in these processes and decisions, but that this can be brought about only if research scientists themselves become more actively involved in the policy process. In addition, scientists need to interact with nonscientists as part of this process. As Andrew Ross suggests, “We need to have nonscientist participation in decision making about science’s priorities; the concept of ‘science for the people’ is more relevant and more remote than ever” (1996, 13).

      The sources of this emerging model for science and scientists in the public policy process are multiple. Stakeholder and public expectations about the role of scientists are changing, particularly with what appears to be an increasing public skepticism about the ability of bureaucracies to make sound management decisions, regardless of the quality and/or range of scientific knowledge available to them (Aronowitz 1996). The emerging proactive engagement model—also referred to as the “post-normal science perspective”— calls for the persistent active personal involvement by individual research scientists in bureaucratic and public decision making. It is an approach “where the traditional opposition of hard facts and soft values is inverted; here we find decisions that are hard in every sense, for which the scientific inputs are irremediably soft” (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1996, 174). Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz have additionally described this outlook as follows:

      The facts that are taught from textbooks in institutions are still necessary, but are no longer sufficient. For these relate to a standardized version of the natural world, frequently to the artificially pure and stable conditions of a laboratory experiment. The world as we interact with it in working for sustainability, is quite different. Those who have become accredited experts through a course of academic study have much valuable knowledge in relation to these practical problems. But they may also need to recover from the mindset they might absorb unconsciously from their instruction. Contrary to the impression conveyed by textbooks, most problems in practice have more than one plausible answer; and many have no answer at all. (1999, n.p.)

      When asked to describe how scientific information is used in policy decisions, experienced participants—including scientists—often relate how policy responses are developed through the use of multiple sources of information, including but not over privileging scientific information. Leslie Alm describes the disconnect between policy makers and scientists in his study of the acid rain policy process:

      The gap perceived to exist between scientists and policy makers is important, because it appears that these two groups do not speak in the same language and that neither group has taken the time to learn the intricacies of the other’s profession and training. … Policy makers continue to ask scientists to produce “yes and no” and “right and wrong” answers, somehow expecting scientists to produce results in that format. And scientists keep hedging their findings in probabilities that often appear incomprehensible (and unusable) to policy makers. (2000, 118)

      Some scientists are often frustrated that the discoveries of science, more often than not, are not particularly authoritative in public policy decisions. They believe that scientific information can and should settle many policy decisions that are a reflection of “politics” instead (see Alm 1997–1998). Other scientists, however, are generally reluctant to present their normative opinions about policy issues or about how scientific information should be used for fear of loss of authority among their peers or potential providers of research funds. National surveys of ecological scientists and the general public indicate that both the scientists surveyed and the members of the general public taking part in the survey believe that scientists should indeed provide research results and interpret those results for policy makers. However, neither the public nor the scientists tend to feel that scientists should become involved as advocates of their own preferred public policies (see Steel et al. 2009).

      According to Arild Underdal, the ability of scientists to influence the policy process—either directly through the scientific realism model or through the latter proactive or “post-normal science” approach— is dependent on two key factors: perceptions of their competence and assumptions about their integrity (2000, 10). Underdal further argues that the more autonomy scientists have to conduct their research, the more integrity their results will have with decision makers. If scientists are funded to produce specific results by government or business, the integrity and thus utility of their results will be diminished (see Table 1). In addition, scientists who are recruited because of their scholarly merits and publication records will have more credibility, and the research results produced will have more integrity, if scientists are allowed to pursue their own research agendas.

      Table 1 Factors Associated with Integrity of Science

      High Autonomy and Integrity of Science

      Low Autonomy and Integrity of Science

      Research funded by scientific organization

      Research funded by business, government, or party interested in application of results

      Scientists recruited on scholarly merits or role in scientific community

      Scientists recruited on basis of political orientations

      High level of research autonomy; scientists set own research agenda and organize own work

      Under-effective control of business, agency of government, or party interested in application of results

      Table 2 Conditions Affecting the Impact of Scientific Information on Public Policy

      Impact of Science on Environmental Policy Likely to Be Strong

      Impact of Science on Environmental Policy Likely to Be Weak

      Consensus on definition and description of environmental problem

      Tentative or contested descriptions of environmental problem

      Feasible or practical “cure” available

      “Cure” unclear or not feasible

      Effects close in time

      Effects remote

      Problem affecting social and economic center of society

      Problem affecting periphery

      Problem developing rapidly and surprisingly

      Problem developing slowly and according to expectations

      Effects experienced by, or at least visible to, the public

      Effects not yet experienced by, or visible to, the public

      Political conflict low

      Political conflict high

      However, it is also possible that scientists, such as Rachel Carson and her book Silent Spring, find themselves under attack for their research discoveries and for their interpretations of their research findings. According to Attorney Thomas Devine, legal director for the nonpartisan, nonprofit group Government Accountability Project, government scientists who advocate environmental protection efforts in the United States often have found themselves to be the target of attacks by politicians, adversely affected government officials, and often powerful interest groups (see Wilkinson 1998, 5–13). According to Devine, tactics such as the following have been used to “quash scientific dissent” and silence government whistleblowers who promote environmental protection in the United States. More information on this topic can be found in the “Whistleblower Protection” chapter in this book.

      How likely is it that scientists and science will be utilized in the policy process when confronting any given issue? Arild Underdal has suggested that a number of factors likely determine the degree to which science will be used in the policy process (2000, 16); a partial list of these factors is set forth in Table 2. Science is most likely to be used in the public policy process if there is a public and scientific consensus on the definition and description of the problem; if there is a feasible or practical cure available for the problem; if the effects of the problem are immediate in time; if the problem affects the social and economic center of society; if the problem is developing rapidly; if the effects of the problem are apparent or visible to the public; and finally, if there is little political conflict over the resolution of the issue.


      In summary, given the dictates of science and the scientific method, and the potentially diverse roles played by science and scientists in the political process, the intersection of science and politics has been and will continue to be a situation in considerable flux. The often slow and deliberate processes of government often have a difficult time keeping up with major new developments in science and technology. The contemporary debate concerning the cloning of species and genetic engineering are illustrative in this regard. Science has taken us to the point where large vertebrates can be cloned from a single cell; our growing knowledge of how DNA works and how the human genome functions makes human cloning the next step to “progress.” But would the cloning of humans represent an advancement of knowledge, or would it lead to horrific social problems and undesirable moral consequences? These are not so much questions that can be resolved by scientific analysis as they are very complex philosophical dilemmas, and they will be decided in legislatures and courts rather than in laboratories or at scientific conferences.

      But what role should science and scientists play in these and related debates originating from the advancement of our scientific knowledge? Some scientists are advocates of positions pro and con regarding cloning, global warming, species protection, and similar issues, but most scientists prefer to leave these difficult choices up to politicians and philosophers. The politicians, in turn, frequently implore scientists to offer their opinions, to explain the principles and theories underlying the issue presented for public debate, and to help educate the public on these difficult issues. As the pace of scientific discovery speeds up and the globalization of the world economy takes the effects of advanced science and technology to ever-broader reaches of Planet Earth, the democratic governments of the world increasingly find themselves in political and scientific controversies.

      Human cloning, global warming, biodiversity protection, not to mention as-yet unknown issues affecting the biosphere we share with the rest of nature are all going to involve the active interaction of science, scientists, and major political institutions. As citizens of the world come to have an ever-greater stake in how these issues are dealt with, it will be necessary for efforts such as this book to be widely replicated and improved upon in many countries. The consequences of governmental inaction in all these areas are unacceptable, and the spectacle of the world’s governments going in different directions when concerted effort is indicated is likewise not a desirable future. It seems clear that public education, scientific outreach to policy makers, active debate, and political engagement over policy options all need to occupy a high priority on the public policy agenda for the development of effective environmental policies in our country and elsewhere across the world.

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