So Secretary Clinton Believes In Science. So What?

While there was much to consider in Secretary Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention last week, one line struck the fancy of many.  Specifically, “I believe in science.”  I think Grist was closer to the mark than Popular Science in characterizing that line of the speech.  Grist considered it a major applause line, while Popular Science considered it the most controversial line of the speech.

Here’s the line in context:

“And I believe in science. I believe that climate change is real and that we can save our planet while creating millions of good-paying clean energy jobs.”

The passage is part of a larger section where Secretary Clinton describes four things she believes.  As with each of the other passages in this section (which deal with the middle class, taxes on corporations, and immigrants), Clinton is tying a particular idea to economic impact.  That paragraph says nothing about how the Secretary may treat science and technology in her administration aside from using such knowledge to improve the economy.  Will she seek increases in the research budget?  Will she continue to hold White House Science Fairs and support National Maker Faires?  Answers to those questions would be more responsive to what I think many consider when they hear that a top-level politician ‘believes’ in science.

The issue of Secretary Clinton’s belief in science in the context of this speech strikes me as more about believing in what science (and technology) can do for the economy.  It’s not all that different from how President Obama used science in his First Inaugural Address – as part of a larger argument about bold action necessary to boost the U.S. economy.

I don’t write this in order to claim that Secretary Clinton (or President Obama) do not support science as a way of understanding the world.  I wish to make the point that in the context of these political speeches, the invocation of science is intended to advance political goals.  Perhaps both of them sought to appeal to the scientists, engineers and others who want more scientific and technological thinking in political life.  But even if they did, it strikes me as unlikely that such a purpose was the primary reason for using that language.

Besides, if people are getting excited about a President (or a major candidate for that office) affirming that they believe in science, then perhaps their expectations are pathetically low.  And perhaps some efforts could be focused on how the scientific community and its allies allowed such a low bar to exist in the first place.

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