Pet peeve number one on this blog is still probably the so-called ‘war on science’ – claims by ideologues like Chris Mooney that particular parties are pro- and/or anti- science and that no ‘pro-science’ person could reasonably support policies of a supposedly ‘anti-science’ party.
What I, and others, have tried to communicate in response to this misdirected fury is that the science is rarely – outside of some specific issues – the object of the policy fight. While it might seem to be a fight about science, the evidence being debated is usually a proxy over the policy choices that might be supported by that evidence.
From The Washington Post‘s Wonkblog comes a story about an exercise that demonstrates – at least to me – that such proxy fights are not limited to alleged ‘wars’ on science. In this instance, the debate was effectively a field experiment testing reactions to proposals for economic reforms. Essentially identical reforms were argued for in two distinct pieces. One piece, published in Rolling Stone, came from what would typically be considered a liberal or progressive perspective. The other was published on Wonkblog from a conservative perspective. While the policies in each piece were pretty similar, the reactions were quite different, and resonated with the political perspective of the sources and authorities cited in the article. So the fight was not so much about the policies, as about who gets the credit. But the arguments were made from a perspective that it was a policy fight.
I’m about to make the turn to the fights that appear to be over science, and it’s a little tricky. The example I’m citing looked to be a policy fight but wasn’t; I think the fights that look to be about science are about policies. I can understand if you think this is an inversion of the example, but I disagree. Both are cases of misdirection (how intentional and/or delusional they are is a different conversation). If anti-science camps (whether we talk about climate, chemical exposure, antibiotic use, GMOs, or any number of other fields) were consistently anti-science, I would be more persuaded that they had something against science.
But in the same way people objected to the economic reforms described in Rolling Stone and Wonkblog depending on the ideology of cited sources, people tend to object to uses of science depending on what they see as the ultimate applications of that science. Are those applications going to affect them economically? Are they seen as connected to forces behind some kind of injustice? Are they seen as a threat to their religious faith? Most people are concerned with the effects of science and technology and may or may not care (or know) how the science and technology works.
In short, its a means to an end. To argue over science and technology as an end when the participants see it as a means invites frustration. While some may find it entertaining, they probably also enjoy opinion shows. Me, I’m reminded of what Shakespeare wrote for Macbeth – ‘tale(s) told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.’ While I don’t think they signify nothing, I’m persuaded that what they signify is not so easily seen.