“Why Politicians Need Science”: Politico’s poor attempt to put science on a pedestal

April 11, 2015

Science Writing

Politico's header for their article on the importance of science, with a photo courtesy of the AP.

Politico’s header for their article on the importance of science, with a photo courtesy of the AP.

Politico recently published an article by Michael Shermer titled, Why Politicians Need Science, and sadly, I think it is one of the worst articles I have seen on their site in a long time (besides obvious things such as Ted Cruz’s opinion piece, but for different reasons).

To start off, the sub-heading uses the phrase, “before the triumph of science,” as if this were an event. There has never been a “triumph of science” that can be pinpointed to a certain day or even a certain time period. There has never been a triumphant day when scientists proudly announced the defeat of ignorance. We still engage in unscientific behaviors frequently to this day whether we’re talking about climate change, genetically modified organisms, abortion, nuclear science, or almost any other area of science and medicine.

I appreciate that Shermer wants to defend science and criticize politicians and the public alike for childishly ignoring it, but he does it in a completely ham-fisted oversimplified manner. Shermer makes several generalizations that do not help further the discussion. He says:

“The influx of scientific principles into society led not only to the triumph of science, but also the moral progress of the Western liberal tradition – yes, even to Cruz’s prized ‘exceptional’ American democracy.”

This is a glaring generalization that doesn’t hold true if you study History of Science (I just finished writing my thesis for this subject). Yes, science has helped society progress in some respects, but remember that science, like religion, can be used for both good and bad. Unfortunately, among other examples, the rise of genetic determinism and eugenics can be seen as a way that science did not encourage moral progress. Even in the U.S., this movement led to policies that unfairly targeted vulnerable populations by labeling them “imbeciles” and “morons,” which were not generic terms of insult, but rather labels referring to people with unusually low intelligence quotients.

This movement even led to sterilization laws in the U.S., such as Virginia’s eugenic sterilization law in 1924. Under this law, Carrie Buck was sterilized against her will when the state decided she was an “imbecile.” This case famously went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, known as Buck v. Bell, where Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, “three generations of imbeciles is enough,” when he ruled against Carrie Buck and agreed that sterilization was in the state’s best interest. With this legal precedent backing the supposed science of eugenics, more than 60,000 Americans in over 30 U.S. states underwent sterilization procedures, as well as more than half a million other people around the world. (See page 10 of the introduction of Three Generations, No Imbeciles by Paul A. Lombardo.)

The larger point is, don’t assume that science is always a force for moral progress. Scientists can wield a great deal of power, but it can be used to help and to hurt. Don’t assume that scientific advances will make society a more fair and just place.

Further on, Shermer states:

Ever since these great Enlightenment scientists undertook a research program of understanding how human societies work and what we can do to improve them, the moral arc has been bending ever more toward truth, justice and freedom.

This again suggests that science has been the force for moral progress in Western society, and again it oversimplifies. Yes, you could argue that we have made both scientific and moral progress since the 18th century, but scientific ideas were used to reinforce systems such as slavery by “proving” the superiority of whites, and science can still contribute to problems such as socioeconomic inequality, where persistent ideas of Social Darwinistic genetic determinism allow us to justify punishing poverty in our legislative and legal systems. Science can be used as an instrument to help society move forward, but it is not necessarily the driving force. Yes, I agree that politicians most definitely need science, but they need to see also how it can be misused, so that they can avoid mistakes of the past.

For the full article: Why Politicians Need Science

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About jslachman381

I'm a Yale graduate who majored in History of Science, Medicine, and Public Health.

View all posts by jslachman381


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