Science and Politics

Nicholas Thompson has a thought-provoking piece in the Washington Monthly about the Bush administration’s uneasy relations with the scientific community. Entitled “Science Friction,” the article offers several examples of areas — stem cell research, global warming, ergonomics — in which the administration and Republican allies in Congress have given short shrift to scientific information that didn’t validate their policy goals.

Thompson acknowledges that “Any administration will be tempted to trumpet the conclusions of science when they justify actions that are advantageous politically, and to ignore them when they don’t.” But Thompson makes the case that a growing Republican antipathy to the scientific community has deeper political roots. He quotes from a recent New Yorker interview in which Karl Rove defines the term “Democrat” as “somebody with a doctorate.” Thompson goes on to suggest that Rove’s definition actually captures something. As a demographic group, Thompson says, scientists do lean Democratic — a tendency Thompson dates to the Nixon administration’s conflicts with academia over Vietnam. Given those leanings, there is little political cost to Republicans in taking positions that may alienate the scientific community. Meanwhile, on some topics, scientific inquiry may currently tend to generate conclusions at loggerheads with the policy objectives favored by captains of industry and the religious right — i.e., by the Republican Party’s political base.

Does a similar dynamic help to explain conservative enthusiasm for Daubert? It is always important to remember that ascribing partisan motivations to participants in a debate does not resolve the merits of the debate itself. On the other hand, it would be naive to think that controversy over Daubert takes place in a sociopolitical vacuum. Is it possible, in that light, to see the rise of Daubert as a rearguard action against the extension of scientific inquiry into areas where it might expose features of reality that conservatives find uncongenial — e.g., features of modern capitalist enterprise that are broadly injurious?

Certainly it would be an irony, if the banner of Science were waved so stridently by parties actually keen to cabin the threats they perceived free and rational empirical inquiry to pose. But it wouldn’t be the first time.

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