What are the limits of scientific authority? What relative weight should be given to scientific as opposed to moral or religious views? Moderator Nicholas Wade posed these and other questions Tuesday as a panel of science authors argued divergent views about issues such as embryonic stem cell research, the fate of Terry Schiavo, and global warming. Sponsored by the Donald and Paula Smith Family Foundation, the program was titled "The Politics of Science."
"Is science politicized?" asked Reason magazine science reporter Ronald Bailey. He tried to place the issue into larger perspective: A better question, he said, might be "When was it ever not?" He said it has been politicized since the time of Galileo, at least.
Seed magazine Washington correspondent Chris Mooney opened by criticizing those whom he saw as culprits of politicizing science today. He wasted little time before castigating the GOP, whom he said has ignored or distorted widely accepted scientific research in order to appease industry and the religious right. Mr. Mooney, the author of "The Republican War on Science," said a "huge gulf" has opened between Republican leaders and scientific leaders, which threatens public health, the environment, and "even the respect for knowledge itself in our society."
While acknowledging a misuse of science on the political left (namely among some animal rights activists and environmentalists), Mr. Mooney said there is "no serious comparison." "Last I checked there weren't any Democrats calling for high schools to 'teach the controversy' over plate tectonics, relativity, or the germ theory of disease."
Mr. Bailey said he largely agreed with Mr. Mooney but that his account was perhaps too gentle on the political left. Mr. Bailey later asked the audience, "Who was the first President to ban federal funding of embryonic research?" The answer: Bill Clinton.
Mr. Mooney also had sharp criticism for the theory of Intelligent Design, which he said undermined the very nature of science itself.The theory, he said, views science as "biased" and turns modern scientists into something akin to "Ghostbusters."
Wesley Smith, senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank known for promoting Intelligent Design, had no direct response to Mr. Mooney's criticism. Mr. Smith was more preoccupied with lambasting scientists for playing the role of politicians, while Mr. Mooney was concerned with criticizing politicians for playing with science.
For example, when discussion turned to ethical guidelines such as those that the National Academy of Sciences issued regarding embryonic stem cell research, Mr. Smith said bioethics is very politicized. Mr. Smith, the author of "Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World," said he knows which ethicists to invite to be on commissions if one prefers to get one kind of result and which ones to invite to get another result. But he had a larger qualm: "It's not the job of scientists to tell us what the ethics are." When scientists speak on ethical or moral issues, they should be accorded respect but should not be determinative. These are just opinions, "not truth with a capital T." The corner barber, he added, has as much a right to offer his opinion as someone with a Ph.D. in bioethicists - who is not licensed, while hairdressers are, said Mr. Smith.
Mr. Bailey likewise said he saw scientists "donning white robes," so to speak, in discussions at the United Nations over global warming. "They want to say 'Listen to me, I'm a scientist' when they're also making policy pronouncements." They don't have any more authority than the panelists do, Mr. Bailey said, and perhaps less.
There were some lighter moments, too, such as when Mr. Mooney referred to an episode of "The Simpsons" in which the people with high I.Q.s start running society but the mundane things get ignored such as trash collection. Mr. Mooney further said that citizens don't demand that political leaders master all the complexities of science. "True, there are exceptions, like physicist Rush Holt who represents Princeton, N.J., in Congress. His constituents drive around with bumper stickers that read 'My congressman is a rocket scientist.' But that's hardly the norm."