White Coats Über Alles

Last week, a group of scientists announced the formation of a new coalition – Scientists and Engineers for America (SEFA) – to campaign for politicians “who respect evidence and understand the importance of using scientific and engineering advice in making public policy.” While the group professes to be nonpartisan, “the group will discuss the impact the Bush Administration’s science and technology policies have had in their fields and the need for voters to consider the science and technology policies by candidates in this year’s mid-term elections.”

I imagine that most people would agree that, in the words of SEFA, “Scientists and engineers have a right, indeed an obligation, to enter the political debate when the nation’s leaders systematically ignore scientific evidence and analysis, put ideological interests ahead of scientific truths, suppress valid scientific evidence and harass and threaten scientists for speaking honestly about their research.” But there’s more than a whiff of the sentiment here that Americans should just shut up and let the guys in the white coats run the country.

What irks me about the increasing bossiness of the self-appointed guardians of “science” is the lack of humility about their own profession.

First, there is disagreement among scientists about many of the issues they are concerned about – like global warming – and it’s not clear even to scientists exactly what is going on in the atmosphere. Assertions to the contrary are simply dishonest.

Second, scientists of all people should know that scientific truth is not determined by a show of hands. Theories stand or fall on hard data and evidence, not majority votes within politicized professional bodies. Virtually every single thing that the scientific “consensus” believes today was once a fringe minority perspective. Would we ever have arrived at our present intellectual location had minority dissenters been run out of town on a rail or burned at their professional stake? Scientific theories demand criticism to fulfill their promise. Scientists should welcome a public “kicking of the tires” and not try to punish those who engage in it.

Third, scientists might be able to better inform society about the facts of various matters, but they should not be allowed to dictate to society how it deals with those facts. The judgment of scientists regarding the proper trade-offs between this or that set of policy options is no better than yours or mine. In short, they have a lot less to contribute to the policy world than many people apparently think.

Finally, asking scientists to settle our policy problems for us inevitably politicizes science and corrupts the entire endeavor.

So to SEFA, I say “zip it.”