A False Dichotomy

November 19th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

John E. Porter, chairman of the NAS panel that issued a report earlier this week on presidential appointments to advisory panels noted an important distinction in their guidance that policy/political perspective should not be considered in the empanelment process.

“Policy perspectives are appropriate for those placed on committees for their policy insights, but it is not a relevant criterion for selecting members whose purpose is to provide scientific and technical expertise.”

This perspective suggests that there is independence between one’s political views and one’s views on science. Perhaps on some, largely non-controversial issues this is the case. But if the subject is important enough politically so as to warrant a presidential advisory committee, then it is likely that there will be a diverse set of scientific perspectives on the issues, and these are well correlated with political perspectives.

Chris Mooney provides an excellent example of this dynamic, citing a column by Peter Beinart at The New Republic (subscription required). Mooney quotes him as follows:

“In a diverse democracy, there must be a common political language, and that language can’t be theological. Sometimes, conservative evangelicals grasp this and find nonreligious justifications for their views. (Christian conservatives sometimes argue that embryonic stem cells hold little scientific promise, or that gay marriage leads to fewer straight ones. On abortion, they sometimes cite medical advances to show that fetuses are more like infants than pro-choicers recognize. Such arguments are accessible to all, and thus permit fruitful debate.)”

As different political interests seek to justify their claims in the language of science, putative scientific debates become in effect political debates. Who can possibly believe that the debate about any part of the climate issue is at its core a scientific debate?

To illustrate the difficulties associated with the NRC guidance on advisory panels consider this challenge. Lets say that the president wanted an advisory panel on hurricanes and climate change. Who should be appointed to that panel? In this context the policy and political perspectives of most experts is either well known in advance, or the significance of their stance on hurricanes and climate change for political outcomes is well known. There is no way to isolate “pure” scientific considerations in this case, or many others with similar characteristics across science. One needs to detach from reality to think that a policy forbidding the consideration of policy/political perspectives can be effectively implemented in practice.

One Response to “A False Dichotomy”

  1. David Bruggeman Says:

    Mooney also has a piece in Sunday’s (Nov. 21, 2004) Boston Globe on recent political efforts by and involving scientists. Nothing terribly new for readers of Prometheus, but a decent summary.