Science versus Society

March 30th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Every spring the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) hosts a forum on science and technology policy. This year’s forum is April 21-22 in Washington, DC. The March 28 version of the agenda is online. The forum’s closing plenary session is titled, “SCIENCE VERSUS SOCIETY? WHEN SCIENTIFIC INTERESTS AND PUBLIC ATTITUDES COLLIDE” and is focused on evolution versus creationism, stem cell research and federal funding of research on sexual behavior.

The framing of this particular session is very interesting for several reasons. First, it suggests that science is not only separate from “society” but is somehow in opposition to society. On the evolution versus creationism the speaker is from the National Center on Science Education, and thus will presumably discuss efforts to include creationism or “intelligent design” in public school curriculums. While there is public support for such inclusion, there is also public opposition (see this nice review of polling results by Ohio State’s Matt Nisbet). There is a political debate going on in particular states and schools about education, and while it is entirely appropriate for scientists to take sides in such debates, to suggest that these debates are about science vs. society is just incorrect, not to mention poor public relations for scientists. The debate is about one part of society versus another, or in other words “politics.”

Second, to characterize the issue of stem cell research as a battleground of science versus society is also misplaced. There is some evidence (again from Nisbet’s work) that a majority of the public may support stem cell research. But even if not a majority, it is clear that “society” does not have a unified perspective that is somehow contrary to the perspectives of “science.” Any decision to fund stem cell research with public money is a political decision, not a scientific decision (see my op-ed on this here [PDF]). The third subject, federal funding of research on sexual behavior, is a bit more unclear as the AAAS has not yet identified a speaker, but here as well it is difficult to imagine that there is a unified perspective of “society” that is somehow contrary to a unified perspective of “science.”

If the issue is limitations on research funding or even the training of future scientists (i.e., in elementary education and evolution) then AAAS might consider renaming the panel “When Political Debates Limit the Unfettered Advance of Science.” But if the issue is that the AAAS sees its organization to be politically aligned with one side of each of these debates, then it should clearly come out and say so, e.g., with a panel titled “Political Advocacy Efforts of the AAAS.” There is some evidence that the latter is a motivation. For example, earlier this week the AAAS has taken a political position in a Washington state debate over stem cell research and took a similar political position last year in a debate in Georgia over evolution.

For AAAS to suggest that “science” has a perspective at odds with “society” on the teaching of evolution, stem cell research or funding of research on sexual behavior is to simply reduce “science” to another special interest group in society demanding that its values be served over others. It seems to me that the public is fairly comfortable with science playing such a special interest role in the context of seeking more funding for research (don’t forget what “AAAS” stands for), probably because science has always benefited from widespread, bipartisan public support. But it may be something else altogether when leaders of the scientific community seek to present “science” in terms of societal values shared by only a subset of citizens, and also clearly in opposition to the values of many others. “Science” cannot resolve political debates over what should be taught or what should be funded, only politics can. The AAAS might think carefully about the consequences of conflating “politics” and “science” in the public eye, because this is exactly what might occur with its closing plenary session. I am not 100% certain, but in any battle between “science” and “society” it seems likely that “society” will win out in just about every case.

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