Two Views of Science in Society

July 27th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Today’s New York Times contains two almost diametrically opposed views of science in society.

The first view is presented in a profile of Dr. Gerald D. Fischbach, who has an idealistic view of science unfettered by politics:

“He speaks of “a fundamentalist streak” in the administration’s stem cell policy, and] feels passionately that science should not be ruled by politics. “It drives me nuts,” he said on a recent morning in his large, airy office on West 168th Street. “When you begin arguments based on convictions and not open to scientific discourse, the whole process starts to crumble, and that worries me, not only with stem cells but in the whole sphere of scientific inquiry,” he says. “It gets to a very complex issue of regulation of science. Scientists have to be able to do unfettered research, as long as it is in the boundaries of societal mores. And right now, and I think Ron Reagan is concerned about it, there are more and more regulations of science for political reasons. I think it is very threatening. I think it is as threatening as any time in my lifetime, including the McCarthy era,” he says.”

But he fails to acknowledge that setting the “boundaries of social mores” is fundamentally a political act. There is a lot of science that is not conducted (e.g., contemporary versions of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment or areas of WMD development) because such research in some way exceeds socially acceptable boundaries. Thanks to its connections with the abortion issue, in the U.S. stem cell research just happens to be an issue currently close to the boundary of acceptability and politics is the means that our society uses to define where those boundaries lie.

A second Times article by Abigail Zuger, M.D presents a more realpolitik (and more sobering) perspective on science and society:

“Experts hope that, in time, a policy of “transparency,” in which all such conflicting interests are exposed to public view, will help to untangle them as well. But these calls for transparency have yet to penetrate to the individual doctor’s office, still a black box where conflicts of interest go virtually unchallenged. Studies have shown that gifts from pharmaceutical companies, which can include lavish trips and meals, often sway doctors’ prescribing habits. Some professional organizations gently suggest that their members limit their acceptance of this largesse to inexpensive trinkets, like pens, but more draconian edicts have yet to be enacted. Someday, though, perhaps transparency will be the rule in the office too, and every doctor will greet new patients with a mandatory set of suitable disclosures:

“I’m happy to meet you and must inform you that I hold lots of stock in Pfizer and just bought some Bristol-Myers Squibb. You should know that I am a registered Democrat and attend no place of worship. My father had an idiosyncratic near-fatal reaction to a common antibiotic and I’ve never felt quite the same about that perfectly good drug ever since. I have an aunt I adore who looks a bit like you, and a cousin I never liked who favors the style of jeans you are wearing today. A big payment on my son’s college tuition is coming due this Friday. I had an excellent lunch today with a representative from Merck, am getting a headache which your perfume is making much worse, and am desperate to get out of here on time for a change. Now, have a seat, and tell me what brings you in today.””

Dr. Zuger’s hypothetical disclosure, while no doubt tongue-in-cheek, portends a world where science is lost almost completely in the complexities of multitude interests that every person, scientist or not, grapples with in everyday life. While separating science from politics may be fantasy, replacing science with politics would no doubt lead to bad outcomes.

There are no easy answers (which makes science and technology policy an interesting subject!) But you can gain some insight on these issues from this excellent book:

Alan Lightman, Daniel Sarewitz , Christina Desser , 2004. Living with the Genie: Essays on Technology and the Quest for Human Mastery, Island Press, Washington, DC.

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