Sunday, February 04, 2007

Rallying the troops: Mooney and Sokal on the relationship between science and politics

Forget Popper and Kuhn, and think politics. Similar to rally-round-the-flag effects, where events like 9/11 and declarations of war are usually followed by surges in presidential approval ratings and unanimous declarations of support in Congress, the scientific community may be going into an era where external pressure from politics and interest groups will increase internal cohesion and a refocus on ideas like rigor, peer-review, and intersubjectivity.

At least this is one way to read Chris Mooney and Alan Sokal's op-ed in today's LA Times.

"... [The] introspection on the academic left has been a heartening sign, and the pronouncements of extreme relativism have subsided significantly in recent years. This frees up defenders of science to combat the enemy on our other flank: an unholy (and uneasy) alliance of economically driven attacks on science (on issues such as global climate change, mercury pollution and what constitutes a good diet) and theologically impelled ones (in areas such as evolution, reproductive health and embryonic stem cell research)."

(Click here for the complete OpEd.)
Ironically, of course, Alan Sokal's book about the battles within the academic community over objective standards and quality criteria takes on an interesting double meaning in this context. "Fashionable Nonsense" seems an all to appropriate label in times when the public takes their cues on stem cell research and climate change from Ron Reagan, Michael J. Fox and Al Gore instead of scientists and academics, and when ID proponents win the public debate, based on reframing scientific concepts, such as "uncertainty" and "theory."

As Mooney and Sokal put it in their op-ed:
"To avoid nature's punishment, we must take steps now to restore reality-based government."

Update (02/06/07):

Here is a link to various reactions to the op-ed that Chris Mooney has compiled on "The Intersection."


Chris Mooney said...

Hi Dietram,
I enjoyed this post; for my part, this is exactly what I was *hoping* people would get out of our op-ed. The goal is not to re-fight the old science wars, but rather to realize that we can all come together to fight the new ones.