Sunday, December 20, 2009

On the importance of understanding the societal aspects of science ... and of having data

I am just now getting around to posting a few additional thoughts on Daniel Sarewitz and Samuel Thernstrom's recent LA Times op-ed, dealing with the inherent tensions between what is designed to be objective science and its political implications. Discussing the implications of climategate, they write:
"Central to this disaster has been scientists' insistence that they are unsullied providers of truth in an otherwise corrupt and indecipherable world. It was never so. Scholars continue to argue over whether such titans of science as Pasteur and Millikan lied, cheated and fabricated results or were simply exercising good scientific intuition. Popular chronicles of real-world science such as "The Double Helix" demonstrate that, in practice, science is competitive, backbiting, venal, imperfect and, indeed, political. Science, in other words, is replete with the same human failings that mark all other social activities."
Responses in various Twittered and blogged public spheres were as swift as they were simplistic, often endorsing the idea that there is no objectivity in science, period. This is pure nonsense, of course, and was not the point of Sarewitz and Thernstrom's op-ed.  Rather, they argue that the assumption that science and politics are two separate entities is false and that there will always be a political element to science.

And recent data from a systematic large scale survey of nano scientists (see nanopublic post from June 17, 2009) provide an interesting empirical illustration of their argument. 
"[These] data showed that scientists, when they’re being asked for policy recommendations about emerging technologies, do rely on their professional judgments about the risks and benefits connected to nanotechnology. But what's really interesting is the fact that -- after controlling for their professional judgments -- scientists' personal ideologies have a significant impact on their support for regulations."
In other words, even the leading scientists in emerging scientific fields, such as nanotechnology, rely on their political views when making judgments about uncertain science.  Of course, all of this does not call into question the quality of the science that goes into such policy judgments, but it does highlight the fact that when we ask about the societal implications of scientific findings that are still being debated in scholarly circles, we may end up with political answers ... even from scientists.