My sister and I used to run an experiment during the holidays called “anger the family.”
My relatives were the perfect test subjects. Between the newly (and staunchly) religious factions and those who see science and reason as a religion unto itself—my chemist dad being the ringleader of that clan—it was just a matter of dropper-ing a volatile subject into the mix and watching the whole dinner table broil over in debate.
After years of playing this game, we had it down. I’ve never been to war but this was how I imagined setting mines would feel … only we did it for fun. And early on, we figured out that the most efficient catalyst was politics. Bring up global warming and we were entertained for hours. The Iraq war and we would be set for the week.
But the other conclusion we came to was this: there is no endgame to these discussions. They only ended when someone got angry enough to storm away from the table or when everyone was too drunk to move.
Which is why I question Daniel Sarewitz, who wrote a beautiful call to arms in Slate about how the vast majority of scientists in the U.S. are Democrats and how that needs to change. Citing a Pew study from July 2009, the article states that “around 6 percent of U.S. scientists are Republicans; 55 percent are Democrats, 32 percent are independent, and the rest ‘don’t know’ their affiliation.”
The article is eloquent and well-reasoned. It calls for more diversity and less political stratification among scientists in order to protect science in the long run. The crux of his argument is that we need to recognize the political weight of where we stand on scientific issues. He uses climate change as an example:
A March 2010 Gallup poll showed that 66 percent of Democrats (and 74 percent of liberals) say the effects of global warming are already occurring, as opposed to 31 percent of Republicans. Does that mean that Democrats are more than twice as likely to accept and understand the scientific truth of the matter? And that Republicans are dominated by scientifically illiterate yahoos and corporate shills willing to sacrifice the planet for short-term economic and political gain?
Or could it be that disagreements over climate change are essentially political—and that science is just carried along for the ride? For 20 years, evidence about global warming has been directly and explicitly linked to a set of policy responses demanding international governance regimes, large-scale social engineering, and the redistribution of wealth. These are the sort of things that most Democrats welcome, and most Republicans hate. No wonder the Republicans are suspicious of the science.
In short, politics are very often emotionally driven even when it comes to science. So why should scientists set aside their (closeted) emotions on the matter?
First, it could foster greater confidence among Republican politicians about the legitimacy of mainstream science. Second, it would cultivate more informed, creative, and challenging debates about the policy implications of scientific knowledge. This could help keep difficult problems like climate change from getting prematurely straitjacketed by ideology. A more politically diverse scientific community would, overall, support a healthier relationship between science and politics.
A reasonable point; and I would love to believe it could happen. But then every one of my family Thanksgivings comes to mind.
It really makes me wonder. In order to cooperate, scientists have to learn how to speak politics and Republicans have to learn how to speak Science—and that’s just step one. This should not be interpreted to mean that scientists need to alter their science—simply, that their communication would need to improve and like any interaction that requires a translator, there’s a cultural divide to overcome. We’re talking about beliefs that run as deep as the differences that separate atheists and Christians. Neither are likely to agree to disagree for the sake of furthering our species. In short, as great an idea as peaceful debate sounds, damned if I know how that will happen.
Politics make scientists angry just like everyone else. My father is one of the most peaceful, reasonable people I know. But he’s also stubborn as hell, especially when it comes to his lady science. And from my experience with his colleagues and every scientist I’ve known (or dated) since—I don’t know a single one who could stomach compromising their science in any way, let along for the sake of politics. Here’s my dad on the matter:
Science is blind to politics. Global warming is happening regardless of what some conservative yahoo in a Republican bastion thinks of a scientist’s political persuasion. Whether you choose, as a politician, to respond intelligently to the coming crisis in global temperature, or put your (probably fat GOP ) head and ass in the sand has zilch to do with some “cabal” of lefty scientists pushing an agenda.
Oh, and those who politically oppose subjects like climate change? They’re not going to compromise their stance either. It’s human pride (which comes with its own elusive science).
Plus then, we would all have to stop playing the anger game. And then where would we be?