Political science

I like to joke that in Kansas, biology is political science. Even when I’m doing job interviews outside of this grand state, people usually get the joke, or need only slight prompting to get it. I take this to be a sad commentary on the state of politics in Kansas.

There is no doubt that the discovery of Tikaalik plays into political battles over creationism in schools. I have even less doubt that the discoverers of that “fishapod” would still have been just as excited by that discovery without the political issues. It’s a fascinating discovery, as are the results in thousands of articles published about issues which are not politically contentious. I conclude that, while politics can draw on science and vice versa, the two are not inseparable.

Roger Pielke, Jr. would seem to disagree, though I don’t know if he agrees with my characterization of biology. Here is Pielke’s response to today’s House hearings on political interference in government climate science:

I am not sure what Mr. Waxman [chairman of the committee holding the hearings] thinks he accomplished with this hearing other [than] further politicizing the issue of science politicization. The whole exercise seems to prove that the politicization of science is endemic, as I argued in my testimony. If Mr. Waxman was interested in actually improving policies governing science he?d haul down agency press officers and those responsible for the process of approving government reports to focus on actual processes. The repeated calls for science and politics to be separate are just empty exhortations without discussion of actual policies.

It is one thing to observe that biology or climate science can have implications for the direction of school policy or energy regulations, but quite another to make my quip about Kansas politics as lliterally as Pielke seems to. What the hearings demonstrated is not what Pielke is talking about, that science can have political implications, and that there ought to be a clear process for how politics and science intersect in policy.

What the witnesses other than Pielke were talking about was the way in which their work as federal scientists was interfered with by political appointees for political purposes. Whatever the results of their research might have been, no political or scientific purpose is served by government interference in the research process. How that science is integrated into government reports and rulemaking is a complex political decision, and one where Pielke’s critique is quite valid. He has a valid point, for instance, about the dangers of cherry-picking results about hurricane-climate change linkages. If scientific consensus is to be our standard, we can’t deviate from that standard when it’s politically convenient. (Although if we link the precautionary principle in with the scientific consensus, I think we can sensibly integrate issues on which scientific consensus is still forming into the policy-making process.)

None of that supports the rather grand claim that science and politics are inseparable, or that “calls for science and politics to be separate are just empty exhortations.” Politics should not be free of science, and scientific research that is directed at policy problems is certainly political to a degree. But non-scientific interference in the actual scientific process, like that documented by Dr. Shindell and Dr. Piltz undermines the accurate reporting of scientific consensus and skews the political process.

I am generally sympathetic to Pielke’s basic line of argument, but I believe his “pox on all houses” approach oversimplifies the dynamic at work. Politics may well enter science in how you select hypotheses to test, and what broad conclusions you draw from your scientific results. But the actual outcome of the hypothesis test is not a political matter, except to the degree it can inform political decision-making. Pretending that it is inseparable strikes me as silliness.