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27.1.07

What Is And Isn't Politicization of Science

Jonathan Adler says that the left is just as guilty of politicizing science as the right. But some of his examples show some confusion as to what constitutes "politicizing science." Politicizing science means politics-based interference with the operation of the scientific process, resulting in the misrepresentation of certain conclusions as being purely scientific. But using political or normative principles alongside science in decision-making is not politicization of science, and is not objectionable -- indeed, it's unavoidable.

Let's go through the examples he lists. Note that I'm taking them at face value -- I don't have the time to fact-check each one for accuracy.

... the treatment of agricultural biotechnology, and the decision to subject such products to more stringent regulatory review than those developed with other methods. This policy has no scientific basis ...


This example is somewhat ambiguous from the information at hand. Insofar as the different treatment is justified by inaccurately claiming that science shows that biotech presents certain levels of risk, this would be politicization of science (albeit of the lowest-level type: politicians and activists misrepresenting scientists' conclusions). However, no politicization is necessary to justify treating the risks differently, as biotech presents a different risk profile (i.e. raises different sorts of risks than conventional breeding), and the decision as to how to weight those different risk characteristics is an unavoidably, and rightly, political one.

Another example would be claims by environmentalist groups that pesticide residues on foods pose a significant cancer risk, a claim which the NAS has also rejected. ... A fourth would be efforts to claim asthma incidence (as opposed to asthma attacks) are related to outdoor air pollution, when there is no data to support such a claim.


Here are a couple clear politicizations of the "misrepresenting science" type.

A third would be seeking endangered species listings for the purpose of halting development.


This one is ambiguous. If the scientific findings on the species' population and the threats to it are being misrepresented or distorted in some way, then that's politicization. But if it's simply a matter of turning to endangered species law as a strategy for halting otherwise unwanted development, that's unavoidable. Lacking infinite resources, we have to find some way of picking when to initiate a listing process, and politics quite rightly has a role to play here. Science's role is merely to tell us whether a proposed listing should in fact go through, based on the politically-established criteria for when it's right for the government to take certain actions on behalf of a species.

A fifth would be the EPA's second-hand smoke study, which a federal court found was driven to reach a predetermined result.


This is a clear example of a more serious politicization -- a political interference with the scientific process through pre-establishing the conclusion to be reached.

A sixth would be claims that the "precautionary principle" is a "science-based" approach to risk, when it acutally reflects a normative policy judgment about how to weigh and evaluate risks.


The precautionary principle is exactly as science-based as ordinary cost-benefit analysis, or an inverse precautionary principle that would restrict activities only when they are proven to cause harm. Science cannot tell us "how to weigh and evaluate risks" -- there's no experiment that could prove that risk neutrality is moral or immoral -- but we can't make any decisions without weighing and evaluating risks. The main politicization of science occurring in the precautionary principle debate is when precaution opponents draw an opposition between "science-based" and precautionary approaches, improperly applying the mantle of science to their own political-ethical views on risk-taking.

A seventh would be the compounded conservatisms that are embedded into many agency risk assessments, such as those conducted for the federal Superfund program.


This is a politicization of science -- albeit one that has been thoroughly absorbed into ostensibly scientific institutions, rather than being the result of institutional interference (though politicians' demands for a single exact number play a role in maintaining it). In the face of substantial uncertainty, political decisions will have to be made about how to resolve unknowns -- but they should be made explicitly on the basis of scientific information about the parameters, rather than being slipped in during the scientific analysis.

An eighth would be molding "ecosystem management" to satisfy non-scientific normative preferences about how land should be managed.


Ecosystem management is intrinsically political. There's no way to make decisions about how land should be managed without relying on normative preferences. To claim otherwise, asserting that science alone can tell us how to manage an ecosystem, is the quintessential form of politicization of science.

Adler ends his post with a pair of examples taken from Ronald Bailey, which differ quite markedly in their validity.

In 1993, Princeton University physicist William Happer was fired from the Department of Energy because he disagreed with Vice President Al Gore's views on stratospheric ozone depletion.


Here is a good example of real and overt politicization of science.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton rejected the finding from the Embryo Research Panel of the National Institutes of Health which declared that the intentional creation of human embryos for genetic research was ethical.


An expert pronouncement on ethics is not science in the relevant sense. Clinton's decision about embryo creation may have been wrong on the merits, and it may have been a procedural violation for him to reject the advice of the NIH. But there is no scientific finding here to be politicized. As long as Clinton was reasonably well-informed of the relevant details of how embryo creation works, then neither a yea nor a nay is politicization of science, regardless of what scientists' moral codes happen to say.

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