Another Scientist Insists Science is Political

Thanks to the March for Science, another scientist has come out to insist that science is political.  This time it’s PZ Myers, the scientist known for his anti-religious bigotry and extreme leftist politics.  On March 2, 2017, Myers wrote a blog entry entitled “Where does this weird idea come from?”

Myers writes:

I’m curious, though, where this odd notion that scientists are or should be apolitical comes from, though, because it’s never been true. Never. Not once in the history of science. When scientists have socially relevant information in their field of expertise, they tend to speak out — even when they’re wrong.

Interesting.  Yet even when they are wrong, we can bet the scientist activists were propping up their political posturing as if they were representing science.  Even when they’re wrong.

How do you think eugenics became so popular? It wasn’t because geneticists at Cold Spring Harbor were reluctant to advise the public.

Yes, a nice example of scientists using science to support an effort to implement social and cultural changes is eugenics.

I’d have to say that it’s a nearly universal property of scientists that they are political because they are human.

Whoa.

Let that sink in.

it’s a nearly universal property of scientists that they are political

If scientists are political, and climate scientists are scientists, that would mean climate scientists are political.  Once again, members of the scientific community are effectively confirming the primary criticism of climate change skeptics.

The only time it hurts their credibility is when they use their authority to promote lies.

Ah, but what about the credibility of science?  Look, I doubt very few scientists go out and actually lie about data to support their political agenda.  But so what?  Such extreme behavior is not needed to erode credibility.  All you have to do is be a True Believer in your Cause.  From there, confirmation bias and group think can take over.  And a good scientist can make his confirmation bias look very sciencey.  But when outsiders figure out that science is being cited by scientists with an agenda guided by confirmation bias, the credibility of science will be damaged.  No one ever had to consciously lie.

Way back when I was a grad student, I worked with George Streisinger, the man who put zebrafish on the map. He was also Jewish, born in Hungary, and when he was a child, his family emigrated to the US to escape Nazi persecution. Do you think he was apolitical? He organized to oppose the Vietnam war. He shut down efforts to create a unit for war research on the University of Oregon campus.

Lookie there.  A politically motivated scientist shut down research.  This nicely supports one of the messages of the March for Science – the science that gets done is guided by politics.  This would mean that science is not showing us The Truth.  It’s only showing a part of the Truth – the part that happens to serve the political biases of the researchers. Chew on that one.

 One time, I was in his office to talk about some routine lab issues, and we somehow got off on a tangent about dose-response curves to toxins and radiation, and we spent an hour talking about testimony he was going to give in a court case for the Downwinders. He was passionate and fierce, and a model for me for how a scientist ought to be.

Passionate and fierce sounds like the perfect complement to confirmation bias and arrogance.  For nothing stirs the intellect of a passionate and fierce advocate like the challenge of using confirmation bias to make sense of reality.

So when people beat their breasts about whether scientists are too political, I feel like I’m listening to aliens from another culture, another world, one that I have never visited. It’s very strange.

I bet.  Perhaps the problem is that the average person does not come close to realizing just how deeply political PZ Myers’ culture has always been.

In the future, we should explore these new claims and flesh out their implications.  In the meantime, the March for Science buzz is churning out too much data to collect and archive.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in activism, March for Science, Politics, Science, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Another Scientist Insists Science is Political

  1. Neil Rickert says:

    There’s an important difference between “scientists are political” and “science is political.”

  2. Michael says:

    There’s an important difference between “scientists are political” and “science is political.”

    Well, I said I would get to implications later in the future, but why not start chipping away at them now?

    It would depend on how you define science. I have long defined science in a very conservative fashion, essentially equating it with the experimental approach. Put simply, science is the experiment. You can trust science only to the extent of how closely it is tied to the experiment and its design.
    That’s why New Atheist claims about science showing us there is no God are nonsense. As I have pointed out many times, none of them have ever conducted one single experiment to test for the existence of God. If your claims are not backed up by experimental activity and results, you are not doing science. New Atheists have long tried to masquerade their metaphysics and social agendas as science.

    According to that definition, you would have a point. But that would still leave us with the issue where political agendas can influence what experiments get done.

    On the other hand, if we define science like the New Atheists, and insist it is nothing more than the use of reason and logic, then I’m afraid you have made a distinction without a difference. For science would amount to people with political agendas and ideology using reason and evidence. We’re back to confirmation bias and even propaganda.

    Same thing with the March for Science logic. The MfS webpage defines science like this:

    Science is first and foremost a human process — it is conducted, applied, and supported by a diverse body of people. Scientific inquiry is not an abstract process that happens independent of culture and community.

    This definition clearly knocks down the difference once Myers’ observation is included. Science is a human process and humans are political. So it would stand to reason that science is a political process.

    This is why MfS supporters insist that identity politics inform and shape science:

    Science works best when scientists come from diverse perspectives, and we must work to encourage and support a new generation of scientists that increasingly includes historically underrepresented groups.

    If you define science as experimental analysis, the skin color or sexual orientation of the experimentalist is not relevant. But if science is political, all voices and agendas need the opportunity to shape what science has to say.

    As science writer Miriam Kramer says, “Science is already political. Get over it and start marching.”

  3. Neil Rickert says:

    It would depend on how you define science.

    I take “science” to refer to either a social institution, or a body of practices.

    That’s why New Atheist claims about science showing us there is no God are nonsense.

    I agree with you on that.

    But that would still leave us with the issue where political agendas can influence what experiments get done.

    All scientists are human. Of course their politics can affect their experiments. It couldn’t be otherwise. But it usually should not affect their conclusions, and the peer review process do help here.

  4. Regual Llegna says:

    Neil Rickert says:
    “…But it usually should not affect their conclusions, and the peer review process do help here.”

    Not when their peers have the same political vision.

    Example: In polictical drived eugenics, most “scientists”, found not many or no flaws at all in the “aryan race” (white europeans form the northern lands).

    And:
    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2017/03/01/march-for-science-supporters-continue-to-undercut-and-poison-science/

    In this “March for SCIENCE ™” those “scientists” (SJWs) are anti-Trump liberals and we alredy see the results of their “feminists” (more SJWs).

  5. Michael says:

    I take “science” to refer to either a social institution, or a body of practices.

    If science is a social institution, I’m not sure why you think there is this big difference between “scientists are political” and “science is political.” If you agree that with the MfS that science is a human process and also agree with Myers that humans are inherently political, then science is a political process.

    All scientists are human. Of course their politics can affect their experiments. It couldn’t be otherwise. But it usually should not affect their conclusions, and the peer review process do help here.

    This sounds like wishful thinking to me. How can you be sure that the conclusions of a political process have not been shaped by the political process? And if the peer reviewers share the same political views as the researchers, what’s the difference between peer review and group think? In fact, peer review becomes a mechanism of perpetuating and defending ideology.

  6. TFBW says:

    @Neil Rickert:

    But it usually should not affect their conclusions, and the peer review process do help here.

    Echoing what the comments above have said, this statement smacks of idealistic optimism. Sure, in a perfect world conclusions would not be affected, and peers would diligently pick up on any shortcomings. We don’t live in a perfect world: science has a reproducibility crisis, and the nature of publication and peer review is actually making that problem less visible, since there’s less incentive to submit or accept articles which document a failure to reproduce earlier work.

    Do you have any solid evidence to back up your quoted remark, or is it just the voice of optimism? I mean, scientists shouldn’t let their politics affect their conclusions, and the peer review process should help, but how does reality actually measure up? Practice isn’t the same as theory.

  7. Michael says:

    We don’t live in a perfect world: science has a reproducibility crisis, and the nature of publication and peer review is actually making that problem less visible, since there’s less incentive to submit or accept articles which document a failure to reproduce earlier work.

    Hah. I was going to mention the same thing. Saw an analysis once that showed 50% of pyschology papers could not be reproduced.

    Do you have any solid evidence to back up your quoted remark, or is it just the voice of optimism? I mean, scientists shouldn’t let their politics affect their conclusions, and the peer review process should help, but how does reality actually measure up? Practice isn’t the same as theory.

    Indeed. Here’s one way peer review can work in an environment of ideological homogeneity. A paper is submitted that reaches a conclusion that is in opposition to the reviewer’s political beliefs. Result? The reviewer engages in super-duper, hyper-skeptical debunking mode. Another paper comes in that supports the reviewers political beliefs. Result? The reviewer checks for obvious mistakes and flaws and then praises it. As far as I know, there are no quality control mechanisms in place for peer review.

  8. TFBW says:

    Peer review is the quality control. Nobody watches the watchers. Peer review is typically anonymous, so people who submit articles aren’t even generally aware who the watchers are. Attempting to publish something which treads on the toes of one’s peers can thus be a career-limiting move.

    There’s a lot of negative things that one can point out about the peer review process, but it’s generally held as gospel truth that peer review is one of the key ingredients that makes science so special and self-correcting and reliable. I’m wondering if Neil has any data to back up his claims, or whether he’s just reciting the creed. Last heard, there was a distinct lack of research into the peer review process and its effectiveness. I wouldn’t want to be tasked with designing the experiment for it — I haven’t the slightest idea how to get measurable results for a question like that.

  9. FZM says:

    We don’t live in a perfect world: science has a reproducibility crisis, and the nature of publication and peer review is actually making that problem less visible, since there’s less incentive to submit or accept articles which document a failure to reproduce earlier work.

    That is an interesting article, I had read about the developing reproducibility crisis in Psychology but it seems it’s more widespread. If people try to make science more explicitly political and use it to leverage particular policy stances maybe closer attention will start to be paid to the studies used to back up the claims. Then issues with them might be brought to light. Maybe not though; there are some really extreme examples in the past (‘Aryan science’ in Nazi Germany, ‘Proletarian science’ in the Soviet Union), where research programs became completely dominated by politics.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s