Keeping Science Out of Politics is a Ridiculous Idea

Photo: Kevin Burkett via Flickr/CC BY

It's one thing to foolishly claim that you don't believe that humans are causing the planet to warm -- there are plenty of ideologically and politically motivated reasons that can move folks (especially Republican politicians) to deny man-caused climate change. It's dumb, but I get it: You don't like the regulatory implications that the solutions imply, so you deny the root cause. Fine -- savvy fossil fuel industry gamesmanship and the conservative political machine have done their damnedest to convince you of that. But to keep all science out politics, as one poll shows that people are keen to do? That's absolute idiocy. First, some background of the poll in question -- an absolutely lame-brained online poll (what other kind of online poll that purports to take itself seriously is there?) conducted to find out what its readers feelings about the present state of climate change were. As so often happens with these online polls, coordinated efforts from those who have a distinct agenda -- in this case, making it appear as if readers of Scientific American are skeptical of climate change, hate the IPCC, and so forth -- can easily skew the results. It's pretty easy for anti-science or right-wing blogs to send their readership over to any such online poll. Anyhow, that's largely assumed to be what happened here.

Fine. Another corrupted online poll. Who cares? Well, maybe the Scientific American, for one, which may have an interest in retaining its scientific credibility (nothing is more unscientific than online polls ...). Aside from that, no one really. But as Salon's Andrew Leonard points out, we can nonetheless learn a thing or two from even the skewed results:

In response to the question "Which policy options do you support?" 42 percent of the respondents chose the answer "keeping science out of the political process."

Say what? Keep science out of the political process? Science? I thought it was supposed to be the other way around; that the goal was the keep politics out of science ... What is the point of civilization in the first place if we don't use our hard-won understanding of how the universe works to influence our decisions on how to organize ourselves?

... Should the FDA reject clinical test results in deciding whether to approve a drug? Should the U.S. Corp of Engineers ignore physics when building dams and levees? Scientists say asbestos is dangerous to human health and cigarette smoking causes cancer. Who cares? Let's continue to build public schools packed with the fire-retardant material and give free Camel nonfilters to teenagers!

This is indeed absolutely ridiculous. Yet my feeling is that most people, after giving the question a moment of thought, would disagree with the notion that science must be kept out of politics. Even most Tea Partiers. Instead, it just goes to show either how inflamed people have become over the climate issue -- where they're willing to support their decidedly unscientific stance by banishing science's role in policy altogether for the sake of argument.

I'm not worried that this marks an actual "surrender to barbarism" as Leonard describes it, but a rhetorical one. Sure, there are some nuts who would hold onto this uber-flawed logic for dear life, like Rand Paul refusing to budge on his anti-Civil Rights Act statements. But for the most part, libertarian-leaning activist folks (the kind most likely to be persuaded to help skew online polls) just want to grab onto any argument that appears to oppose climate policy. The prospect of such rhetoric taking off and winning out is, however, a scary one -- and not so far-fetched, considering the number of anti-evolution activists we still have running around today.

But not even a GOP senatorial candidate running in this election cycle could get away with saying science should be banished from politics ... I don't think anyways. Go ahead and prove me wrong, Christine O'Donnell.

More on Science & Politics
Why Denying Climate Change is Bad Politics
How Not to Talk About Climate Politics
Climate Scientist: "We Have Failed to Communicate" with the Public

Tags: Global Climate Change | United States


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