05 March 2015

Kenneth Prewitt on Science and Congress

Kenneth Prewitt, of Columbia University and social scientist extraordinaire,  has an interesting paper out in the January, 2015 Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.  The paper is titled, "Who Is Listening? When Scholars Think They Are Talking to Congress." 

Here is a neat excerpt:
Scientists, social or otherwise, err in claiming that members of Congress are hostile to science or are anti-science when they vote contrary to scientific warnings about climate change or side with Biblical literalists and intelligent design proponents or express misgivings about genetic modification of crops. Members of Congress can decide that they or their constituents have sound economic reasons for digging and burning coal or have religious reasons for embracing intelligent design or place the precautionary principle line on genetic modification more conservatively than what is warranted by the preponderance of science. A member of Congress might take one of these positions, but not the other two; or take all three but at the same time vote for a defense budget that includes spending on missile defense research or vote to double the NIH budget.

To return to a point emphasized in Using Science as Evidence in Public Policy, a lot goes into the policy mix. When there is scientific evidence on the probable outcome of pushing the X button rather than the Y button, we can hope that it is taken into account. The bridge will be more likely to withstand the earthquake, the missile more likely to hit its target, and the school reform more likely to reduce dropout rates. Scientists can and should vigorously assert that scientific evidence makes for more efficacious policy. But scientists—speaking as scientists—cannot argue that economic interests, ideological preferences, or political considerations have no place in policy choices.
When you label someone as "anti-science" because they support different policy choices than you prefer, you are indeed arguing "that economic interests, ideological preferences, or political considerations have no place in policy choices."

It is probably past time for the rest of us to take science back from those who expect it to carry all the weight of politics on highly contentious societal issues.