Friday, October 31, 2008

Is who to vote for a scientific question?

Nature magazine has endorsed Barack Obama. That's Nature magazine, the one that deals with issues of science.

If Nature was endorsing candidates on the basis of where they stood on issues that affected scientific progress or on how they would affect the amount of dollars for scientific research, it would be easy to see its motivations. These would of course put the magazine in the role of a special interest, but at least it would make some sense.

But Nature says that this is not why it is endorsing a candidate:
There is no open-and-shut case for preferring one man or the other on the basis of their views on these matters. This is as it should be: for science to be a narrow sectional interest bundled up in a single party would be a terrible thing. Both sides recognize science's inspirational value and ability to help achieve national and global goals. That is common ground to be prized, and a scientific journal's discussion of these matters might be expected to stop right there.
So why does Nature magazine endorse Obama? Because he more closely reflects the "values of scientific enquiry." That's right, science apparently encompasses values:
... science is bound by, and committed to, a set of normative values — values that have application to political questions. Placing a disinterested view of the world as it is ahead of our views of how it should be; recognizing that ideas should be tested in as systematic a way as possible; appreciating that there are experts whose views and criticisms need to be taken seriously: these are all attributes of good science that can be usefully applied when making decisions about the world of which science is but a part.
In what way is science "bound by, and committed to, a set of normative values"? Science is bound by values? How? According to what definition of science can you say that it involves values in any way? Scientists can be bound by and commited to values, but science itself? A scientist can adhere to a set of values, but not insofar as he is a scientist. He can adhere to them insofar as he is a man, or as he is a philosopher, or as he is a citizen, but not a scientist.

Any values that "science" possesses are derived from something other than science, since science itself stays exclusively on the fact side of the fact/value distinction. The Nature editorial suggests this, but, in the very same paragraph contradicts it. It says one of the "values" of science is placing a "disinterested view of the world as it is ahead of our views of how it should be..." This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. "Values" involve precisely how things "should be." That's what values are.

And what is a political endorsement anyway except a statement saying who people should vote for?

The Nature editorial even talks about science's "core values":
Writ larger, the core values of science are those of open debate within a free society that have come down to us from the Enlightenment in many forms, not the least of which is the constitution of the United States.
The values of open debate have nothing to do with science. They are entirely ethical or political concerns.

Why do scientists say such stupid things? The biggest reason is this: As soon as science starts talking about itself, it is outside its area of expertise. If science is the empirical study of natural things and processes, then, since science is not a natural thing or process, a scientist can't say anything about it--at least not as a scientist. If science is not an object of science (which, according to the definition of science, it can't be), then whatever a scientist says about it he says as something other than a scientist.

You can't talk scientifically about science. You can talk philosophically about science, or ethically about science, or emotionally about science, but the one thing you can't do is talk scientifically about it. And one of the most common mistakes scientists make is to forget this.

The Nature editorial endorsing Obama betrays a complete lack of understanding of science's inherant limitations and a completely confused set of notions about what science is. That's what happens when people try to pretend they're not being political partisan when, in fact, they are.

The editors at Nature should stop hiding behind their laboratory smocks and just come right out and say that they are pushing their own personal political agendas--political agendas that lie outside the scientific enterprise. Anything less just undermines their own credibility.


Anonymous said...

Sadly, undeniable evidence of at least some scientists conforming to Mr Cothran's stated lack of expertise is displayed in his first quote.

MC (Nature):There is no open-and-shut case for preferring one man or the other on the basis of their views on these matters. ... Both sides recognize science's inspirational value and ability to help achieve national and global goals.


Lee said...

I'm sitting here in my living room, sort of half-watching "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (the 1970s remake), and I'm starting to see the similarities between that cheesy but still scary tale, and the current cheesy but still scary tale unfolding around us.

There is something about Obama that is eerily behavior-changing. Journalists quit being journalists. Scientists quit being scientists. People don't cheer at his rallies; they chant. We don't know this guy at all, but he's about to be our president.

And while all this is going on, we just quietly converted from a capitalistic country to a socialist country, under the auspices and at the request of a Republican president, no less. No one was asked. No one got to vote on it. McCain helped him do it. And then McCain accuses Obama of being a socialist. I'm still rubbing my eyes and shaking my ears out over that one.

And meanwhile, federal spending is growing at a 13% annual rate.

I feel like I am in the Twilight Zone. If I believe in the free enterprise system, just who do I vote for? I agree with McCain that Obama is a socialist, but I would add at least he seems to be a socialist who is not confused about what he is -- in striking contrast to Bush, McCain, and the rest of the Republican leadership.

I think it's interesting that conservatism as a political philosophy has not survived the death of William F. Buckley, Jr. Somehow, I suppose that is fitting.

Maybe conservatism will rise from the ashes, but I doubt it. Socialism is forever.

Well, Martin, sorry to ramble. Let me try to tie all this in:

Reformed Presbyterians such as myself believe that, as a result of man's fallen nature, we turn away from God's wisdom and exalt our own instead. The Bible says that God's foolishness is far greater than man's wisdom. When we look to our own wisdom and forsake God's, it's always a short, straight path to serious trouble.

We have a name for those who worship the wisdom of man. We refer to them as the Left. The scientists and scientific journalists who write for Science magazine are also apparently smitten with their own reflection in the pool. The socialistic impulse is the political manifestation of the desire in every man for cosmic justice. But since we are not God, our ideas of cosmic justice usually wind up with lots of parades and chanting, and one day followed by gulags and killing fields for the folks who don't share their vision.

We are about to find out how robust our institutions are -- the Constitution, private property, the rule of law, free elections.

Anonymous said...

George W and his one term Dad are modifier Republicans..Kindler and gentler and compassionate. I prefer simple nouns..Losers! Heck of a job Bushies.

Anonymous said...

"It says one of the "values" of science is placing a "disinterested view of the world as it is ahead of our views of how it should be..." This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

The point is - politicians can choose to spend money in a way that is contrary to an understanding of the world as it is.

Perhaps the most likely large difference between the two candidates is "global warming".

The scientific "value" is "objectivity". The religious "value" is "wishful thinking". The political "value" is "getting reelected".

Unknown said...
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