2011-09-06 03:03:41Political science: why rejecting expertise has become a campaign strategy (and why it scares me)
John Hartz
John Hartz

This article and its original grpahic would make an excellent re-post for SkS. 

2011-09-12 13:39:30


Perhaps as problematic is that people who lack the skills to evaluate scientific issues may also lack the skills to identify genuine experts. I actually put this bit together a while ago in frustration with the asininity that passes for Serious Discussion in some circles...


Imagine, if you will, that you and your friends are on a picnic, in the woods perhaps during some pleasant latespring weather. You're happily munching away at sandwhiches and looking at scenery through binoculars, whena flock of velociraptors appears in the distance. Snarling and frothing with hunger, they descend while the groupargues: Should you stand your ground and fight? Run? Hide? There may well be meaningful debate about suchtopics, but surely we can recognize that some topics - the existence of the charging velociraptors and their intentupon arrival - are indisputable. Debate on such topics serves no productive purpose, and delays useful action.The significance of approaching predators is a matter of common sense.

If everything about the world could be understood through common sense, there would be no need tosystematically investigate nature in order to understand it. There would be no need for science to tell us aboutthe things that are too small to see, or too fast, or too slow, because understanding of any such things that existedwould be common. Science shows us the parts of the world that aren't obvious, which is important, becausesometimes things that aren't obvious are still dangerous. It's because of science that we can detect the odorlesspoison carbon monoxide, and it is with science that we can find cholera contaminated water pumps. When ourscientific understanding of the world tells us that there may be a velociraptor hiding in the woods, we should pay attention.

The world has been fundamentally transformed by technology; making informed decisions about how toapproach the 21st century necessarily requires undestanding the science behind this transformation.This isespecially true of the legislators who will be shaping the years to come. How can we expect high qualitybioethics or environmental policy to come from policy makers who are not informed about biology or environmental science? For this reason, it is imperative that the scientific advisors who help legislators provideonly high quality advice.

Unfortunately, there are examples of poor scientific advice, particularly when the science in question ispoliticized. The routine inclusion of such misinformation appears to stem from a combination of ideological precommitment, industrial influence, genuine ignorance, and the pervasive notion that any and every issue has two 'sides' which can be meaningfully debated. The following report demonstrates the low quality of somecongressional testimony regarding ocean acidification, which is an effect of carbon dioxide pollution. Althoughit is not common sense that our car exhaust could change the chemistry of the the oceans, it is a prediction basedupon scientific principles. And although its effects may be invisible to us, acting slowly and on scales beyondour senses, scientific methodology has shown it to be a reality.

You can't see what's rustling in the underbrush, but your IR camera can pick up something warm circling thegroup. Two somethings.

'We should run!'

'We should hide!'

'We should get out an automatic shotgun!'

'Maybe there really aren't any velociraptors out there after all? The pack might have decided to go away. Dogs and pandas also are warm and rustle in the underbrush, so we can't be sure that the noise is from a raptor.Besides, even if it is velociraptors, what if they're coming to offer us cookies? Mmmm cookies.'

The rustling stops circling and begins to stalk towards the group. The warm things in the screen of the IR camera are approaching from opposite sides...