July 28, 2010


Science Turns Authoritarian: Science is losing its credibility because it has adopted an authoritarian tone, and has let itself be co-opted by politics. (Kenneth P. Green and Hiwa Alaghebandian, July 27, 2010, The American)

While nobody would dispute the value of a good PR department, we doubted that bad or insufficient PR was the primary reason for the public’s declining trust in scientific pronouncements. Our theory is that science is not losing its credibility because people no longer like or believe in the idea of scientific discovery, but because science has taken on an authoritarian tone, and has let itself be co-opted by pressure groups who want the government to force people to change their behavior.

We decided to do a bit of informal research, checking Lexis Nexis for the growth in the use of what we characterize as ‘authoritarian’ phrasing when it comes to scientific findings.

In the past, scientists were generally neutral on questions of what to do. Instead, they just told people what they found, such as “we have discovered that smoking vastly increases your risk of lung cancer” or “we have discovered that some people will have adverse health effects from consuming high levels of salt.” Or “we have found that obesity increases your risk of coronary heart disease.” Those were simply neutral observations that people could find empowering, useful, interesting, etc., but did not place demands on them. In fact, this kind of objectivity was the entire basis for trusting scientific claims.

But along the way, an assortment of publicity-seeking, and often socially activist, scientists stopped saying, “Here are our findings. Read it and believe.” Instead, activist scientists such as NASA’s James Hansen, heads of quasi-scientific governmental organizations such as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, editors of major scientific journals, and heads of the various national scientific academies are more inclined to say, “Here are our findings, and those findings say that you must change your life in this way, that way, or the other way.” [...]

If science wants to redeem itself and regain its place with the public’s affection, scientists need to come out every time some politician says, “The science says we must…” and reply, “Science only tells us what is. It does not, and can never tell us what we should or must do.” If they say that often enough, and loudly enough, they might be able to reclaim the mantle of objectivity that they’ve given up over the last 40 years by letting themselves become the regulatory state’s ultimate appeal to authority. Hey, you know, perhaps Biba has something there—maybe science does need better PR!

The problem, of course, is that the "science" will always tell them what they want us to hear.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 28, 2010 5:51 AM
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