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The Sciences

The Poisoned Debates Between Science, Politics and Religion

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorDecember 27, 2012 7:37 PM

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Two long-running debates involving the supposed purity of science have flared anew. A recent editorial in the UK's New Statesmen that cautioned against the politicizing of science(using climate change as a prime example) kicked up a Twitter storm and has provoked numerous responses, including this one from a science policy expert in the Guardian headlined (probably to the author's consternation): "Science and politics need counseling, not a separation." For an overview of the New Statesmen editorial and the heated, conflicting interpretations over it, see this post in the Guardian by Jon Butterworth. His takeaway from the New Statesmen piece is that it argues not for

the supremacy of science, nor complete separation between science and politics, but is an attempt to direct political debate to the areas where it can be fruitful.

At this juncture, I would be remiss in not bringing to your attention a must-read 2004 paper by ASU's Daniel Sarewitz, which science journalist John Fleck helpfully reminded me of several months ago. The bottom line, according to Sarewitz:

In areas as diverse as climate change, nuclear waste disposal, endangered species and biodiversity, forest management, air and water pollution, and agricultural biotechnology, the growth of considerable bodies of scientific knowledge, created especially to resolve political dispute and enable effective decision making, has often been accompanied instead by growing political controversy and gridlock. Science typically lies at the center of the debate, where those who advocate some line of action are likely to claim a scientific justification for their position, while those opposing the action will either invoke scientific uncertainty or competing scientific results to support their opposition.

Science and politics are entwined, whether we like it or not. Case in point: The genetically engineered salmon now in the news has been stuck in a "regulatory purgatory" for 17 years. You think unsettled scientific questions are all that has held it back? Incidentally, 17 years is as long as the United Nations-sponsored climate change talks have been occurring, with little to show for them. How could that be when the physics of global warming has not been in question? So we know there is no separating politics from science-related issues that have major policy implications. What we don't seem to know (or be capable of) is how to debate these issues without biting each other's heads off. The other big argument waged by a vocal group of prominent scientists involves the assertion that science is incompatible with religion. This insistence by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne is a puzzler. As someone who dislikes dogma of any kind and distrusts vested powers, I'm no fan of institutional religion. I'm also an atheist. But I see no value in making an enemy of virtually the whole world. What's more, an argument that lumps together the Taliban, the Dali Lama, and Jesus strikes me as rather simplistic. The atheists who frequently disparage religion for all its faults don't dare acknowledge that it has any redeeming value, or that it provides some meaning for those who can't (or aren't yet ready) to derive existential meaning from reason alone. This sneering and strident approach by the religion haters is not just bad manners, it is puritanical. That's what scientist Peter Higgs (of Higgs Boson fame) is getting at with his recent sharp criticism of Dawkins. In an interview with a Spanish newspaper that the Guardian reports, Higgs said this:

What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are just not fundamentalists. Fundamentalism is another problem. I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind."

This will no doubt incite the equivalent of hockey fights in the various atheist rinks of the blogosphere. Get your popcorn ready. That's essentially what our big scientific debates amount to these days: Rip roaring entertainment and blood sport. In one of his recent broadsides against religious faith, Jerry Coyne wrote:

Religion is not just the enemy of rationality, but the enemy of democracy.

I think that intolerance may also be considered an enemy of democracy. Fundamentalism, whatever its guise, is certainly the antithesis of science.

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(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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