Thanks to Andrew for bringing up science politicization, something I’ve been meaning to talk about for a while. This was originally a comment on his post, but it got too long so I’m putting it up here.

It seems to me that discussions of science politicization run together two distinct issues.

First, there’s the kind of thing Andrew cites: misrepresentation of the consensus judgment of the scientific community. It seems to me that’s less politicization and more old-fashioned deception (or, to be charitable, ignorance). Saying something that’s not true — or stating a fringe opinion as though it were accepted truth — about, say, marine biology is not to politicize marine biology, it’s just to say misleading things about marine biology. Deception is worthy of condemnation, but it’s not a particularly interesting conceptual problem — even kindergarteners know it’s wrong.

Second, there’s the deployment of science in the process of political persuasion. It’s certainly possible to say deceptive things about science for political ends. There has always been plenty of that around, particularly in recent years on the subject of climate change. But it’s also possible to use say factually correct things about science for political ends. We see plenty of that too.

People on both sides of virtually every contentious issue try to use science to bolster their case. In this way, they politicize science — that is, they bring science into the political realm.

It’s not clear to me that politicizing science in this latter sense is a bad thing, at least in every case. Science, like every human endeavor, is inherently political. It’s done in the context of human culture, in the context of a clash (or clashes) of competing values. Science has far more safeguards built in than most endeavors to guard against obvious bias and distortion, but that doesn’t mean it’s some kind of Platonic rationality in action. Humans are humans.

In my mind, there should be three simple guidelines for anyone who deploys scientific information in pursuit of political ends:

  1. Use accurate science.
  2. Be transparent about political goals.
  3. Be careful to distinguish the science from the goals.

Those who distort science to stall action on climate change obviously violate all of these. But it’s worth noting that those advocating action on climate change do too. I’d argue that they do so less, particularly on the first guideline, but they do it.

The more vexing problem, the one many enviros don’t seem to grok, lies in the latter two guidelines. Lots of greens seem to think that science is a substitute for persuasion on political goals. They think if the science of climate change is simply established — if the public is educated about the science — political action will follow mechanically, inevitably. But that obviously hasn’t happened.

As Andrew himself has argued, the questions that face the polity about global warming are not themselves scientific. They’re questions about our values. How much risk are we willing to tolerate? How much are we willing to sacrifice on behalf of poor people across the globe, or future generations? How do we want to construct our markets, and how much are we willing to constrain market actors? Etc. etc.

Accurate information is a vital part of political debate, and in that sense it’s always and already “politicized.” But it’s only a part. We can not and should not pretend that accurate information dictates or values, or is a means to avoid talking about them.