STONY BROOK – In 2010, when Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal unveiled a $220 million scheme to use sand berms to block the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from a British Petroleum oilrig, scientists opposed the plan, stating that it would do little more than harm local ecosystems. Even after the national commission investigating the spill declared the initiative a failure for having captured only 1,000 of the nearly five million barrels of oil believed to have gushed into the Gulf, Jindal did not relent, calling the statements “partisan revisionist history at taxpayer expense.”
Jindal’s response reflects an ongoing – and potentially catastrophic – shift away from science-based policymaking. This is not how I imagined twenty-first-century politics would be. When I was a graduate student in the humanities in the 1970s, my mentors thundered against the coming technocratic state. Politicians, I was told, would soon listen only to experts who would sacrifice human values for the sake of efficiency, while ordinary citizens’ voices would be drowned out.
If only more of that scenario were true. Today, issues about which facts really matter – for example, the safety of genetically modified foods, the hazards of extracting shale oil and gas, and the impact of global warming – are debated without regard for scientific evidence or in ways that use distorted and cherry-picked information to promote a chosen position. Politicians and activists portray these issues as social struggles or morality plays: big businesses against small farmers, oppressors versus liberators, or conspirators seeking to deceive innocent citizens.
For example, after a recent World Health Organization report warned that the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan had only slightly increased local residents’ risk of developing certain kinds of cancers, the environmental organization Greenpeace, deeming the figures too low, denounced the report as “a political statement to protect the nuclear industry.” Similarly, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an American environmental activist, has accused the United States government and the drug industry of conspiring to obscure the link between childhood vaccines and autism – a link for which there is no scientific evidence.
Likewise, US Representative Paul Ryan, a Republican and former vice-presidential candidate, accused leading climatologists of conspiracy for arguing that climate change was real, and voted to undo climate-protection plans and eliminate White House climate advisers. And, despite the absence of evidence that mobile phones pose any kind of danger, former Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich, alleging that officials were suppressing information, introduced the “Cell Phone Right to Know Act” to require radiation warnings on the devices.
Pseudoscience and scientific illiteracy used to be the domain of astrologers, quacks, and other charlatans who lacked the influence to be a major social threat. Today, acting against scientific evidence is politically expedient: it offers left-wing and right-wing politicians alike an opportunity to court an anti-elite, populist image. But this approach endangers public health and the planet, and some scientists are beginning to worry about the possibility of a new “dark age of political feudalism.”
What happened to the science-based technocratic state that my humanities professors feared?
The truth is that hard facts and scientific evidence never had any special authority in shaping policy in the first place; to political leaders, a scientist’s view is just another opinion. My humanities professors came of age in the aftermath of World War II – won with radar and ended with the atomic bomb – when the scientific perspective needed no proselytizing to guarantee its authority. But this reflected less a rational belief in deferring to science in decision-making than an enthusiastic response to the role science had played during the war.
Such enthusiasm raised fears of what the political scientist Roger Pielke, Jr. has called the transformation of “abortion politics” into “tornado politics.” The debate preceding a collective decision about abortion is about values – there is no shared goal, and scientific information is all but irrelevant. But when deciding collectively on how to confront an approaching tornado, there is an indisputable shared goal, and ignoring the experts would be wholly irrational. A technocratic culture in which scientific voices dominate, Pielke warns, tempts politicians to use expert advice on technical questions (“Does X meet safety standards?”) to disguise political agendas (“X is the right thing to do.”).
Now that science’s post-WWII charisma has faded, politicians are taking the opposite tack. They are increasingly tempted to ignore scientific findings altogether, and make values the center of all public-policy debates. In short, they are turning tornado politics into abortion politics.
Science is far from perfect. Its practitioners are no more innately virtuous than anyone else, and their work is no less vulnerable to error and misuse. The difference is that scientists have struggled to institutionalize a process that involves extensive observation, experimentation, and independent review that, in the long run, provides a firmer purchase on the world than intuition and political posturing.
I am glad that we do not live in a technocracy, ruled by experts who decide our social goals rather than advancing the goals that society establishes. But I am beginning to fear that I am living in a state whose politicians are more interested in proclaiming the nobility of goals that cannot be achieved. With no route from here to there, we are guaranteed to get lost.