Making Sense of the Science Wars

By Keith Kloor | January 3, 2013 9:11 am

One of the most trenchant observers of the science/policy interface is Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes. Since 2009, Sarewitz has been a regular columnist for the journal Nature. He writes for both general and specialized audiences. His insightful essays, on everything from the politics of climate change to the science versus religion fracas, often provoke heated debate. I suppose that’s to be expected, given the charged terrain he navigates.

I had a brief Q & A with Sarewitz this week (via email), related to several of his Nature columns, including his latest in the current issue.

KK: You have a new piece out in Nature that takes a dim view of those who mix science and politics. You argue that the science community has come to be seen as too closely allied with the Democratic party. But haven’t there always been politically active scientists?

DS: I don’t take a dim view of mixing science and politics at all. I take a dim view of pretending that you’re not mixing them when you really are. I’m a Democrat, probably far left of much of the party, and I think it’s great for scientists to participate in politics. Just like it’s great for other citizens. What I don’t think is that one can legitimately hide behind one’s identity as a scientist in taking a position that is fundamentally a political one.

KK:  You write in your piece:

To connect scientific advice to bipartisanship would benefit political debate. Volatile issues, such as the regulation of environmental and public-health risks, often lead to accusations of ‘junk science’ from opposing sides. Politicians would find it more difficult to attack science endorsed by avowedly bipartisan groups of scientists, and more difficult to justify their policy preferences by scientific claims that were contradicted by bipartisan panels.

It’s not clear to me how you have a bipartisan group of scientists, unless they are outwardly labeling themselves as Democratic or Republican scientists. I thought the point was to tamp down the outward affiliation with a political party?

DS: Not at all. The point is to be open and transparent about it when it might matter. In some cases, party affiliation or ideological preference will have no pertinence at all–I doubt there’s much disagreement about the laws of thermodynamics between scientists of different political stripes. In other cases, though–especially in many cases where the science is complicated and brushes up against politically divisive issues–I think we can reasonably expect that the way one interprets science is not independent of one’s views about how the world ought to work.

On government advisory panels, for example, we’re not surprised, say, when the “industry representative” votes against regulating some substance, or in favor of approving some drug, and we’re not surprised when a representative of a “citizen’s group” votes in the opposite direction, even though both are scientists. In the face of uncertainty and high political stakes, it seems implausible that political viewpoints wouldn’t influence scientific judgements in exactly the same way that institutional affiliations would. There’s nothing wrong with this–what’s wrong is pretending it isn’t so.

KK: Last year, in another commentary for Nature, you argued that rational explanations for how the universe came into being did not suffice for some people and that it was acceptable to view existential mysteries through a religious or spiritual lens. Indeed, you seemed to suggest that science was not wholly up to the task, that in some cases, as the title of your piece put it, “science must give way to religion.” As you know, many scientists went bonkers over your essay. They explicitly rejected the notion that religious explanations were as valid as those advanced by science. What did you make of the critical reaction?

DS: Well first let’s make clear that I don’t write the titles to my columns. But I would say that much of the negative reaction didn’t really address the point I was making. Everyone, subatomic particle physicists included, engage the world through their own subjective experience of it. The fact that experience may be reducible to fundamental physical phenomena, or just neurochemistry, tells us nothing very interesting or valuable about the quality of that subjective experience. What would you rather do, watch a PET scan of a musician playing something wonderful, or listen to the music itself?

What I was trying to say, and what struck me so forcefully during my visit to Angkor Wat, was the power of those temples to elicit a strong subjective reaction of wonderment and mystery. That reaction is inherently authentic–it’s what you feel–and very powerful. So all I was saying, really, was that scientists should understand that the subjective experience of religious encounters, which I take to be of a similar nature, are likely to be a lot more compelling to many people than reading about something that’s totally abstract and cannot evoke a similarly powerful subjective and personal experience.

KK: The thesis to that column taps into a larger, on-going debate over the question of whether science and religion are compatible. Based on your piece, I would presume that you think the two are compatible. However, some of the prominent New Atheists, such as PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne, insist that science and religion are incompatible. Why has this discussion become so binary? Why the either/or mindset exhibited by some atheists?

DS: There are lots of scientists who are also religious, so as an empirical matter science and religion are apparently not incompatible. I got many emails from scientists who really liked my column on the experience of visiting Ankor Wat. (Interestingly, those who liked the column seemed to prefer to email me directly; those who hated it preferred a public venue for airing their irritation.) We have binary arguments because they are easy and mindless and comforting–no one has to acknowledge ambiguity or complexity; everyone gets to be right. Binary arguments are a refuge for orthodoxies, and atheism can be as much an orthodoxy as religion. I say this as an atheist. I am not an agnostic. I don’t believe in god(s) and I think those that do are incorrect. But I think humans have lots of different ways of making sense of their experience of the world, and my way happens to be atheism.

I’m also trained as a scientist, by the way, and I think science offers extraordinarily powerful ways of understanding our world–but there’s a lot that it can’t tell us, and a lot that it gets wrong, and a lot of claims made on its behalf that are terribly overstated. I’m more interested in whether a person is thoughtful, kind, and open-minded than whether they’re an atheist or religious. If people want to try to come to terms with the finiteness of life in the face of the infinitude of time through religion rather cosmology, I don’t see why that should bother me.

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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