Politics and Science, Kirk and Spock

The science driving our technological age is largely absent from the 2012 U.S. Presidential campaigns.  Though it may seem curious that the wellspring of our medical, military, computer, and economic advancements is unnoticed by the major party candidates, we should be grateful.

In much the same way that armies have ever clamored to claim God to their side, Republicans and Democrats have in recent years argued over which party stood with science.   A compliant media has awarded Democrats the mantle of the science party, but that is of course untrue.  For their part Republican claims to scientific fidelity have always rang hollow.

Which faction then is the true Party of Science?

Critics argue that it cannot be Republicans for large numbers of the party faithful remain suspicious of man-made global warming, challenge the validity of evolution, and oppose stem cell research.  Data proves those critics right, yet I tend to be somewhat forgiving of Republican scientific heresy because I think it more nuanced than given credit.  For instance, one can oppose embryonic stem cell research while supporting the more promising, and thus far more fruitful, research done on adult stem cells.  Evolution easily exists alongside belief in God, and global warming still demands much more research and policy discussion.  Despite this quibbling there is no doubt that the G.O.P. elephant does not march to the drumbeat of science.

Though they may fancy themselves disciples of science, Democrats record of anti-science positions is too extensive to be ignored.  As Alex Berezow, the editor of RealClearScience, points out, Democrats are reflexively opposed to bio-engineered foods, nuclear energy, vaccines, and use of animals in medical research, among others.  It is also true that federal spending on research and development peaked under George W. Bush while President Obama, for all his profligate spending, has cut R&D spending by $12 billion.  For good measure, while 51 percent of Republican reject biological evolution, so too do 42 percent of Democrats, according to Pew Research.

The point is that neither party is an unswerving ally of science.  The more relevant question is which party is more hostile to science.  By hostility I do not mean rejection of certain scientific claims, but rather an indifference to, or ignorance of, what science actually is.   Regarding science, my hope is for a political party that does not politicize science.

Carl Sagan said “science is much more a way of thinking than it is a body of knowledge.”   Science is a process that, as Richard Feynman pointed out, merely moves from ignorance to curiosity to diminishing degrees of doubt, not certainty.  Science, broadly understood, needs to be nurtured and ceaselessly explored. Science, therefore, is a tool, not a goal.

While science achieves and advances we should be hesitant to accept it as a master.  Consider which man you would rather have at the helm, James Tiberius Kirk or Spock.

Science is not equipped to make policy because it lacks the capacity for moral judgment.  Science can not account for the human spirit, or ideas of charity, valor, compassion, or courage.  There is more to an individual and a community than science can reliably predict.  The relationship of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock should be an instructive one for our politics.  Spock is ever the most valuable and trusted subordinate, but he is no Kirk.  Kirk, for his part, utilizes and respects Spock, but knows his limits.

May science live long and prosper near our political system, but never should it rule politics.

 

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