Blog author: kschmiesing
by on Thursday, October 23, 2008

Although many scientists cultivate the popular image of the benevolent, detached savant toiling away for the betterment of mankind, the fact remains that Ph.D.s in physics or genetics are subject to the same weaknesses as the rest of us. The image has some currency because there is an element of truth in it: scientists in many fields have contributed in remarkable ways to the material progress of humanity. That contribution should not be underappreciated.

Yet scientists are not immune to temptations to exaggerate, distort, and deceive. And the field of politics, containing as it does the promise of access to power and funding, is the near occasion of sin par excellence.

Various PowerBloggers have detailed the problematic fusing of politics and science in the area of climate change. In the latest issue of First Things, Joseph Bottum and Ryan T. Anderson do the same for the subject of stem cell research (currently accessible online by subscription only). It’s an outstanding summary of the relatively brief history of the debate, with special attention to the not-usually-praiseworthy role that researchers played in the political arena. “We need to remember the events from 2001 to 2007,” the authors assert, “for the history of the stem-cell debate forms a classic study of what happens when politics and science find each other useful.”

Two morsels from the essay:

Still, before we commiserate too much with America’s stem-cell researchers, so badly taken advantage of, it’s worth remembering that they didn’t just let themselves be used. They rushed to be used. Offered a public platform, they begged to be exploited, and the politicians, newspapers, and television talk shows merely obliged them.

In the small demagogueries of a political season, the science of stem-cell research became susceptible to the easy lie and the useful exaggeration. A little shading of truth, a little twisting of facts—yes, the politics corrupted the science, but the scientists willingly aided the corruption. And with this history in mind, who will believe America’s scientists the next time they tell us something that bears on an election? We have learned something over these years: When science looks like politics, that’s because it is.