Science in Political Discourse

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June 15, 2012

By Jason E. Summers

Fifty years ago physicist and novelist C.P. Snow lamented a growing cultural divide marked by mutual distrust and animosity between intellectuals engaged in the sciences and those engaged in the humanities, observing that many leading academics in the humanities lacked even rudimentary scientific literacy. We now live in the era of scientific dominance Snow predicted, and though scientific language has permeated society, a similar gulf in understanding persists between producers and consumers of science.

As concepts from science spread throughout culture and as the new possibilities science affords often press the boundaries of cultural norms, discussions in the public square are increasingly undergirded by scientific claims to truth. But scientific claims are often opaque to lay audiences or are poorly represented in the context of public dialogue. Just as Alasdair MacIntyre described in After Virtue, scientific language in popular discourse is often divorced from its true meaning. Lay speakers use seemingly scientific language, but the words more often have mystical or talismanic, rather than technical, meaning: “science proves”; “the evidence is uncertain”; issue x “is just a theory.” Whether falsely evoked as the ultimate trump card or manipulated meaninglessly in technobabble, the language has become unmoored from evidence-based scientific practice.

Discourse is further complicated by the scientific use of common language to express technical concepts. As illustrated in a table recently published in Physics Today, scientific parlance gives distinct meaning to terms such as bias, error, manipulation, and uncertainty.  Through uncritical use of such jargon, scientists unwittingly misrepresent their own work.

The resulting impoverished quality of public discourse engenders false beliefs about the nature and practice of science. Rather than responding to science as actually practiced, culture critics too often tilt at windmills fabricated by language that has, simultaneously, too high and too low a view of science.

Rather than acknowledging the religious basis of all thought, popular language enshrines scientists as objective superhumans capable of ungrounded theorizing, priests of a salvific order. At the same time, popular language discredits the validity of science on grounds that individual scientists are subject to bias, perhaps driven by venality or personal interest. Rather than acknowledging that science allows for universal validity to emerge from subjective actors (as Thomas Kuhn and Michael Polanyi have shown through analyses of the complex social processes from which the findings of science emerge), the popular myth insists that personal beliefs corrupt and invalidate science.

Science is carried out by an internally differentiated, diffuse and nonhierarchical group of individuals and institutions. Therefore, there is not and cannot be a singular, authoritative voice of the scientific community – nor a single institution that adjudicates all scientific questions. Scientific consensus does emerge, but only through a complex and lengthy process.

Working in this sociological context, science develops confidence in its findings on the basis of evidence accumulated under the methodological norms of the field, but it does not conclude in a final sense. Thus, a product of scientific inquiry may be highly robust—having well explained all available data and made accurate predictions—but it is not a final and absolute truth claim because it is predicated on evidence that continues to accumulate with time. While new evidence usually further validates consensus, occasionally a body of evidence emerges that moves scientists toward a new or modified consensus view. As Einstein is reported to have said, “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”

Yet Einstein's aphorism simplifies and idealizes the process. Kuhn observed that progress in science actually happens through series of paradigm shifts in which the accumulation of conflicting evidence eventually leads to a broad and rapid shift in consensus. While some understand this as evidence of a “scientific orthodoxy” that stifles other views and hinders the ability of the scientific process to discern truth, the opposite is true. Rather, Kuhn's findings suggest that paradigms and their resistance to change are instrumental in the effectiveness and robustness of the scientific process and help ensure against its manipulation toward the service of partisan ends.

Scientific claims have substantial bearing on many public issues. But unless the nature of these claims and the basis for their authority are better understood, they cannot be meaningfully incorporated within the political process. This is no mean feat, but not intractable. A thriving culture of scientists who speak the language fluently exists in our midst. Christians should lead this effort as they ought to be among those most compelled to use truthful language and most able to bridge the cultural divide in order to do so.

Jason E. Summers is Chief Scientist of Applied Research in Acoustics LLC. The views expressed here are those of the author alone.

To respond to the author of this Commentary: capcomm@cpjustice.org

Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.