Science and future politics

Recently I got into a discussion with a young blogger, “Emily”. It started out as a debate about whether string theory is science; but it turned out that she also had strong views about the need for scientists to assert themselves in politics and public life. The discussion was happening here, but I’m having trouble posting my comments, so the next round goes here instead.

I’m finally ready to respond to the part of this that’s not about string theory. Concerning the strings, my task was clearly to defend string theory as a scientific enterprise. As for the rest of the essay, I intend discussion rather than rebuttal. (By the way, at a forum I just set out a non-string, “neo-minimal” research program for theoretical physics. I wanted to gather several alternative ideas in one place and see how far they can get.)

First, what’s your basic point, your big picture? You want science to be more prominent and influential in culture and politics. You especially mention sustainability as a reason for scientists to be more outspoken and political. You provide a small list of ways in which science, scientists and technology may have screwed up in the past, but still say that nonetheless, we need more science in public life.

Well, you’re certainly right that science is already ubiquitous and having an impact on everything. It also seems to me that the distinctive political form of the age of science is technocracy, rule by experts. Before the 20th century, the culture of ruling classes tended to be religious or humanistic, and it’s still lawyers and bankers who administer the big institutions, but increasingly power has also passed to various “ologists”. Physicists made bombs for the military, economists advise how to spend and how to tax, engineers design machines and biologists study their effect on life, and psychologists and neuroscientists are the authorities on human nature.

In American political life, the Democrats seem far more comfortable with this kind of technocracy, whereas the Republicans, with their enthusiasm for religion, tradition, and economic liberty, preserve the vestiges of pre-scientific culture.

I discussed with one of my housemates (a climate activist) the nature of “anti-science movements” in modern society. My thesis was that the breadth of anti-science is a symptom of the breadth of science, the ubiquity of scientific culture, its technological products, and the technocracy of experts who potentially regulate every aspect of life.

Also that we need to distinguish anti-science movements with very different origins and motivations. The wellspring of climate skepticism is the enormous economic adjustment implied by an attempt to stop emitting CO2, whereas intelligent design is a defense of the religious conception of humanity’s nature. And then opposition to, say, DSM-5 and the pathologization of everything, is also another type of “anti-science”, but here it’s directed against the self-interest of the psychopharmacological branch of the technocracy; and it’s a type of anti-science which resembles science’s own self-policing, science against pseudoscience.

One issue, in evaluating your essay, is whether there is a need or opportunity for an overt “movement of science” in politics. It seems like a distant possibility now, but new things do happen. We have a cultural movement of “New Atheism” now, that combines opposition to religion with fairly conventional ideas of social justice; and it could easily give rise, some years down the track, to an overt political movement.

For the sake of giving it a name, I’ll call this hypothetical future political movement, the Big Science movement. We may imagine Big Science to be “science-positive”; it calls on scientists to be socially minded and it calls on politicians to take heed of scientists. It might gather strength as the world continues to experience weather havoc and other sustainability crises, events which would cement the practical importance of ecology and eco-economics, but it would be a movement with a broader cultural agenda. It might argue for everything from “born-this-way” transphilia as a result of new neuroscientific concepts of gender, to a LessWrong-style attitude of extreme rationalism in habits of thought. It is the nature of such movements that they tend to tie together politics, culture, and identity all at once.

This seems to be an entirely possible scenario. It could even give Democrats and Republicans something to fight about again, in a future iteration of their relationship, at a time when the Republicans have finally moved beyond climate skepticism and being the party of white men; the Democrats can be the supporters of the next wave of rationalistic reconstruction of culture and institutions, and the Republicans can be defenders of traditional, pre-cog-sci, pre-utilitarian liberal democracy.

It’s hard for me to say whether this is a good or a bad thing. Having thought of it, it just seems inevitable, or at least highly plausible, that this is where the political culture of America and its imitators will go. (Other parts of the world may go on very different paths, something that would be of consequence when one tried to address the *geopolitics* of sustainability and of transhuman technologies.) It may not call itself the Big Science movement, but there will be a rationalistic, very pro-science politics one day. You might even play a role in it.


7 Responses to “Science and future politics”

  1. Emily Says:

    As before Mitchell, I’m reminded of my ignorance of most of the things you talk about. Inevitably this is a product of my age and my level of education to which I have had the privilege of being exposed, but also of the culture in which I’m living.
    Although I don’t consider myself American – I’m not a citizen – I have lived and been exclusively educated in this society for more than a decade: my cultural and educational influences are 99% American. When I first came here I pedantically wallowed in UK pop culture, followed “their” sports, tuned in regularly to BBC radio news; now I couldn’t tell you who is in their 20 twenty, who the leader of the opposition is, or who won the FA cup! I am a product of America. And what’s more I think I’m a pretty average product too – although I’ve always done well at school and had the privilege of being able to attend schools of my (or my parents) choice, my social background is solidly middle class, and my experience of America is a product of that upbringing.

    So what’s my exposure to science?

    Well, in comparison to some countries it’s pretty abysmal.

    I asked a few friends (about twenty, roughly 25/75% male/female) who are on or above my level of education about a few subjects – obviously there is no scientific basis for thinking these results are applicable to the whole of America.

    What is dark matter?
    The general consensus was that this was a fudge to explain the deficit of mass in the universe. One person explained that there is an observable gravitational influence on visible matter and it explains the accelerated expansion of the universe, and proceeded to give me a long lecture on microwave background radiation – I rebuffed his superior knowledge by pointing out that two years ago my birthday treat was to visit the Holmdel Horn Antenna!
    Affect on humanity? No one had an opinion of how this effected anything in our daily lives.

    What is global warming?
    It’s where the winters are colder and the summers hotter.
    General consensus was that this was directly attributable to man – reasons why included eating too much food in the west, building to many cars, burning carbon based fuels, losing jungles to agriculture, fracking.
    Affect on humanity? Consensus was that most animals would die but people would be okay. Several people said we would be living underwater.

    What is the LHC/Higgs Boson?
    LHC is a big nuclear reactor in Europe.
    Higgs Boson is the missing particle that proves Quantum Theory.
    Affect on humanity? = Free power if Europe doesn’t blow up.

    What is Quantum Theory?
    Affect on humanity? = Free power when we find out how it works.

    I asked questions about evolution, vaccinations and free will, but got mostly ‘religious’ answers – only one other person who’s in my peer group has similar atheist or at least agnostic views on these matters.

    I asked five adults (not my parents/relatives) the same questions:
    No-one knew what dark matter was.
    Most thought global warming wasn’t proven.
    No-one knew what the LHC or Higgs Boson was.
    Three people thought evolution was true, two of which believed in god.
    Four people thought vaccinations probably had a causal effect on some reactions (like autism) but that the overall good outweighed such concerns.
    (I didn’t ask about free will).

    I should have asked specific questions about who scientists were or what science was/does but I didn’t think about that until right now writing this up, they might have been better questions!

    When Kennedy said “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills” America and indeed the World was inspired to embrace science and technology. I think that has been lost.

    We are enveloped in technology to a significantly higher degree these days in our every day lives, and yet interest in scientific undertakings is anathema to our daily life. We use things from scientific advances without understanding how it is possible or how they were developed.

    I think such an ignorance of the general science around us leads to a firewall of understanding on what can and does affect our lives in good and bad ways – i think this is why global warming is not understood, why “fear” of vaccinations is rife (right now we even have doctors saying we shouldn’t be getting flu shots as they are only 62% effect – funny how 62% sounds so bad and yet people regularly pay money for a one in 175 million chance of winning the Powerball) – ignorance breeds fear, and fear and hatred are not compatible with rational decision making (and I’m not even putting religion into the equation).

    Obama just said “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science.”

    How is this possible in the 21st Century? Quite simply because people choose to believe, without recourse to the facts and common sense before them.

    And I think the underlying reason for this both elitist and duplicitous – the scientific community prefers to maintain it’s insularity behind academia and big business wants to prevent government oversight through intellectual property rights (did you know that in some states the toxic mixes of spoil ponds of fracking operations do not have to be reported to emergency services as they are a trade secret?). The anonymity of research and the hidden accountability of technological ( prevents popular acceptance of science, and indeed fosters backlashes when “facts” can be politically massaged.

    Sorry Mitchell, I think i’m re-stating some of my previous points without necessarily addressing any of your concerns.

    Undoubtedly modern day America is still mired in a religious fundamentalism that is anathema to reason – to get us out of this mess we need science to stand proud and strong. Where is the 99.76% of earth and life scientists who accept evolution as true? ( Where are the 97% of climate researchers that say negative climate change is real? (


  2. Emily Says:

    Why isn’t there outrage in the scientific community over the Texas State Board of Education, and why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?

  3. Emily Says:

    Science is simply common sense at its best.
    -Thomas Huxley

    The fact that there is so little common sense in the US of A mandates that we require the science police to step in and educate us all on reality.

    Although the vaste majority of the “general public” consider Science has a mostly positive effect on society (84% good v 6% negative, 5% neither, 5% unresponsive) when the “conflict” between science and religious beliefs were brought to the fore 55% said Science and Religion are often in conflict, and when you look at a consensus on evolution only 32% thought Humans (and other living things) “evolved over time due to natural election” as opposed to 87% of “scientists.”
    If you look at the breakdown for religions: the unaffiliated support evolution by 60% (if you include evolved over time either with the assistance of a supreme being or evolved not knowing how it works, 85% support evolution) but among specific religious affiliations (Evangelical Protestants and those that attend weekly) over half say that humans and animals have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.
    For Stem Cell Research 93% of scientists favor federal funding. Those who attend worship services 51% oppose it, whilst among the general public who are unaffiliated to any religion 74% support funding.

    [Figures taken from Pew Forum website, posted November 2009: (I found other sites that were more favorable to my view but their standing seemed less respected, so I went with the Pew stats.)]

    I could lay the blame squarely at religion, there’s an obvious correlation between religious belief and denial of facts. Instead I think its a PR victory on behalf of religion – they just get their message across a lot better.

    Now you can argue that fighting supernatural hogwash with facts isn’t a fair fight, after all everyone loves a story with a superhero who’s going to save us all. And it’s not a level playing field: science starts from a disadvantage (well at least in the USA) – religious indoctrination is a family affair, science has to unbrainwash those who have devoted their lives to their church; it’s not easy to just turn your back on a whole culture.

    Prosthelytizing science is in direct competition with evangelical zeal.

    The problem seems to be that science doesn’t know how to do this. In fact there seems to be more in-fighting than out.

    Or they blame the public. (
    If you don’t get the message out then expecting the “media” to educate the great unwashed masses isn’t a winning strategy.

    “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends… No interpretation no matter how subtle can change this.” Einstein

    Is there a Club for scientists to declare their world views in a public forum?

    Well, there’s the Union for Concerned Scientists.

    I guess they aren’t too concerned about the Texas State Board of Education – it certainly doesn’t come up in a search of their site.

    Google: No results found for “Texas State Board of Education”

    The Texas State Board of Education controversy goes way beyond just evolution – all the social sciences are under sustained attack as well:
    see and the link therein to

    If there’s only one side shouting, then only one side gets heard – from

    “Americans are knowledgeable about basic scientific facts that affect their health and their daily lives. But the public is less able to answer questions about more complex science topics.”

    The only way to stop the dumbing down of America is to let it know the truth. Yes you can lead the horse to water but you can’t make it drink, especially when it’s being hosed down by the far right and religious fundamentalists, but if you don’t take a hold on that bridle this world is going to go down the pan. Just remember its the far right and religious wackos that have all the guns in this country.

    Look, if you’re not part of the solution then you’re part of the problem: I don’t see any radical public forum for disseminating scientific facts, or more importantly counter acting mis-information, mis-interpretations and straight out lies. Sure you can slap each others’ backs around the cooler laughing at the latest idiot and his viral absurdity, but unless you tell the public that it ain’t so, they WILL believe it! Ignorance abhors a vacuum; problem is it will suck anything in to fill the space no matter how improbable.

    Where the hell was everyone when Akin (and then Gingrey) wowed the country with their intimate knowledge of human biology?

    That wouldn’t happen in Finland ( because there they are taught to think for themselves, not just absorb any crap from political hacks and religious zealots.

    USA # 17, behind Poland, Ireland, Canada, Singapore, UK and South Korea.

  4. mitchellporter Says:

    There are very large issues here but let me make a small start in replying:

    Apparently the Texas School Board issue happened years ago. According to Wikipedia, over fifty scientific organizations complained. And the Board no longer has the power to say which textbooks shall be purchased; that is now left to the individual school districts.

    The anti-evolutionists aren’t the vanguard of anything, even if they wish they were. The schools and the state and the universities and the media are all pro-evolution.

    Your expectations regarding general scientific literacy may be unrealistic. You are clearly above average intelligence, and come from a domestic environment which values science. Most people don’t have either of those things.

  5. Emily Says:

    The TSBE is an ON-GOING issue, they make the decisions on the Texas public school text books, and as Texas is so huge they influence the publishers to commit their decisions to paper for the ENTIRE COUNTRY… – quote “As recently as LAST YEAR, the Texas State Board of Education had the power to rewrite history”. Their decisions mean textbooks throughout the USA will have lies and falsehoods for the next TEN years. Please, do a little more research than Wiki!!

    >The anti-evolutionists aren’t the vanguard of anything, even if they wish they were. The schools and the state and the universities and the media are all pro-evolution.

    That must account for why politicians are so steeped in fact rather than religion. NOT!

    If your statement is true then the schools, states, universities, media are all FAILING, as this country is vocally pro-religious (and fundamentally so rather than just a casual acquaintance) than EVER before. Even when the constitution was written, the authors were religiously indifferent to an exceptional degree when compared with todays political leaders – try getting elected without a belief in God. Take a look at the documentary “The Revisionaries” and you will see the State appointed committee DEEP in religious prayer at the commencement of every meeting. Separation of State and Church? Not in Texas, on a State funded Educational board, and not in the majority of the rest of the state capitals.

    >Most people don’t have either of those things.

    So let’s just give up then huh?

    Oh Mitchell, I am so disappointed with all your comments.

  6. mitchellporter Says:

    Remember that I live in Australia, below the poverty line, and my intellectual life largely revolves around topics which are off the radar of the salaried intellectuals of the universities. Meanwhile, the United States is a country which leads the world in almost every field and which spends tens of billions of dollars on research every year. It is hard for me to regard American science as besieged or American intellectual competence under threat, just because most people are religious, including politicians. Culturally, religion has the upper hand over atheism in America, but educationally, evolution has the upper hand over intelligent design. These people in Texas are on the losing side, even if they can push back for a few years. Also, this is the age of Internet, it’s not as if textbooks are the only source of information for students.

    I have every reason to resist your passion on these topics. They are low priority; they’re an American internal affair; I have scarce resources and need to focus if I want to achieve anything at all in life; science has the cultural high ground regardless of what some fundamentalists manage to get into textbooks; and I would be more interested in knowing what “lies and falsehoods” might be propagated by political liberals or fans of science, rather than just joining them to help beat down the lies and falsehoods of their enemies in the culture war. I took as long as I did to reply, mostly because I am preoccupied, but also because I was trying to give your perspective some consideration, rather than just reject it. Also I was musing on how best to convey the gestalt of my own thinking, and on how forcefully I should state it.

    It would be very easy for me to dismiss the significance of what you say, on the grounds that there are much more fundamental evils in human life. But I don’t want to intellectually bully you, with what may be my own fanaticisms. So I have been trying to give myself time to see the bigger picture; find a way to show you what I see, also to adjust my own perspective if it needs adjusting. But I’m not there yet. Maybe one more week from now.

  7. Emily Says:

    Thanks very much for engaging with me Mitchell.
    I think this has come to a conclusion of sorts.
    I hope all your endeavours come to fruition.

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