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Science is an Inherently Political Activity

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Much ado is being made about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s recent appointments to the EPA’a advisory boards and the process used to name them.  There is discussion surrounding backgrounds, “beliefs,” and most importantly where their money comes from.  Inherent in all the discussion is a presumption that science is somehow completely objective and apolitical – nothing could be further from the truth.

Let’s start with the commonly read sentence, “The consensus of climate scientists….”  The key word in that sentence is “consensus.”  Forming a consensus is a deeply political activity – it is about persuasion and there is nothing inherently objective about persuasion.  There are all sorts of techniques for persuasion, objective data is just one of them.  And when there is no data, or the data is inconclusive, you can bet your bottom dollar less objective techniques take over the consensus building.

The problem is that most of us tend to think of science in terms of Newtonian Mechanics, which is the king of sciences.  Newtonian Mechanics is the branch of science that allows us to know with infinite precision that an object thrown with X force, under Y conditions at Z trajectory will land at point P with impact I.  Consensus building in the realm of Newtonian Mechanics is easy, run the equations and everybody gets the same answer.  But Newtonian Mechanics stands almost alone among the sciences in that level of predictability and accuracy.  As one moves away from Newtonian Mechanics, things get much more complicated.

Just one step away from Newton, in the realm of Quantum Mechanics, things change radically – the world get very fuzzy.  Quantum Mechanics are what scientists call “non-deterministic.”  Inherent in Quantum Mechanics are two things that make almost no intuitive sense.  One is that we do not, and cannot, know the precise nature of an object.  An atom, and more importantly the particles of which the atom is constituted, have a dual nature as both wave and particle.  Depending on what you ask them to do they will either bounce off the wall like a ball or undulate like a wave.  And as if that is not weird enough, it is inherent in quantum mechanics that if we know the energy of one of these dual things we cannot know where it is with precision.  We can calculate a probability of where it is, but there is no exactitude.  All that said, Quantum Mechanics works for us to extract information from the quantum world and use it as we need to, so there is consensus.  But when you move past the use of the information we can get our hands on, consensus ends.  There was a grand debate between Einstein and pretty much the rest of the physics community about whether Quantum Mechanics was actually a theory of what was going on or simply a useful set of equations.  It was in the context of this debate that Einstein uttered his oft quoted, “I do not believe God would play dice with the universe.”

When you move outside of the world of physics, consensus becomes harder and harder to achieve.  Chemistry is not nearly so precise as physics, but is precise enough that consensus tends to be arrived at based purely on data – or at least that was the case until the branch known as “environmental chemistry” came to be.  That’s a branch of chemistry devoted to studying chemical phenomena as a basis for policy.  It exposes one of the great weaknesses in our understanding of chemistry and that is when we move from the laboratory to the real world.  Put me in a lab dealing in small quantities of two chemicals and I can mix them together and get the same thing every time.  Mix the same two chemicals in tonnage quantities in an industrial reactor and the results are not nearly so repeatable.  When one moves from the relatively controlled environment of an industrial reactor to the completely uncontrolled environment of the atmosphere, things become far, far less predictable, and hence consensus harder and harder to achieve.  But policy has to be made and so methods other than data begin to take over the persuasion.

As we move farther from physics through the biological and geological sciences things become more and more complex in terms of the systems under study and thus predictability is harder and harder to come by and therefore consensus harder and harder to arrive at.   Once again creating a window for methods of persuasion other than “objective data” to be used and to carry the day.  Then there are the fields of study that have adopted the methods and some of the terminology of science, but are almost inherently unrepeatable and therefore inherently not science – these are primarily fields that study human behavior either individually or socially.  The “DSM” or “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” undergoes change so frequently and radically as to defy the very term “consensus.”

At some point a field of study may fashion itself as science, but in the end it is pure politics.  So I applaud Administrator Pruitt’s appointments.  Despite efforts to make it appear that there is “consensus” there is still much debate in the various areas of science related to EPA policy.  Just because persuasive means other than data have created the appearance of consensus does not mean a consensus sufficient for policy formation exists.  The need for all viewpoints to gather and debate and form consensus is immense.  And it is how we are supposed to do politics, and science, in this country.


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