Political Science [updated 6.10.2006]

The Cato blog has an irritating new post (by Jerry Taylor) that criticizes what should be,but may well turn out not to be, a worthwhile new political organization with an adequately descriptive name - Scientists and Engineers for America.

Taylor is keen to complain about SEA, and the issues he raises are potentially valid, but very little on the SEA website and nothing Taylor presents about the organization provide reason for worry. Taylor quotes SEA, writing that its purpose is
to campaign for politicians “who respect evidence and understand the importance of using scientific and engineering advice in making public policy.” While the group professes to be nonpartisan, “the group will discuss the impact the Bush Administration’s science and technology policies have had in their fields and the need for voters to consider the science and technology policies by candidates in this year’s mid-term elections.”
While he undoubtedly has reason to be skeptical - many, many academics, scientists included, are, in fact, far left - it is entirely reasonable for a nonpartisan group to pay special attention to the Bush administration's policies. After all, Bush is in the fifth year of his presidency. It would make little sense for such an organization to focus primarily on the policies of former administrations. It is possible that SEA's singling out of the Bush administration is politically motivated, just as it is possible that it is completely reasonable. Taylor continues:
I imagine that most people would agree that, in the words of SEFA [sic], “Scientists and engineers have a right, indeed an obligation, to enter the political debate when the nation’s leaders systematically ignore scientific evidence and analysis, put ideological interests ahead of scientific truths, suppress valid scientific evidence and harass and threaten scientists for speaking honestly about their research.” But there’s more than a whiff of the sentiment here that Americans should just shut up and let the guys in the white coats run the country.
Again, while he may well have reason for concern, nothing in either of these quotes from SEA is disagreeable, at least not to me. In any case, whiffs don't make for coherent counter-arguments.

Case in point: Taylor points out two obvious truths about science - "...there is disagreement among scientists about many of the issues they are concerned about..." and "...scientific truth is not determined by.... majority votes within politicized professional bodies." - and makes a truly annoying move, linking to an outdated book by Thomas Kuhn as 'support' for the half-redundant, half-irrelevant assertion that "[v]irtually every single thing that the scientific "consensus" believes today was once a fringe minority perspective." (link in original).

I will see Taylor's "virtually every single thing" and raise him an unqualified "every single thing." New theories have to start somewhere, but no one with an ounce of sense believes they occur simultaneously to even a sizable plurality, much less a majority, of scientists. Instead, theories start small, conceived typically by one person, perhaps on occasion by a small integer larger than one people. This fact is utterly banal, and it is irrelevant to Taylor's complaints. I would even argue that for his first two assertions to bear much weight, they must be situated in a broad view of how science works in general, which, at the very least, accounts for non-miraculous theory generation.*

I followed Taylor's link to the SEA homepage and read the introduction page, the 'scientific bill of rights', and the 'issues' page, though I haven't followed all of the links on the issues page. Almost everything I read, I liked. The 'bill of rights' even deals mostly in negatives (i.e., 'thou shalt nots'), which Josh rightly points out is precisely how rights are best defined. I also have a nitpick with 'right six':
6. Appointments to federal scientific advisory committees shall be based on the candidate’s scientific qualifications, not political affiliation or ideology.
It should read "Appointments to federal scientific advisory committees shall be based on the candidate’s scientific qualifications." Full stop. It's no good listing all of the things that shouldn't serve as criteria.

The one part of SEA's site that gave me more serious pause was the 'Environment' paragraph on the issues page:
Environment: We need to push beyond our first generation of environmental laws and regulations and move to more modern environmental policies that spur continued technological innovation. Government-industry covenants could allow businesses, in consultation with regulators and the public, to craft the most effective and efficient strategies to meet broad national environmental goals through market-based limits and incentives that don't harm our economy.
This is incredibly vague, and where it's not vague, it's incoherent. It's even more vague than the rest of the site, which is plenty vague in its own right. Perhaps not surprisingly, the vagueness is part of what makes it agreeable. Most of what they say on the site is compatible with a variety of political agendas, including libertarianism. This seems entirely appropriate.

Taylor also links to two Cato papers that look to be pretty interesting (I haven't read them), so his 'argument' isn't completely limited to the silliness above. As far as I can tell, one paper is about the methodological underpinnigs of environmental policy (pdf), and the other is about politics and science more generally (pdf). I imagine that these provide some support for Taylor's general position(s) on science and policy, but I can't imagine they have much to say about SEA directly.

I hope that SEA turns out to be a worthwhile organization. Although I am not as pessimistic about its chances as Taylor is, I do have enough reservations to withhold my 'signature' for now. My 'conversion' to classical liberalism is based largely on mistrust of political organizations (the government chief among them). I'll keep an eye on SEA, and I encourage you, my vast army of loyal, thoughtful readers, to read what they have to say instead of simply taking Jerry Taylor's word for it (I know you all use that Cato blog link at the top of this page on a regular basis).

* A further illustration of the pointlessness of Taylor's Kuhn reference (and an implication of its necessity) is that the fact that every single theory that scientists don't currently believe started out as a "fringe minority perspective." Failure to recognize the irrelevance of the size-of-source of scientific ideas lends undeserved credence to hacks who point out the obvious truth that, as their theories are now ridiculed, so were Newton's. Taylor doesn't do this here, but some of what he did do is related to this, and it bugs me, so I wanted to address it.

Update: Josh brings up some damning material that I missed on the SEA site, and makes some good points about a number of other potential problems with the organization. It looks like Taylor's reaction to the organization was not as knee-jerk as I thought, although seeing Josh find such clear evidence of exactly what Taylor was complaining about makes it something of a mystery why Taylor chose the much less incriminating quotes that he used in his post.


Joshua said...

It should read "Appointments to federal scientific advisory committees shall be based on the candidate’s scientific qualifications." Full stop. It's no good listing all of the things that shouldn't serve as criteria.

And I have a nit to pick on your nit. Actually, it should read "Appointments to federal scientific advisory committees shall not be based on anything other than ..." See, then we get to keep it in the "thou shalt not" framework, and we can cover everything on that list that you said we should list explicitly. ;-)

Joshua said...

Said we shouldn't list explicitly, sorry...

Joshua said...

Cool that you updated this.

I think Taylor's reason for not including the evidence I did is simple laziness. I had a gut instinct negative reaction to the site when I clicked your link. Like me, I guess Taylor smelled a rat - but he didn't bother to go dig it up. Fine for a private opinion, inadequate for a published article on a prominent blog. I had half a mind to send him an email about it, but I decided I had better things to do. Fortunately The Only Winning Move keeps higher standards. ;-)