Democratizing Science, Debating Values

Democratizing Science, Debating Values

New Approaches to ‘Politicized’ Science Under the Bush Administration

Scientists, politicians, and activists have repeatedly criticized the Bush administration for “politicizing” science for the sake of its policy goals. Right-wing commentators, such as Steven Milloy, have responded to these accusations with attacks of their own, reminding the public of similar actions taken by President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. The desire for value-free science seems to be one thing on which both right and left can agree. But is this a realistic or even desirable goal?

The evidence that the Bush administration has stacked advisory committees, suppressed evidence, and disregarded scientific consensus is extremely troubling. However, simply calling for a thicker “wall” between science and politics does not resolve the fundamental problems. This position assumes that science is separate from the value-laden worlds of politics and everyday life. That is not the case. Science, like other social spheres, is a universe of divergent values and interests.

Although we are strongly critical of Bush administration policies—and the use of scientific claims to justify those policies—we are equally concerned about the implications of the position that science should be sharply distinguished from politics and values. Such a distinction not only misrepresents the nature of scientific knowledge but also stifles democratic debate. Rather than pursuing the endless and misguided debate about “sound science,” Democrats and the left should take advantage of recent attention to the issue of science in politics to push for a more democratic science and technology policy-making process.

In this essay we discuss some of the problems inherent in the argument against “politicizing” science. Despite criticism of the Bush administration’s approach to science, deep questions about science, values, and democracy typically go unconsidered. Although there are no easy solutions to the problems raised here, they must become part of the public debate.

To the charge that in the Bush administration ideology trumps science, we argue that there are a wide range of issues on which values, not science, provide the best justifications for progressive policy positions. We should stand by our values, without hiding behind the myth of value-free science. To the charge that the administration has manipulated science so that it is no longer impartial, we question the assumption that science is ever truly impartial. We are better off talking about the ways that scientific knowledge is in fact “partial” than claiming that a purely objective account of the world is possible. To the charge that the administration selects data to fit predetermined outcomes, we expand the critique to consider how science works in subtle ways to justify sexist and racist practices. Although there is a difference between the deceptive practices of the Bush administration and the less intentional conservative tendencies of much scien...