16. Science vs Politics: A Cynical Assessment

It seems that scientists always face an uphill battle when arguing for a change of opinion regarding “how the world works.”  Everyone has deeply held opinions about the nature of the world that are based on facts, experience, philosophy, religion, wishful thinking, family beliefs, and cultural mores, and in some combination of those.  The strength of each source of beliefs varies and the proportions of each depends on the individual.  Our beliefs define how we respond to new information, whether we will be accepting or doubtful, and how willing we are to change our minds on particular topics.

Science is predicated on a foundation of evidence, of facts that are discovered by a systematic process of investigation and then verified to the greatest degree possible given the current state of our understanding and technology.  Scientists make an effort to start with a null hypothesis that declares there is no evidence for change and then they formulate an alternative hypothesis that suggests what a change might be, if one exists. Then, an experiment is designed to test that particular hypothesis with a relatively clear understanding of what the data in support of that hypothesis would look like even before the experiment is conducted.  It’s the same as saying, “Well, if this is true, what would it take to convince us?” A bar is set and the data must meet or exceed that bar.

In politics, there is no such bar.  There are no criteria for determining what is and isn’t true.  What is believed to be true is true because it matches the message of the speaker and the picture the speaker is trying to portray to others, particularly voters.  In politics, one does not need to meet or exceed a bar; in many cases a single example is all that is needed to support the belief that something is true.  In politics, the exception can always disprove the rule.

For scientists, new information is not considered the final word.  New data help us reconsider the interpretation of existing data and how we should best design new experiments to verify what we think we know.  Science cannot prove anything; science looks for trends; there is no endpoint where we say, “That’s it!  We’re done and we understand it all.”  Scientific discovery is a process of unfolding, but no real scientist will ever vouch for anything in absolute terms.

This dichotomy in how different people arrive at conclusions creates a tremendous obstacle to those who believe in fact-based decision making when they are attempting to change the mind of someone who does not follow the same path.  For someone who does not necessarily rely on facts, a discussion or argument can be peppered with belief statements that have no basis in facts but which are given the same footing as those that are.  Against such a debate strategy one must either have a complete command of factual information of all kinds or lose the argument.  The latter will almost always be the case because a believer can conjure up their argument on the spur of the moment, memory is not needed, nor is veridicality.

As a university science professor, I live in a fact-based world.  Nothing I do, nothing I write, nothing I teach can or should be disassociated from the historical line of evidence.  What we teach from one year to the next is checked against the most recent discoveries to make sure we are still making accurate statements.  My audience is one that has not yet embraced the concept of fact-based decision making and it is my challenge to bring them around to that way of viewing their world.  Turning otherwise smart students into critical thinkers, those who evaluate the quality of information, is the only goal I have.  There is no place in my world for belief systems that do not have factual support.  As with teaching, I cannot rely on any such argument in my applications for tenure, promotions, grants, or scientific publications.  Any statement I make, such as “I believe I deserve it,” must be supported by real evidence.

Thus, I have a great deal of sympathy for the administrators of the university, most of whom are drawn from the academic ranks, who have to present and defend the goals and functions of the university to the state representatives, education boards, and others who control the purse strings of university funding.  All of their need-based requests must be securely founded in facts.  All budgets must account for every expenditure and the reasons for those expenditures must be defended.  It’s not unlike going through an IRS audit: the paperwork, facts, evidence, presentation, and conclusions must be in order and correct.

In contrast, those controlling the purse strings have no need to ever base their decisions on fact.  Their decisions are based in fiscal philosophy which is a belief system.  The money in question does not belong to the elected officials, but elected officials make decisions about spending that money based on personal beliefs about how money should be spent.  Thus, while the university official can present the most logical and well-supported argument for the allocation of money, based on research and demonstrated need, the decision to fund the university request is often based entirely on whether that request matches the fiscal beliefs of a majority of the board or legislature controlling that money. This is an obstacle to funding public education that requires amazing tact and patience on the part of the university officials.  They must learn to use the correct terminology and must never lose their temper; they must play by rules they do not support; they must kowtow; they must smile and never frown when listening to the most banal and ignorant statements; they must give up on facts and play the belief game.  This is the world of politics.

Political systems have no particular use for facts.  In the fact-based world, we understand that positions can change as more facts are collected.   Policies and strategies can be amended, viewpoints can shift, and one must be tactful if one understands that.  However, in the belief-based world, tact is not a valued commodity.  That world is black and white and does not change with new information because new information is always treated with suspicion if it contradicts what is considered the “truth.”  Politicians get votes by making bold, clear, unambiguous statements that are convergent with popular opinion regardless of whether those opinions have any basis in reality.  Reality is a meaningless abstraction in politics because reality is what people believe to be true and what they believe to be true might have no basis in fact.  Once in office, politicians continue to manipulate perceptions of reality to sway public opinion, as do others in the opinion molding business.

This process, getting elected by eschewing facts in favor of opinion, creates legislatures that refuse to support fact-based decision making.  The result is political trajectories that are not amended as new information is obtained and policies supported by dogmatic belief systems of politicians who cannot allow themselves to ever change their minds on important topics for fear of being considered weak.  This style of electing officials is a time-honored tradition because those who do not vary in their beliefs are viewed positively by voters even when their beliefs are completely wrong and even fraudulent.  Authoritarian, aggressive, self-aggrandizing, overbearing politicians are considered strong, forthright, plain-speaking, and firm.  These are characteristics that appeal to voters.  And these characteristics almost never have a strong foundation in fact.

This style of thinking and acting is dishonest in another way.  Almost all of those elected officials and decision-makers are college educated and have been exposed for years to the world of fact-based logic.  What they found after leaving school is that such a system does not facilitate their career aspirations as quickly as the cheap and intellectually dishonest technique of making up their own reality and eschewing facts.  And once they buy in to the reality-manipulating world of belief politics, they cannot go back without sacrificing their reputation in that world.  In that sense, higher education has failed utterly even though the many of the skills used for achieving success in the belief world were gained in college.

Science has provided the closest approximation of reality that we can have.  It should be the foundation for organizing our society and for making long-term decisions and for planning our future.  But science and politics are antithetical entities, and humans are political by nature.  The world of science will always lose the political battle unless science supports what the politicians and their political system already believe to be true.  The facts will only be accepted if they arrive pre-aligned with political philosophy.  And the politicians in charge will tend to be the ones best able to play the “belief is reality” game with the voting public.