Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration's Misuse of Science
The founders of the American state understood that the proper functioning of a democracy required an educated electorate. It is this understanding that justifies a system of public education and that led slaveholders to resist the spread of literacy among their chattels. But the meaning of “educated” has changed beyond recognition in two hundred years. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are no longer sufficient to decide on public policy. Now we need quantum mechanics and molecular biology. The knowledge required for political rationality, once available to the masses, is now in the possession of a specially educated elite, a situation that creates a series of tensions and contradictions in the operation of representative democracy.
The problem of the role of elite knowledge in a democracy is an old one. A version of a story in the Babylonian Talmud tells of four rabbis walking in a field, engaged in a dispute over whether an oven of a particular design can be purified. Three hold one opinion, while the fourth has the opposite view. The lone holdout appeals to God, asking that He send first thunder, then lightning, and then that the lightning strike a lone tree in the field. Although each request is granted, the others are not convinced. After all, thunder and lightning are usual natural phenomena and in a lightning storm what is more natural than that a tree standing in the middle of a field should be struck? In desperation the dissenter calls on God to speak directly to them. Sure enough, a voice from above is heard proclaiming “IT IS AS HE SAYS.” “So,” asks the dissenter, “what do you three have to say now?” “All right,” they answer, “that makes it three to two.”
Science has replaced Jehovah as the source of privileged knowledge, but the problems remain. How is the knowledge in the possession of the scientific elites to be factored into a process of decision in which considerations of economy, ideology, and political power also enter? Is elite knowledge to be given absolute priority? Why should we trust scientists, who, after all, have their own political and economic agendas? On the other hand how can we decide by vote when the voters and their representatives have no understanding of the facts of nature?
The American government, like others, has attempted to solve the problem by co-opting scientists into the apparatus of the state in three ways. Most directly it has built an executive apparatus including the president’s science adviser, the Office of Science and Technology, and regulatory bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency. Second, it has created quasi-governmental bodies made up of senior scientists, like the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council, that are obliged to provide expert scientific advice and evaluation on request from any government agency. Finally, after the Second World War, the state became the chief patron of science, currently committing about $35 billion annually directly to basic and applied research.
Because of fears that federal support…
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