It’s a fairly obvious reason that Kenneth P. Green and Hiwa Alaghebandian, writing in the Journal of the American Enterprise Institute, point to as the problem – in some areas, science and scientists have gone from being neutral observers of facts and purveyors of information developed through the scientific method to attempting to assume an authoritarian and activist role in our lives. Not all of science, obviously, but certainly a visible and loud minority. And that causes problems for all of science:
In the past, scientists were generally neutral on questions of what to do. Instead, they just told people what they found, such as “we have discovered that smoking vastly increases your risk of lung cancer” or “we have discovered that some people will have adverse health effects from consuming high levels of salt.” Or “we have found that obesity increases your risk of coronary heart disease.” Those were simply neutral observations that people could find empowering, useful, interesting, etc., but did not place demands on them. In fact, this kind of objectivity was the entire basis for trusting scientific claims.
But along the way, an assortment of publicity-seeking, and often socially activist, scientists stopped saying, “Here are our findings. Read it and believe.” Instead, activist scientists such as NASA’s James Hansen, heads of quasi-scientific governmental organizations such as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, editors of major scientific journals, and heads of the various national scientific academies are more inclined to say, “Here are our findings, and those findings say that you must change your life in this way, that way, or the other way.”
The two authors took a look at phrases scientists have been quoted as using over the years in statements they’ve released or how the media has interpreted them. And make no mistake – in many cases the media aided and abetted these activist scientists.
So here’s what they found:
[A]round the end of the 1980s, science (at least science reporting) took on a distinctly authoritarian tone. Whether because of funding availability or a desire by some senior academics for greater relevance, or just the spread of activism through the university, scientists stopped speaking objectively and started telling people what to do. And people don’t take well to that, particularly when they’re unable to evaluate the information that supposedly requires them to give up their SUV, their celebratory cigar, or their chicken nuggets.
In essence we had the confluence of “save the world” journalism meeting activist “save the world” scientists and the result was more agenda driven partisanship (and partnership) than objectivity. Some scientists felt compelled to save us from ourselves and many journalists shared that desire. The most obvious result of that has been the sham science of “global warming”.
The authors conclude by pointing out how science has, in some cases, become the “regulatory state’s” lap dog and what it has to do to redeem itself:
If science wants to redeem itself and regain its place with the public’s affection, scientists need to come out every time some politician says, “The science says we must…” and reply, “Science only tells us what is. It does not, and can never tell us what we should or must do.” If they say that often enough, and loudly enough, they might be able to reclaim the mantle of objectivity that they’ve given up over the last 40 years by letting themselves become the regulatory state’s ultimate appeal to authority.
They’re absolutely right – and, every time we see an activist scientist getting into the “what we must or should do” nonsense, we need to call him or her on it. And we need to continue to be highly skeptical of the state’s appeal to science as the final authority when doing so is decidedly in the state’s favor.