The Main Difference Between Science and Politics

There was once a minor low budget panel program on television somewhere, I can’t recall where, perhaps it was PBS, perhaps the CBC, called “This Week in Science” or something to that effect. I guess it had responded to demands from the public for more science news. The panel all seemed to be journalists of some middling TV-safe stripe or other. You know, not stupid but somehow reliably noncontroversial just the same. (To my way of seeing things this is a very odd form of intelligence.)

And to see this crowd discussing the weeks events in science was comically lame, because from their point of view, what happened in science in the previous week was precisely and exactly nothing. Essentially nothing changes in science from week to week. Nothing of any importance occurs that changes the scene from one week to the next. Occasionally a major study is released, of course, but everybody interested in the topic already knows what it will say by the time it is published.

Compare this to what happens in politics. The strutting, the striving, the gaffes, the bons mots, the triumphs, the tragedies, the legislative victories, the judicial defeats, the tarnishing of old heroes, the vindication of villains, the arrival of fresh new warriors… It’s positively Shakespearean.

Yet come back ten years later.

The politicians, with some shifts in dramatis personae, will be making almost exactly the same bleats and whinnies in almost exactly the same order. The problems will be the same, perhaps slightly changed in emphasis. The disagreements on what to value will be the same. Perhaps the disagreements on actual, substantive facts will have worsened. Perhaps the choices of which facts are salient will have even further diverged.

Meanwhile the scientists will be discussing completely different things, most of their questions from a decade ago having been addressed to general satisfaction!

How is this possible?

It is possible because science learns. There is a consistent direction to it. It always marches, slowly, ponderously, but steadily onward to deeper understanding. It rarely backtracks, and almost never on matters of importance.

Politics is almost impervious to learning.

And once a scientific field gets swallowed up by politics, it gets a strange double character. Within its core, it continues to make progress, but at its fringes, the progress is successfully concealed, obfuscated by people who will never get the point of anything. A spectacular example is the recent raising of the DeFreitas/Baliunas/Soon vs von Storch et al fiasco by Anthony Watts. This is one of the most embarrassing incidents in the history of denialism, wherein Hans von Storch, a genuine skeptic about the urgency of climate change, was considered reliable enough to be the editor of a journal which was intended to whitewash denialist nonsense of the sort that Soon and Baliunas have been peddling for some considerable time. Von Storch was having none of it, and after some argument, resigned as editor and convinced much of the rest of the board to leave with him.

Now the Baliunas & Soon paper is a good example of “postnormal” process in science. Their purpose was not to get a robust result in press. Their purpose was to get a result, no matter how dubious, which was embarrassing to the consensus into print, so that they could trumpet it to a senate committee. Which they proceeded to do.

Now stolen emails reveal considerable discomfort among actual scientists about this. But the end result was enormously embarrassing to the perpetrators. Furthermore, although clearly von Storch wants to put the matter behind him and get back to the more entertaining business of genuine disagreement with the consensus, he is still around to testify to the inadequate nature of Baliunas & Soon’s work and de Freitas’s editorial judgment if pressed. Why on earth would Watts want to bring this up again?

Because in politics no victory need ever be conceded. After enough time passes, a new garbling of the story can be proposed to advance the cause. Nothing is ever settled. Despite von Storch’s vigorous and repeated assertions that nobody pressured him and that he was simply defending the quality of science, sinister implications can be drummed up, waters can be muddied, progress can be prevented.

It is into this dreadful context that we find ourselves injected if we have the misfortune of making a discovery with consequences for governance. And here we are presented with bounties of stupid advice, advice that is appropriate for the day to day battles of groups that expect to make no progress, to battle to an endless dysfunctional stalemate, to win some and lose some.

What we need is a politics that makes progress. What we need is a way to build a social contract. What we need is a politics of consensus.

In the climate change matter, it is of vanishingly small consequence if the Democrats prevail in 2012, for their opponents will surely prevail in 2014 or 2016 or 2018 or 2020. What we need is to win over their opponents, so that we proceed from a social consensus. And indeed, we need a consensus that is not merely national but global.

The talks at Durban are a charade. The COPs will continue their charade-like existence until the world understands our predicament and swallows the obviously needed medicine. What happens in the Republican party or the Democratic party, or comparable organizations elsewhere, is of modest consequence. The only hope is in what happens in the minds of the voters; all of them.

There is no feasible alternative to the smokescreen of denial other than a deliberate and clear presentation of reality in a way that is, if possible, encouraging and life-affirming and liberating, but regardless of sales techniques, is actually true.

Without reviving a shared vision of progress to a brighter future we can only attain more atrophy and more acrimony and more decay.

Progress no longer means more and more and more stuff. But it can be progress toward a brighter and more humane future just the same. The solution to our woes is not that science should become more like politics, but the other way around.

Image of the Lorenz manifold – University of Vermont Take it holistically as emblematic of intellectual progress, or take the trajectories as symbolic of political futility. (Despite the caption which wandered here along with the visualization, I think it is incorrect to call the structure fractal, by the way.)



  1. Crystal-clear piece of writing. It's perhaps telling that, going back to Hayek and revived in a big way recently, there's a portrayal of your argument as a dystopian fascist-scientist dictatorship. (Here's an example I blogged about a while back, someone connecting Hayek directly to climate scientists.)

    So what's the question? Is it: what does a functioning democracy look like in a world where we need to make collective decisions to preserve our civilisation? That's getting ahead of ourselves a bit. Perhaps it's more: can democracy and a civilisation-supporting biosphere both survive the next century?

    The following quote I read this week seems relevant (taking about apache and github...):

    "People have a great capacity for change. Those people can and will continue to lead us as our institutions fail and eventually harm us." (Mikeal Rogers)

  2. Although I agree with the main thrust of the article, surely the difference between science and politics is a result of a higher difference, namely politics is about how you want things to be and who gets what share of the pie, whereas science is about finding out how things are. Hence no change in politics because people think that bad people should be punished all the time.
    Now obviously there is generational change, e.g. on acceptance of marriage rights for homsexuals, but politics is about social and individual values, whereas science is forced on you as a result of probing the universe, rather than internally generated or absorbed socially.

  3. Guthrie, perhaps that view is part of the problem.

    Politics is often the stage on which value changes gets played out, true. But politics is also the managerial level of a democracy. Back when "progress" was a concept whose outlines had wide general agreement, values differences could take a back seat to progress toward a generally shared pragmatic set of goals. That we are instead arguing values shows we share no goals.

    You'd think that given all our problems we could develop some shared focus on a future where the problems were largely solved, and work toward that pragmatically.

  4. This way oversimplifies things. Because science, for all its merits, moves forward as you describe precisely because of the politics of the scientific community. Amongst scientists, the politics works well and produces consistently good results, whereas in other spheres, politics is often far more dysfunctional.

    When you look closely at scientific progress, scientific discoveries, the way scientists deal with controversy and even fraud in their community, you learn that there is no steady and constant scientific method, but a collection of methods that evolve over time and are subject to continual adjustment and ad-hockery.

    Popper proposed that science is distinguished by general, falsifiable hypotheses that are subject to testing. But Lakatos demonstrated that there is no way to determine objectively whether an experimental result actually falsifies the hypothesis. Others, including Kuhn, went forward to point out that there are always results that disagree with hypothetical predictions, and deciding when there are enough anomalies to declare the hypothesis falsified. There is the fact that we rarely deal directly with observations or data, but with interpretations of those observations and data that can only be compared to theoretical predictions when we supply them with a certain amount of theoretical baggage (see "experimenter's regress"). This is true whether we're talking about Rutherford watching scintillations on a phosphor screen and interpreting them as particles or a more contemporary scientist measuring the resistance of a bolometer in an orbiting satellite and interpreting it as a radiative temperature of the atmosphere.

    What keeps everything going and makes progress happen---what keeps experimenter's regress from rendering all of science a mess of circular reasoning---is not that science is different from politics, but the fact that science manages its politics very well. People keep one another in line, they make sensible pragmatic decisions about how to weigh evidence, they manage debates effectively to move things forward, and for the most part, they punish liars and cheats with no mercy.

    Jacob Bronowski wrote in the mid-1950s that one of the biggest things science had to offer the world was not cool technological gizmos (Bronowski juxtaposed the radio and the nuclear bomb as examples) but its politics. The community of scientists, Bronowski pointed out, has governed itself effectively for longer than any system of government on the planet. Since the 17th century, nations have suffered through revolutions, coups, and civil wars, while science has kept chugging along, smoothly governing itself and progressing because it established a political system that works and perpetuates itself better than any civil government.

    So the contrast you're really trying to describe here is between the effective and efficient politics of the scientific community and the dysfunctional inefficient politics that you see elsewhere.

    This observation connects nicely to Barry Bickmore's nice description, at the end of his "How To Avoid the Truth," which you featured here, about the role of consensus in the scientific community. Consensus is possible and productive because of the ethical system to which we all subscribe and into which we indoctrinate our students; and our search for consensus, guided by those ethics, is what moves science forward in a way that civil politics cannot do.

  5. Jonathan, I actually agree with everything you say here. Our differences are only semantic. It is true that the progress of science is social, and in a real sense political. But I am trying to distinguish to from politics-writ-large or politics-of-governance, which is often just called "politics".

    Science thrives on a shared praxis and shared goals. In America, even the rules by which governance decisions are made are breaking down. The goals of the parties and constituencies have diverged.

    Since there is only one earth, we live or die together. So the lack of commonality among the parties is a bizarre dysfunction. And yet they are trying to wrap science in their madness, rather than learning from us about how to agree on things and then move on to other things.

  6. Mike,

    It's legit to call the Lorentz Attractor a fractal. Not all fractals are self-similar. The Lorentz attractor is a many-sheeted object, and an intersection of a line with the attractor is a form of Cantor set (uncountable but measure zero). Depending on exactly what definition of dimension you use, the Lorentz Attractor has a fractional dimension between 2 and 3. In that sense, a fractal.

    I leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out what that may have to do with the politics/science disjuncture.

  7. Just to play a little bit of devils advocate: isn't scientific consensus possible because on so many things, being right leads to accurate prediction and control? Where this isn't true (e.g., economics and pyschology), there tends not to be strong consensus, at least not on the hard questions.

    It's also the case that being the head of an academic department, or even a National Academy, doesn't give you the same kind of power that being a head of state does. So there's not so much incentive to be ruthless.

  8. Yes, that all makes sense. I can be accused of being a bit facile here. It's not just that we can all start acting like this is one big faculty meeting and everything will be fixed.

    Still, the differences have long been very striking to me. And the present trend is for the incompetent methods of politics to infect the science, not the other way around.

  9. Michael,

    The reason I think it's important to make the comparison between the politics of the scientific community and politics of governance is that while I'm not remotely as optimistic as Bronowski was, I do think there are things the folks in politics of governance might learn about effective governance and effective politics from observing more closely the way the scientific community works and what makes it work so well.

  10. "What keeps everything going and makes progress happen — what keeps experimenter’s regress from rendering all of science a mess of circular reasoning — is not that science is different from politics, but the fact that science manages its politics very well."

    I don't buy this. Sort of echoing Paul's point: reality is the ultimate arbiter of scientific progress. Science is a social technology capable of producing an accretion of knowledge about reality. It is only effective at doing that because reality provides the bedrock. Repeating myself, but the succes of science does not stem from its `political structure'. It stems from a very successful symbiosis of social technology and the fact that nature has stable properties.

    Politics is fundamentally different: it's a social technology that developed as a way to peacefully manage conflicting interests. Its historical development has been all about enfranchising larger circles of interest - in the UK, for instance, slowly giving a voice to a developing working class over the 19th century.

    Perhaps its only a matter of emphasis, but suggesting the only difference between science and politics is that science has a successful political structure? Surely not: that suggests reality doesn't even need to have a look-in.

    The problem we face is that democracy did not develop to deal with the problem we face. It has been successful as a safety valve for competing social forces. It's then been valorised into something we think we can 'export', because we forgot it grew in a particular environment.

    From one point of view, it's still working: competing interests are indeed fighting it out through e.g. the current US political system. But it's obviously not going to work if this process of peaceful competing interests is going to saw the branch off that everyone's sitting on.

  11. There's a parallel case to consider also: the relationship between economics and politics. Much of the post-war development of global economic governance has been about trying to define economics as a separate, 'scientific' realm of policy, distinct from democracy. A few ways that shows itself: the World Bank's own rules of engagement ban it from interfering in the internal political processes of a country. However, anyone who's studied the World Bank's actions will be able to tell you, the nexus of international financial institutions of which the World Bank is a part has developed a very deep and systematic theory of state development and has inserted itself into countries to implement it. They are into many country's political structures, especially finance ministries. A small example from one the World Bank's development reports is its theory of 'tactical sequencing', which works out the order that a country's interest groups should be dealt with in order to minimise resistance to the policies they're pushing. That translates as a plan for 'divide and rule', which is about as political as you can get. But legally, it's merely economic action.

    So it isn't just abstract: this split between political and economic action is a major part of international law. The World Bank used it once when I wrote to them to question a particular project they were funding that was having terrible political effects: sorry, they said, we are legally required not to interfere politically.

    A more relevant example to climate change, if we're thinking about how to get a global policy: the WTO has been specifically designed as a 'mast that politicians can tie themselves to to avoid the siren-like calls of lobby groups.' In this case, it's to help the world move towards open trade while giving politicians ammunition for denying domestic pressure for protection - exactly the sort of thing one might imagine a successful global climate treaty would require.

    I mentioned this a while back at Bart's: you can see a political split here, where left-of-centre folks attack the WTO for being anti-democratic, while right-of-centre folks attack the climate negotiation process for the same reasons (and both sides ignore that the same issues are at stake, saying nothing about the other side.)

    I actually got onto this just now reading Rob Hopkins' intro to his new transition book. The transition movement is having absolutely no truck with the distinction between political and economic democracy - not due to any predetermined political strategy, but as a consequence of what they're attempting. That makes it more radical than one might at first think: attempts to democratise economic realms like one's own region or the workplace have always been met with ferocious resistance. e.g. Hayek, godfather of the catallaxy as the ultimate guarantor of political liberty, had absolutely no problem with industries being run as dictatorial fiefdoms.

    The same issue arises around food sovereignty where it's claimed that 'a precondition for everyone having something to eat... is genuine and direct democracy.' (More-so in places where people are closer to the breadline...) The economic argument of the WTO approach is, of course, exactly the opposite: that's just local pressure groups distorting the market and denying it the chance to find more efficient - and thus ultimately cheaper - food production, making everyone better off.

    Sorry, I guess I'm not really talking about what the main differences are. I'm just puzzling over what any future settlement between science and politics is likely to look like, and what lessons - if any - the ongoing tangle between economics and politics might tell us. Perhaps it's pretty clear to anyone who's been reading Krugman's laments over the past few months that economics shares some of the political realm's amnesia. Though Krugman might argue that's not the fault of economics, which is now finding itself hammered to fit currently fashionable politics.

    So another question: even if your science (or social science) is capable of producing accumulated, collectively accepted knowledge, is there any way at all to build political structures able to have a matching, cumulative institutional memory? Answer: probably not, because interest groups = hegemony-builders who will use all and any means of information warfare to achieve their goals. Cheery thought.

  12. To reiterate a point that Dan Olner brouht up:

    Politics is fundamentally different: it's a social technology that developed as a way to peacefully manage conflicting interests. Its historical development has been all about enfranchising larger circles of interest

    And therein lies a problem with trying to introduce a "shared vision of progress" into politics. The real advances in politics -- where by "advance" I mean 'hey look, no one's tried this before, but how someone's tried this and we know it works' -- have been about how to arbitrate between groups of people who don't have shared interests.

    Just a few examples should suffice to illustrate what I mean. Think about the Geneva Convention. Or the Magna Carta. Or habeas corpus. Or the idea of state sovereignty, and later the idea of nation-states -- ideas whose seeds were first planted by the Peace of Westphalia. Or the idea of religious tolerance.

    In each of these, unlike the case of science, there's no move towards a "shared vision", or a "shared truth", or a "shared paradigm". Quite the opposite. The conflicting interests in question remain conflicting interests; it's just that they putatively agree (or are forced to agree) to a set of "protocols" for arbitrating between themselves when they start treading on one another's toes.

    But beyond those protocols, the politicians on all sides of the various fences are still as free as ever to bullshit however they want. As long as the "protocols" are followed, there's no need for anything said by a politician to have any relation to actual reality. And so the bullshit continues.

    And this, I think, is why politics will never be able to become like science.

    -- frank

  13. Interesting and compelling, but I'm not sure the facts are as clear as all that. Airplanes don't fall out of the sky because of regulatory action. Milk doesn't contain melamine because of regulatory action. Cars pollute much less than they used to because of regulatory action. Oil wells must be spaced a certain distance apart because of regulatory action (which is one of my favorite examples, because it comes from an industry demanding restrictions on itself).

    It's true that every regulation has its opponents, but after the fact, it turns out that for well-designed regulations, opposition dissipates so quickly that anti-regulatory forces somehow forget those regulations even exist.

    In these cases, it is not interest vs interest, but the public against real risks or problems posed by our interaction with the physical, chemical or biological environment.

    Further, the fundamentals of the situation have changed. It used to be that we could stay out of each other's way. Now we have abruptly made a transition from a positive-sum game to a zero-sum game.

    Our interests within these games diverge, yes, but making the transition from the one game to the other is in everybody's interest.

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  15. MT, except in the case of oil wells spacing, I'm not sure that it has to do with any "shared vision".

    Certainly, neither the unscrupulous merchants who added melamine into milk, nor the officials who tried to downplay the incident or cover it up, felt any "shared vision" with the rest of the Chinese population.

    In the end, I think the backlash against melamine-tainted milk was due to sheer brute force: the interest groups who were OK with cutting corners in milk production were simply no match for the interest groups arrayed in support for the health of their young.

    -- frank

  16. "And once a scientific field gets swallowed up by politics, it gets a strange double character. Within its core, it continues to make progress, but at its fringes, the progress is successfully concealed, obfuscated by people who will never get the point of anything."

    The obfuscators may not be "people who will never get the point of anything."See Mirowski 2008: The Rise of the Dedicated Natural Science Think Tank h/t Hank Roberts.

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