Posts Tagged politics

Science vs. Politics: A Personal View

I’m not by nature a political person.  I do have my own strongly held convictions on the political issues of the day, and I vote in every election I can get my hands on, but I generally refrain from discussing politics in person, in writing, on Facebook, or in this blog.  I’d much rather write about writing or science or the environment.  Those are topics I feel much more strongly about, than, say, the length of Donald Trump’s ____.  (You fill in the blank.)  But in this day and age, politics is all about us, like a miasma that infects every aspect of our lives.  Ignoring it is difficult.  Everywhere you turn, you are pummeled with facts, pseudo-facts, opinion, pseudo-opinion, and all manner of intellectual graffiti, designed solely to influence you to believe someone else’s opinion.  My feeling about all this is: I have my own opinion; don’t mess me up with yours.

Perhaps that’s why I became a scientist.  I like the rigidity of the scientific process.  Sure, there’s room for opinion in science; in fact it’s full of it.  But your opinion in science is supposed to be based on the facts.  You have to quote chapter and verse in order to be believed in science.  You have to be able to list the reasons you believe something.  No “alternate facts” here, just the realistic facts and data that support and bolster your opinion.  Do viruses cause cancer in humans?  What are the facts concerning the existence of dark matter?  What is the evidence that the Zika virus causes microcephaly in newborns?  And so forth.  Just the facts.

Politics, on the other hand, is largely reactionary.  I’m not talking about extremely conservative politics which wants to take us back to the 1700s or 1800s, but reactionary in the sense that it rarely generates anything new, but mostly reacts to what has come before.  Science, on the other hand, is progressive.  It is what generates the forward motion in many fields.  Science found the Higgs boson; politics has yet to react to it.  Science showed that chlorine kills bacteria and viruses in water; only later did political organizations make it mandatory that drinking water be treated to reduce the number of water-borne diseases in the US.  Science developed the transistor, the integrated circuit, the computer, the internet, and now politics has to regulate it.  Science is on the cutting edge; politics trails and many times cuts itself on the cutting edge.

That’s not to say politics isn’t necessary in our lives, and I’m not trying to say here that politics is unnecessary.  Politics concerns itself with the relations between various groups of people, and regulates and restricts those relations.  Important, certainly.  Politics also takes it upon itself to codify the important discoveries and make them law.  In many cases that’s also necessary.  But it’s far more satisfying, enjoyable, and rewarding to be in the front of discovery, to be doing what no one else has done before, and to know facts that no one else knows.  Especially the politicians.  Science is like being in the Lewis and Clark expedition up the Missouri River.  Can you imagine how exciting that must have been?  Especially after they crossed the Continental Divide and began to work their way down the western side of the Rocky Mountains toward the Columbia River and eventually the Pacific Ocean.  No white man had ever been there.  I would like to have been there.  I couldn’t, obviously, so I explored the interactions between virus particles.  It’s the explorer in me.

Damn the politicians—full speed ahead.

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Too Many Facts

Well, we’re embroiled in another presidential campaign season in the United States, and facts, figures, and allegations are flying around the multiverse like bees defending a hive.  I’m not much of a politician (I don’t want to be) and I try to avoid political conversations, though I do have very definite opinions about most of the current political and economic and humanitarian situations that routinely find themselves on the evening news.  Having an opinion is one thing, though, and bolstering that opinion with all the relevant facts is quite another.  And that’s the one thing that annoys me most about politics.  Facts.

Politicians have definite opinions, to be sure, and I assume most US citizens do too.  But behind those opinions should be the true facts of the case.  And we are absolutely inundated with facts.  My disquiet with facts is neither the lack of them nor the absolute glut of facts we encounter daily, even hourly.  My problem is with the accuracy of those facts.

I’m too much of a scientist to let these “facts” go without a comment or two.  Each presidential candidate has his/her own opinion, of course, and so often those opinions are backed up with what they throw out as “facts.”  Dropped before us like pearls before swine, those facts may look and sound good when taken at face value, but rarely are they backed up by any real evidence that they are what the candidate says they are.  Facts are too often the fodder for pundits who massage them and manipulate them into being what they want them to be.  I, personally, would like to know whether the “facts” presented by a candidate are true or not, not how that person is using them.  Political candidates aren’t the only ones using facts.  Facts are put forward by all sorts of organizations intent on making their own case for something or other.  Yet, rarely are those facts actually verified.  I want to see more verification.  A lot more.

I wouldn’t doubt that in this country, there is no one—not one single, solitary person—who can verify every fact presented in the media.  There’s just too many.  I’ve seen some fact-checking reports after the presidential debates, and many times those “fact-checkers” sound legitimate.  But no one can check everything.  We’re swimming in facts, facts that can be used by anyone or any group to make their own point.  How do we know who to rely on?  Who’s accurate and who’s not?  I’d like to see the facts behind the facts.

When I wrote scientific papers, I had to use a lot of facts, some of which I generated myself, some of which were taken from other papers.  And I had to reference all of them at the end of the paper in a section titled “References,” or in some cases, “Literature Cited.”  All the facts had to be verified, and any conclusion(s) I drew had to be supported by the facts.  Considering the importance of the President in US society, why shouldn’t presidential candidates be subject to the same rigor?

So many facts; not enough verification.

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