October 5, 2020

For years we have heard warnings about the “politicization of science” and the need to “restore science to its rightful place.” Likewise, we hear that more and more politicians and members of the public are “anti-science.”

This is a way of talking about science as a monolithic body that issues in unitary conclusions about what actions we should take — as if we could gaze deep into the fabric of the cosmos and find the answer to whether our society should solve climate change by adopting a carbon tax, converting our electricity grid to nuclear power, or relinquishing fossil fuels.

More troublingly, this view of science casts the role of journalists and intellectuals as that of conduits for conveying scientific conclusions to the public, who serve as passive recipients. An odd tension arises: The public is seen as the beneficiary of scientific expertise — but also as a growing obstacle to it. The struggle between science and politics increasingly comes to resemble that between a doctor and an unruly patient. Indeed, many of the obvious instances of this problem arise in debates about public health.

The result is that we are stuck in a dysfunctional dynamic. We hear again and again of the need for more deference to scientific and technical experts: “Follow what the science says.” Yet we also see ever more defiance of experts: accusations that they are corrupt, attempts to replace them with alternate experts, and heroic comparisons of skeptics of the scientific establishment to Galileo. However hard each side of this dynamic pushes against the other, they only seem to feed off each other, and the public faces the troubled choice between submitting to technocrats or distrusting the expert class.

One of the aims of The New Atlantis is to restore the balance between science and politics by recognizing how each places limits on the other. Science cannot settle conflicts of values, cannot pick our priorities, cannot tell us which goods are highest, cannot decide which considerations should triumph when we are faced with difficult tradeoffs. Answers to these questions belong to the realms of philosophy, the arts, and faith; decisions about how to apply them to policy and law belong to the realm of politics. But science also creates friction against politics, raising new problems and new technical options that must be debated, and setting limits on what is feasible.

A proper relationship between science and politics, however, is not just about limits. Science’s discoveries are not just a tool to help us realize our political priorities; they shape those priorities too. It is not surprising that a climate scientist’s views about, say, consumerism will be shaped by her own research, and we should perhaps not be so scandalized to find that they are.

In turn, politics can inform scientific decisions about what information is salient — say, what emphasis we should place on standardized testing scores in deciding which educational interventions work best, or what levels of funding we should invest in researching cancer versus potential strains of pandemic virus.

Likewise, New Atlantis essays aim to show how a question like “Are foods made from genetically modified organisms safe?” is neither a strictly scientific nor a strictly political one, not simply a matter of ethereal value making decisions about impersonal fact. Rather, it is a mix of both, a matter in which empirical discoveries and one’s view on the nature of life, agriculture, and the human person inform each other in rich and complex ways.

Much of our work aims to articulate the deeper moral and cultural hopes and anxieties our society has about new technologies — the unease we feel about biotechnologies that grant new powers over life and death, the inspiration we feel from the prospect of sending human beings to space, or the concerns about what our digital technologies are doing to our children and communities.

But we also recognize that beyond the articulation of these values lie questions about how they can and should shape the political decisions our society makes about governing new technologies. Too often these deep questions of meaning are lost in a morass of factual and procedural minutiae of policy-making. Instead of taking seriously the broad public concerns about the moral and cultural implications of new technologies, politicians defer questions of governance to administrative state bureaucrats, while political journalists merely air the views of a narrow band of academics and experts.

The New Atlantis believes that we can and should have political debates — and policy decisions — that better engage the moral and cultural values of our society. By restoring politics to its rightful place as a site of deep and serious debates about our society’s priorities, we can restore scientific and technical expertise to its rightful place as a tool for informing policy.

The conceit that politics should be subservient to science has done great damage to our politics. But it has done considerable damage to science too, by expecting it to be capable of things it is not. The New Atlantis aims to get past this technocratic politics and to restore the role of public democratic deliberation about science and technology. We do this in part by treating the public not as passive vessels for expert guidance, but as adults whose views must guide decisions about how science should benefit society, even when they differ from the views of experts. But the public’s views also must not be regarded as arbitrary, fixed preferences. We believe that public sentiments are capable of being more wisely formed by debate itself, by new scientific discoveries, and even by journals of ideas.

While we see the need for greater humility in the way our politics engages with science, we also seek to understand how science and politics can more fruitfully inform each other. In this sense we aim not for a less but a more political science, one that recognizes how science is guided by our values, and that allows us to reason more wisely about them.

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