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Science and politics

September 29, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

The always insightful Ta-Nehisi Coates criticized Adrian Fenty for sloppy campaigning in his recent loss in the DC Democratic primary (emphasis added):

I think when you’re in a pitched battle over something you care deeply about, it’s often tough to remember that it isn’t enough to be visionary, perceptive, or prophetic. Leadership, in a democracy, isn’t simply a matter of identifying solutions. You also have to convince a critical mass of people to either trust you, or at least trust your solution.

Having not lived in the District in some years I could well be getting this wrong, but those two quotes, and yesterday’s reporting in the Post, paint a picture of an administration that believed being right was good enough.

And later on:

We can all agree on the substance of that statement–eight percent of eighth graders doing math at grade level is criminal. I suspect that many of the people who voted Fenty out would also agree. But Michelle Rhee isn’t merely in public education–she’s in politics. Presumably, she understands this as she was out, last week, doing political work for Fenty. In that context, the implicit reasoning here–that being politically deft necessarily equals sugar-coating–is rather amazing. In a democracy, persuasion is a necessary aspect of politics. Large-scale reform certainly complicates persuasion, but the two aren’t antithetical…
…That is an essential part of politics–not alienating your allies, and converting would-be enemies, all while pushing the right solutions.
I’m wondering how much this message can be applied to science.  It’s true that some of our campaigns are also an exercise in politics, and global warming comes to mind.  It’s clearly not not so much about getting facts right as it is about persuasion. We’ve also known for a very long time that many Americans are scientifically uninformed, and anti-regulatory sentiments aren’t new.  We should have been aware of this landscape and navigated it accordingly.  That said, scientists aren’t politicians and it’s understandable–and desirable–we don’t act as such.
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