Pondering the authority of science

This post contributed by Piper Corp, ESA Science Policy Analyst Who says we have to listen to scientists? When President Obama vowed in his inaugural address to “restore science to its rightful place,” where exactly was he talking about? The thou-shalts and self-evident truths on which Americans base so many decisions have little to say about consulting sound science. Still, though science rarely plays a significant role in US policies, it garners a tremendous amount of respect. John Marburger, who served as Science Advisor to the President during the George W. Bush Administration, focused on this question of scientific authority during part of his keynote speech at a recent DC workshop on usable science. Riffing on sociologist Max Weber’s three classes of authority (rational [legal], traditional [moral], and charismatic), Marburger suggested that scientific authority, having “no intrinsic authoritative value,” is fundamentally charismatic. According to Weber, charisma is: a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader. Indeed, science achieves a level of objectivity and reliability far beyond that of everyday reasoning. It carries with it the promise of a methodical and repeatable process and, as such, integrity. The result, though, is that in public culture, science is primarily a pathway to facts. Scientific expertise, in other words, has been reduced to the results section. But is the scientific process entirely devoid of values and subjectivity? Not at all. While we’ve come to define rigorous science by the mechanisms used to ensure impartiality – peer review, quantitative and statistical analyses— even the most punctilious researcher must make decisions based on values: what to study, how to study it, how to talk about it. Who has the authority to make these decisions? The intuitive answer is, of course, the scientist, and when the goal of research is to advance knowledge within a particular field, there is no one more apt for the task. But a great deal of research—including basic research—seeks to build knowledge that is useful to society. And this is where scientific expertise reaches its limits: usable science is as dependent on the user as it is on the scientist. So what exactly is usable science? At first glance, it suggests a shift in focus from questions to answers, making many dismiss it as applied research, simply rebranded. But as the...

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