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Some People Like Science December 19, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
John Holdren

John Holdren

In the aftermath of the election, all us political junkies have been watching the roll call of new appointments to the Obama administration.  As a historian of science, and as someone working on a massive database of career data of major American physicists, I’ve been interested to see Steve Chu be appointed as Secretary of Energy.  And, once again, a physicist has been appointed the new Science Adviser to the President and Director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (we must get our bureaucracy right), Harvard physicist John Holdren.  Holdren will replace John Marburger who had been the Director of Brookhaven National Laboratory from 1998 to 2001, and, before that, had been president of the University of Rochester from 1980 to 1994.

[correction, 2/09. SUNY Stony Brook, not Rochester.]

Now, the Washington Post puts the spin on this as showing possible signs of a changing government attitude toward “science.”  David Baltimore, former president of Caltech is quoted, “The Bush administration has been the most remarkably anti-science administration that I’ve seen in my adult lifetime.”  There are also books devoted to this topic.  Now, when I was talking about the word “science” being a rhetorical disaster, cloaking ideas in vagueness, this is what I meant.  Marburger disputes the notion; people may disagree with Bush administration positions on science-y issues—global warming, stem cell research, etc.—but that doesn’t mean that Bush is “anti-science”: “The president respects science; he likes science,” Marburger observes.

I’m no fan of Bush, but I tend to be sympathetic to Marburger here.  The failure of the administration to heed expert advice does not necessarily constitute an attitude, one way or another, towards “science”.  Rather, as Marburger suggests (as in the quote here), the administration’s policies hinge on its political goals.  Its failure to set policies geared toward long-term national goals, and its disregard for detailed analysis—whether we are talking about scientific assessments, economic evaluations, or military intelligence—should not be seen as representing a conscious snub of “science” itself.  Rather, Al Gore was closer to the mark in the title of his book: it is really more of a general disregard for detailed reasoning in policymaking concomitant with a vision of a government that cannot take competent action at a detailed level, rather than any sort of general attitude toward “science” that allows us to make sense of Bush administration actions.

To bring this back to my post on science, ideas, and rhetoric; Marburger clearly disagreed with his and the administration’s critics about the administration’s attitudes toward science, in general.  Yet, the measures each has of what allows one to discern an attitude toward “science” varies.  Marburger, exposed to much of the day-to-day decision making on science-related matters, is eager (like so many administrators) to defend the administration’s overall valuation of “science”.  Critics view the administration’s willingness to disregard scientific consensus on key matters as an alignment against “science”.  Their ideas about what is going on, however, are probably not so removed from each other as their polarized rhetoric suggests: the real disputes are over well-defined matters at a level requiring more rhetorical detail than the general rhetoric of “science” allows.

Fortunately, this is not really a problem for “us” as a society.  Even very popular forums such as the New York Times blog dotEarth read the tea leaves a bit more pointedly, merely pointing out that Obama’s new pick simply indicates that the policy problems of global warming are going to get a better hearing.  Is that so hard, WaPo?

I bring this up, because very similar issues plagued the rhetoric of certain British critics of the government’s relationship toward “science” in the mid-20th century, and that has to do with chapter five of my book.  So I’m trying to work this argument into clearer language.  Not quite there yet!



1. David Bruggeman - February 1, 2009


Sorry I’m late to this party, but there’s been a fair amount of back and forth online in science policy fora over Marburger and his supposed failure toward science in his role as presidential science adviser. I’ve written about this on Prometheus, and you can find pieces by Marburger in Physicstoday and SEED that would add to the differences between how Marburger and his critics see the Bush administration’s support of science. Here’s a link to one such example:


There’s also a House of Commons report criticizing the current UK chief scientists over his relationship with the government. Nature has the lowdown. There appears to be some cross-Atlantic similarities in the criticism. Once I have time to slog through the report I’ll know more.


2. Will Thomas - February 1, 2009


Thanks for commenting, and the links! This post is well in the archives now, but it’s still much appreciated. This is a tough issue from a rhetorical standpoint. There are a good number of specific areas where the Bush Administration showed a wanton lack of concern for science-based recommendations. Will it do more or less good to characterize Marburger and the Administration as, therefore, “bad” for “science”? On the one hand, it opens one’s accusation up to counter example; on the other, invoking science allows one to make a broad appeal to a large “science-supporting” constituency.

By the way, just looking at the comments on your post , if you haven’t already, have a look at David Edgerton’s “The Linear Model Did Not Exist”. You can find a link to a Word version of it on his faculty page at Imperial College.

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