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politics and science need to mix

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A bible-bashing Republican who wants to head up science-based political committees. How do we vet and dump them?

A short while ago I heard Bob Mad Hatter Katter, that doyen of rural intellectuals, pronouncing on anthropogenic global warming [AGW] in a TV interview. He said that you would ‘never in a million years’ convince him of its reality. Moments later, however, in talking of the effects of warming off the coast of Queensland, he modified his remark – oh, yes it was definitely happening in the oceans, just not on land. The utter incoherence of this position, that AGW and its effects stop abruptly at the coast line, together with its dogmatically confident assertion, naturally makes me wonder about the scientific literacy of our politicians, and not just the obviously loopy ones like Katter. Look at the thankfully now retired Nick Minchin’s proudly proclaimed ignorance on AGW, the former federal opposition leader Brendan Nelson’s support for the teaching of creationism in schools, and current opposition leader’s notorious flip-flopping on the climate change issue, depending on which audience he’s fronting.

As far as I’m aware, there’s currently no requirement for candidates for high political office in this country [or any other country, I’d presume] to have even a basic understanding of science – its findings or its methodologies. This is a worry, particularly in the field of climate science, but also in many other areas. Political power combined with scientific ignorance or illiteracy is an obviously dangerous brew. One contribution to a solution I would like to propose is to subject prospective candidates for elected positions in this country [federal, state and local] to a science test. They would need to achieve a particular grade in order to then present themselves as candidates. And the test shouldn’t be too basic either. I would prefer one that I myself would have difficulty passing.

I can imagine a number of objections being raised. Who would be responsible for setting such a test, and what sorts of questions would it entail? Perhaps more fundamentally, wouldn’t such testing interfere with democracy? After all, scientific theories and their validity aren’t decided upon democratically, and it’s probable that a sizeable minority of the voting public are suspicious of ‘mainstream’ science. Isn’t this just a way of further marginalising such people? And of further entrenching ‘scientism’ and the domination of elites? Of course, I’d be happier to marginalise the anti-science crowd than, say, homosexuals or Aborigines, but maybe that’s just me being selectively undemocratic.

Of course, we already have a system that’s regulated and governed by traditions and codes away from ‘pure democracy’. We don’t govern directly, we vote upon candidates usually selected by party machines, more or less behind closed doors. There are no doubt all sorts of factions, lobby groups and vested interests involved, and ‘science’ as an abstract entity isn’t a major player. So politicians, by and large, aren’t hugely invested in improving their scientific credentials, and they don’t feel under pressure to improve them. The media, of course, could apply a bit more pressure, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of scientific literacy among journalists either. Those that are, are usually ‘science journos’, eternally separated from political journos, who seem to be just as obsessed with short-term issues as most pollies. I’m frankly appalled at the way some pollies are allowed to get away with scientific inconsistencies, not to say imbecilities, without ever being pulled up by the press.

In any case, there are many issues with an undoubtedly political dimension that could benefit from a more clear-sighted scientific approach. AGW is one, and energy resourcing and development is another. If we can’t make our pollies more scientifically-minded, at least we can provide them with sound scientific advice and possible ways forward, and maybe develop the power and influence to castigate and shame them when they refuse to listen. An organisation such as the Waterloo Global Science Initiative, designed to tackle international issues and crises from a science and technology perspective, is one initiative, no doubt among many, which seeks to inform both politicians and the wider public of the benefits of scientific knowledge and research, which have contributed so much to our present well-being, and which will undoubtedly contribute solutions for our future, if we’re prepared to bite the bullet, to listen, and to act.

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Written by stewart henderson

August 28, 2011 at 10:43 am

Posted in politics

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