Frontiers of Political Science

I teach a course at Columbia University called Frontiers of Science (students who are taking/have taken the course know this already!). As I like to say in class, the course is not a science course, but rather, a course about science. Our goal is to try to get a sense of what science is, what scientists do, and what sorts of useful “habits of mind” we can take from scientific thinking and apply to our own lives.

Inevitably, the course touches on issues that are politically sensitive. We discuss climate change, evolution, the birth of the Earth and various other potentially loaded topics. These issues have, unfortunately, always been deeply entangled with people’s religious beliefs and worldviews. These are sensitive issues since people’s beliefs and politics tend to be emotional–certainly they are for me–and so I think they ought to be dealt with sensitively.

I think that this semester, the course may come across to some students as rather biased leftwards, politically. I think there are two reasons for this: one which I will argue is perfectly acceptable (but perhaps it is socially unfortunate). The other reason for the leftward tilt is not so acceptable–or at the very least, I thought that it ought to be addressed and discussed.

One reason–the unfortunate, but valid one–that this course (and perhaps other courses like it) may have a political tilt is that certain sciences have been politicized. When it comes to climate science or evolution, one side of the debate, as it happens the liberal side, has allied itself more closely with the scientific consensus, while the more conservative side has tended to be at best skeptical of, and at worst willfully ignorant or misleading about what the science shows.

Evolution is scientifically an open-and-shut case. There is a tremendous body of evidence that supports evolution as the valid scientific explanation of how species arise and how they are related. It’s a beautiful science in that we understand the broad scope picture (the overall pattern and logic of evolutionary processes) as well as the fundamental units that allow this process to occur for biological organisms (genes and their basis in DNA). Where there is scientific debate regarding evolution is in the details of how the process is carried out (how much random mutations matters versus active environmental selection, for example), and naturally the links between the fundamental level and the big picture always need to be more fleshed out. It seems to me that it is unreasonable to deny evolution as a scientific explanation for biological diversity and origins. There is a loophole here for those who choose to believe in other processesĀ  of creation–you could explicitly choose to go with a non-scientific explanation–but then you shouldn’t call it science or teach it in science courses.

With regards to climate science, there is ample room for debate regarding how to respond to what we are learning about the climate and our impact on it. There is even room for debate about what precisely we are learning about the climate as there are some important areas of this research where uncertainties are high (such as forecasting). However, the data we have is strongly pointing toward some broad trends: warming and greater volatility. There are strong reasons to think that humanity has a hand in these effects and that where we can, we should be more cautious about climate modification.

The reason that a course that deals with these scientific topics may be “biased” in one direction rather than another is that scientifically speaking, one direction has the science behind it and not the other. The reason I find the politics to be unfortunate is that ideally, the main elements on all sides of the political spectrum should respect the science and the process of scientific discovery. This doesn’t mean that it cannot be debated at a more philosophical level (see my post where I responded to Dennis Overbye’s New York Times article about science and societal values: https://frontierscientist.wordpress.com/2009/01/27/science-and-society-scientific-values-and-ethics/).

I’d like to note, before passing to the other, less comfortable (for me, at any rate) reason for the course’s bias, that it’s not only the right of the political spectrum that clashes with science and muddies the waters for political reasons. The left certainly has done so, and does do so. There are all sorts of scientific subjects that make some of a more liberal bent uncomfortable. For example, some of on the left side of the spectrum would like to believe that Nurture beats Nature in determining the most important qualities of a person. This is nice because it means that–at least where it counts–we are hugely adaptable, and it jibes well with the belief that all people are equal. This view is not supported–the issue is of course vastly more complicated. Innate factors matter a great deal, but where things get very hairy is in how Nurture and Nature interact (in other words, it’s not an either/or sort of thing, but an immensely complex dance). Those who choose to throw this out are being willfully ignorant.

Another less philosophical, more political example comes from the debate over nuclear power. The left is far more inclined to be skeptical of the use of nuclear power, and some politically manipulate the issue without giving fair consideration to the other side. Nuclear power, at least in a first pass, does not generate CO2, so it could be a useful source of power as we try to transition to sources that will not further burden the climate. The problem is that there are dangers and there is waste, which is very hard to truly dispose of.

Okay, as I’ve been saying, this semester I have gotten a slightly uncomfortable feeling of bias beyond the one mentioned above. This is because, I think that we who are teaching the course, lecturers included, have not been as sensitive as we ought to be. I think that we may have inadvertently created an environment in which some students may feel unwelcome, made fun of, and may perhaps be justifiably a little resentful. I don’t think that it’s any one thing, but more a collection of references and jokes that taken together could produce this effect. I would mainly point to the following things that we did: (1) polled the students on when they believe the Earth was created–I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with this, but it could be taken the wrong way–(2) A joke during one of the chem lectures that could have offended some religious students. (3) A joke in a recent neuro lecture that could have offended people who identify politically as Republican or conservative. Also, at least in my seminar, I discussed Bobby Jindal’s mocking the stimulus package’s money for the US Geological Survey.

I don’t think that any harm is meant, and hopefully most students understand that the jokes were generally meant in a spirit of fun. That said, all these things can be taken to be as mainly against one side of the political spectrum, and well, they are. Taken all together, I can understand why some students might be upset with the political tenor of the course–especially since we present a scientific viewpoint about other contentious issues that also tends to be supported in a political manner.

If you are a Frontiers student reading this, please don’t hesitate to respond to what I’m writing here. perhaps you think I’m being overly sensitive about the politics and that it’s clear where the science ends and the opinions begins and that that’s fine. Perhaps you agree, or feel even more strongly than I am able to express here. Make your voices heard. If you are in my seminars in particular, I very much want to hear your views and discuss these things. I think that one of the key themes for this course is the interplay between science and society, and one of the places where this interaction occurs is in education, so the topic is certainly relevant.

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