Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Politics of Scientific Objectivity

From my standpoint, the only really interesting thing to emerge from the Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings is the story about how, when she was a political appointee in the Clinton administration, she effectively redrafted a crucial sentence in the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists's ("ACOG”) report on so-called “partial birth abortion.” Her language adroitly left the misimpression that ACOG had identified circumstances under which it was the indicated medical procedure.  When the Supreme Court subsequently held that a statute prohibiting partial birth abortion was unconstitutional because that procedure is sometimes necessary to preserve the mother’s life and health, it bought Kagan’s carefully fabricated misimpression hook, line and sinker.

I’ve always found William Saletan a reliable guide when I’m figuring out what to think about an issue at the interface between politics and science. He thinks that, when Kagan testified about this matter at her Senate confirmation hearings, she was not just inexcusably evasive, but affirmatively misleading:
“The language in [Kagan’s internal Clinton administration memo about her interactions with ACOG] . . . depicts a conversation in which nobody could think of a real case where [partial birth abortion] was, as Kagan's revision would later put it, "the best or most appropriate procedure in a particular circumstance to save the life or preserve the health of a woman." Indeed, the participants doubted whether "anything at all" could meet Clinton's standard—namely, a case in which intact D&X would be "necessary to preserve the life of the woman or avert serious adverse consequences to her health." So Kagan's statement at her hearing—that ACOG had said intact D&X "was in some circumstances the medically best procedure"—considerably stretches the truth as she recorded it. It implies, contrary to her contemporaneous notes, that ACOG had affirmed a specific need for the procedure.”
Assume that Saletan is correct. I still have a hard time getting indignant about Kagan’s conduct. Her efforts to influence the content of the ACOG report strike me as run-of-the-mill legal advocacy undertaken in behalf of her client, President Clinton. If anybody should be embarrassed by the exposure of Kagan's abortion advocacy it’s ACOG, either for allowing itself to be manipulated or, more likely, for gratefully accepting Kagan’s invitation to politicize its report. And while her testimony before the Senate looks willfully misleading, it probably falls within the range of tolerable exaggeration we apply to public officials operating in highly politicized settings. It’s less misleading, for instance, than Justice Sotomayor’s confirmation testimony last summer about her judicial philosophy.

I’m more interested in what this episode says about the political power of scientists. When they intervene in public policy debates, scientists have always exercised a special authority, not only among judges, but across the population at large. Political actors are still in the habit of believing that a politically controversial proposition is more likely to be true just because a highly credentialed scientist says it. That makes sense as long as scientists generally arrive at their opinions by adhering to apolitical norms of objectivity. To the extent that scientific opinion is an expression of the scientists’ ethical and political commitments, however, according special weight to what they say about public policy is a form of double counting their political preferences that has no place in a democracy.

When they adhere to apolitical norms of objectivity, scientists can have considerable impact on public policy without exerting political power themselves, inasmuch as their scientific advice isn’t an expression of their own political preferences. Yet they can turn their scientific authority into political power so long as they succeed in giving their political agenda the appearance of apolitical objectivity. Exploiting the difference between ACOG’s reputation for scientific objectivity, and its hidden commitment to the political objectives of the Clinton administration is what made Kagan’s advocacy about partial birth abortion effective. Its effectiveness depended on its remaining clandestine.

That implies that the scientific community’s political power is an exhaustible resource. The more scientists lend their authority to detectably political objectives, the less authority they’ll have. The disrepute in which scientific opinion about climate change is increasingly held is a sign that the scientific community’s political power is almost exhausted. The Kagan hearings didn’t add to it.

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