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Thoughts on Obama's "restore science to its rightful place"

Paul Grobstein's picture

Barack Obama is a serious and committed pragmatist, in the best sense of that word, and I understand his inaugural commitment to "restore science to its rightful place" in exactly those terms. What's important about science is not its certainty about ways to act, but rather its willingness to aggressively acknowledge uncertainty, and so to hold to the fire any presumptions about how to act that derive from any source other than clearly defined and commonly accepted observations to date.

By "restore science to its rightful place," I believe Obama meant not "we will listen to scientists because they have special claims to being the purveyors of Truth," but rather "we will pay attention to scientists because they are pragmatists/empiricists." Scientists should be heard not as "authorities" but rather as the best representatives that exist in our culture of a commitment to empirical understanding, of understandings rooted not in contentious "revealed truths" but rather in an effort to find and continually re-evaluate truth in terms of shareable observations and challengeable interpretations.

Scientists themselves, like all human beings, have never fully lived up to that pragmatic mandate. We too are prone to lapsing sometimes into an assertion that our understanding transcends the inherent limitations of humanness, that science provides a unique and transcendent guide to appropriate action. That is not and cannot be the case. Science provides an important voice as an alternative to "revealed truth," but nothing more, and nothing less, than that. Science's real importance is that it is pragmatism writ large. Our greatest wisdom depends not on "revealed truth" but rather on the humility, and wisdom, of recognizing that we have no better guide to the future than the experiences of the past and our ability to use those to create new and different understandings (cf Revisiting Science in Culture and Science as Story Telling).

Yes, of course, science should should be "restored to its rightful place" in national politics. But the science that should be so restored is not the science of authority. It is instead science that recognizes that empiricism is not and can never be the last word on any issue, the "authority." It is science that acknowledges, freely and proudly, that it's role in the public arena is the pragmatic one, making the best sense one can of observations to date while, simultaneously, reminding others (as well as ourselves) of the uncertainties inherent in empirical knowledge - and, hence, of the openings empirical knowledge provides to aspire to new understandings (see also Inverting the Relationship Between Randomness and Meaning).

I would like to think that Obama is inviting science back into the public discourse not in terms that it has been rejected, appropriately, in the past - as a competitor for the mantle of "Truth"- but rather as a sympathetic supporter of Obama's own pragmatist inclinations and understandings. If so, his call "to restore science to its rightful place" in social/political life, is a mandate for change not only in the national political arena but in the more local world of science as well, an encouragement for scientists themselves to pay renewed attention to both how we practice science and how we teach it.

As the physicist Brian Greene wrote several months ago, "We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art, and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living .... Its the birthright of every child, its a necessity for every adult, to to look out on the world ... and see that the wonder of the cosmos transcends everything that divides us."  Science's "rightful place" as Obama speaks of it, is closer to Greene's urging of a cultural shift than to old ideas of science as authority.  It is an invitation to return science to its original status as a force that challenges authority in any guise, including its own.  And that supports the urge of all humans to participate in the continual making, testing, and revising of understandings and meanings that is the core of the human experience. I very much hope we, as scientists, are capable of rising to that challenge.


Anonymous's picture


Science has never gone away. It has never been denied. What Science is is the observation of things around us. Not all scientists agree on the explanation of what those observations mean. We hear too often that, 'so-and-so' is not only a theory, but consensus opinion of all scientists. When it comes to theories things are rarely consensus among scientists. To restore the credibility of science we have to understand that.

Great blog, by the way!