Partisan (?) science continued.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt[1]

LOTRW posts of September 4th, August 16th, and some of the posts in between have wrestled with the challenges that partisanship and a currently partisan world pose to science. It’s widely, almost universally held, especially among scientists, that science, and scientists when speaking as scientists, should be rigorously non-partisan. At the same time (and this is not generally discussed or admitted), science, in common with every other human endeavor, is inherently partisan, in its origins and its effects. It seems our only choice is to get better at partisanship (whatever that might mean).

John Plodinec provided a cogent comment[2], reprinted here in its entirety, in order to serve as a springboard for a bit more expansion of these ideas:


When scientists become partisans they hurt Science not help it. Scientists have to recognize problems such as those you describe and try to provide a context for society at large to make decisions about how to solve them. Those policy decisions are value judgments based on the public’s perceptions about a problem; if we as scientists do not provide an accurate assessment of the context, bad policies will result. And that often means admitting that there’s a lot we don’t know. 

Partisans perceive problems and demand that society adopt their favored solutions, often ignoring potential unintended consequences. Partisans really don’t want the public to understand the context and especially not the uncertainties; why confuse the proles with facts? If the public sees scientists as partisans, they will lose respect for Science and scientists – we will be seen as just another kind of politician, one that speaks a strange language.

Couldn’t agree more with everything that John says here. Bottom line: it’s imperative that scientists stay away from partisanship! But when we attempt to do so, we run immediately into problems. Here are a few.

To start, science is a human thing. For the most part, how the universe works – its origins, its structure, the development of stars and galaxies of stars, their organization and evolution as driven and shaped by dynamical forces and underlying physical processes – has nothing to do with human beings. But the study of those workings – the observation and experiment, the formation and testing of hypotheses, the development of conceptual frames and the language used to describe it all, in both words and mathematics – is an inherently human construct.

What’s more, science is a societal thing. It’s not done by a single human being but by groups, communities. The participating individuals may be separated by great spans of time as well as space, but everyone is in constant communication, behaving as a group.

Because today’s societies are in significant respects national, science is a national thing as well. We can talk about science communities spanning nations, and at their best and in many respects they do[3], but the fact is that the bulk of science is supported by national-level funding. The rationale for the amounts and the allocation of that funding across fields is generally based on perceived national interests. And unsurprisingly, those budgets largely determine where (and how many) scientists congregate and choose to spend their time.

Substantial portions of science, especially applied science, are commercial. Not all funding comes directly from federal-level (or even state- or local) governments; science funding, including considerable applied-science funding, comes from business, with interests that are in large part self-serving and competitive.

Partisanship is in the DNA of societies, nations, and commerce and therefore in the DNA of science. Recent history drives home these points. Modern science and technology were birthed in the aftermath of World War II[4]. United States leaders and the public realized that S&T had contributed much to win the war (think radar, the atomic bomb, and penicillin, for starters), and that the link between S&T and national interests was too important to be left to chance. Going forward, the country would have to commit to substantial, sustained, and intentional support for S&T. Early, partisan battles centered on whether public/government support would be allocated broadly across the states or directed toward the “best” ideas and thinkers (at that time, coming from a few centers of excellence, generally located in the Northeast and along the Pacific coast)[5]. Other, equally partisan battles led to emphasis on basic research in the physical sciences to begin, belated additional emphasis on biological sciences decades later, and continuing ambivalence about social sciences today.

(Drilling down on this last bit), social sciences have been treated as quite distinct from the physical sciences. Choosing to study the factors contributing to community resilience? Or within that realm, the role of innovation in fostering community resilience versus the role of poverty, or equity, or education? Social science can readily be weaponized for use in partisan debate on these issues. But the same challenges confront the physical sciences. Go into cloud microphysics instead of climate change? You might think you’re avoiding the climate-change debate, but you quickly finding yourself looking at the role of particulates in cloud-drop and ice nucleation – the natural versus manmade origins of those particulates, and the effects on cloud reflectance and transmission of sunlight and precipitation patterns – the next thing you know you’re back in the human-influence-on-climate discussion. Something similar holds true in other areas of science. Take medical research. Are you working on infectious diseases, the scourge of the poor? Or diseases of the rich – like heart disease, stroke, obesity, etc.? Particle physicists look up from their labors to discover nuclear weapons, nuclear reactors, radiological medicine, and more threaded across the human endeavor and the subject of partisan debate. Cosmology, nanotechnology, chemistry – no field is immune.

Unsurprising then, that the instant we attempt to provide what John Plodinec refers to as “context for society at large,” (bringing it close to home, to, for example, going beyond forecasts of atmospheric parameters to providing Impact-based Decision Support Services) we enter an area where there are only “degrees of partisanship” – shades of grey. However broadly and fairly we might attempt to present such context, we’ll find we can’t present all options; we start making choices about what to include, what to leave out, how much supporting detail to provide, and the rest. Our readers and hearers bring to their perception of every word and phrase we write a host of different experiences, sensitivities, preconceived ideas and word associations none of which is known to us, and most of which is unique to each individual. They’re actively looking for touchpoints of affirmation and/or perceived threat or criticism, not just in the nuance of what’s expressed but also in what’s been omitted.

How, then, might scientists respond? There exist a variety of options (trying to follow John Plodinec’s advice here, to present a range of possibilities, rather than a single favorite).

Live in some form of denial. I suspect when we scientists attempt to portray ourselves or our work as apolitical, this is how we appear to political leaders, those in the commercial world, and even friends and family.

(Building off the word “denial”), see our partisanship as something we can never shake, but which we ought to attempt to keep in check. In this respect we can learn from addicts – and adopt some form of a twelve step program starting with the admission that we have a partisan problem.

Channel Theodore Roosevelt, embrace our partisan nature, and get on with it. Enter the partisan arena with enthusiasm and zeal, and do our best to articulate the benefits of science and innovation for humanity, and more broadly for all life itself.

Note that this latter course doesn’t mean bludgeoning a reluctant world into submission to scientific logic and thinking. Scientists are few in number; others seem far more comfortable and enjoy far better access to brute power, bullying, and the rest. For most of us, the bludgeon shouldn’t be the tool of choice.

Instead, what it might mean is subjecting partisanship to scientific study, understanding its origins and effects, helping our host society see the advantages and the downside to partisanship in human affairs, see alternatives to partisanship, and means for reducing – in short being as disciplined in our approach to this issue as we are to our own research and development.

One closing observation or conjecture – more a hope, really – that we will come to see partisanship as something different from diversity, and not an unavoidable consequence of differences in background or experience or perspective. Diversity in society, and in the thought of that society – diversity in the identification of problems and opportunities and our approach to those – is a strength, vital to our future. But if as individuals and society, we let that diversity drive us towards partisanship, we make our future more problematic.

A parting thought. I began to write this soon after John Plodinec’s comment arrived last week. I struggled to think through, write this; and am still unsatisfied by the result. Your comments are always welcome, but particularly on this subject.


[1] Embedded in and captive to the culture and language of Mr. Roosevelt’s time; hence the male-oriented wording. Today we acknowledge that the need for people in the arena is fundamentally inclusive – not limited to a single gender or sexual orientation or race.

[2] Mr. Plodinec publishes more extensively and substantively elsewhere; here’s a sample, his most recent post at, entitled, Innovation, implementation, and community resilience. He’s one of the most authoritative and thoughtful voices out there on this and related topics.

[3] This itself is a human value judgment, not universally held, and therefore a partisan idea.

[4] A fuller, and more authoritative description of all this is available in Beyond Sputnik: U.S. Science Policy in the 20th Century, by Homer Neal, Tobin Smith, and Jennifer McCormick (2008).

[5] Fact is, of course, the conundrum predates World War II, going back to the nation’s origins, as documented in E. Hunter Dupree’s book, Science and the Federal Government: a history of policies and activities.

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2 Responses to Partisan (?) science continued.

  1. Thanks for the plug, Bill! Undeserved but much appreciated.

    Part of the problem we both have is what we mean by “partisan-ship.” As a radical pragmatist (I’ll fight for real solutions), I’m for the best solutions independent of political party. But that means that for matters I’m not an expert in, I want the whole story – not just the problem statement that fits a political narrative. As an example, the recent interview of Brock Long by Andrea Mitchell. She started out by misstating the problem and then – in backtracking – sort of restated the problem correctly but without its context.

    She can do that; she’s a news reader. But we as scientists need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. We ought first to describe any problem as precisely as we can; including the imprecision in what we know. Then any – all – of us can judge or develop solutions that fit the problem and – if we’re astute – avoid unintended consequences. I see partisanship as the play of balancing values and viewpoints to develop solutions to problems; science as laying out the solution space for those problems as carefully as we can. Our obligation as scientists is to present the facts whether they fit our preferred narrative or not. Our obligation as citizens is to try to perform that balancing act so that we solve our country’s problems while not creating new ones. We can and should be both scientists and partisans; one emphasizing our left brains, the other our right, but both sides trying to solve the problems we face.

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