One of the most telling but least commented upon lines in President Obama’s inaugural speech was his promise to “restore science to its proper place”. Since he doesn’t expand upon this restoration in the remainder of the speech it’s not immediately obvious what this amounts to. Of course, this assumes that science has been unjustly abused or neglected by the previous administration but even if one concedes that (and I don’t) that still wouldn’t settle the much thornier issue of how precisely we should understand the relation between science and politics.
It’s instructive to consider Obama’s defense of science in light of the more developed attack on the enervating effects of partisan politicsObama promises to transcend the political differences between us for the sake of realizing a previously elusive common good. It’s not clear how Obama will achieve this or even if he’s capableneither his primary or national campaign captured the whole of American support. This is not a criticism of Obama but an observation of the stubborn recalcitrance of partisan dispute. He has consistently advocated a kind of post-political brand of governance that seems to assume that partisan conflicts are never reflections of genuine versus spurious disagreement, are always based upon miscommunication or ideological dogmatism, and are never the result of competing worldviews that are held with deep, thoughtful conviction and are therefore resistant to facile revision. In other words, if politics is reducible to technocratic competence then there is something benighted about the clash of interestsout interests seem to be little more than idiosyncratic expressions of our rationally indefensible attachments.
For our new President, the proper place of science is beyond the murky waters of political compromiseit must be untethered from our old fashioned moral strictures and the bumbling roadblocks to progress that are the consequence of political restraint. Just as he denies in the speech that there are any potential tensions between our ideals and the practical demands of ensuring our security in an often less than ideal world, he simply rejects that there are any moral or political complexities born of out technological innovation that might justify some measure of political prudence, or even the admonishment of science. Obama’s view is not merely a oversimplification of the relation between science and politics, and consequently of science’s “proper place”, but a willful ignorance of the lessons regarding the dangers of a science divorced from prudence the twentieth century has provided.