Entry from January 29, 2009

What a lot the folks at NPR — among others — are making of President Obama’s promise in his electoral address that “We will restore science to its rightful place.” An interview the other day on “All Things Considered” with Harold Varmus, a Nobel prize-winning doctor who was director of the National Institutes of Health in the Clinton administration, tiptoed around the enigmatical sentence, which is pretty obviously one of those ambiguous formulations designed to obscure both its attack on the Bush administration — which must have been responsible for removing science from its rightful place — and what the new President imagined that rightful place to be. I can’t help thinking that the unstated locale is at the center of policy-making, which is exactly the wrongful place for it, as I have written before.

The whole tone of the interview, however, and on both sides, was meant to suggest that “science” was one thing and therefore spoke with one voice. A voice which must be obeyed. Against the authority of science there is, apparently, no appeal, either to common sense or to political expediency. Yet we know this is not the case. Not even the most indisputable scientific facts carry with them their own policy prescriptions. At some point politics must rear its ugly head and tell us what it is possible to do and what it is not possible to do. Yet this is exactly what Dr. Varmus appeared to be denying, since the implied charge against the Bush administration was that it had “politicized” science — as if it were possible to do anything else with it when it comes, like everybody else, hat in hand to the guardians of the fisc.

This is just one more example of the canting celebration of “non-partisanship” in an inherently partisan arena such as our political life. In the place of politics, the Obamanic orthodoxy appears to be that we shall place morality — and not just any morality either, but a morality in which all the choices are easy ones. Just as we are restoring science to its rightful place, so do “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals,” said the President in his inaugural. What? Is that choice always false one? That hardly seems plausible. Doesn’t either one or the other, either our safety or our ideals (or, possibly, both), have to be compromised just a little bit? Apparently not. If, as Mr Obama also said but apparently didn’t mean, there are “hard choices” to be made — choices which, by the way, haven’t been made under the administration of his predecessor — this is not one of them. It almost sounds too good to be true.

For a contrary view of the absence of hard choices from the theatre of national security, you might want to take a look at the article by John Yoo in today’s Wall Street Journal. Mr Yoo wisely points out that “government policy choices are all about trade-offs, which cannot simply be wished away by rhetoric.” By keeping in place, at least for the time being, the NSA’s electronic surveillance of suspected terrorists, Mr Obama himself appears to recognize this, says Mr Yoo. But the decision to close down the internment camp — for that is what it is — at Guantánamo Bay is an example of just that kind of wishful thinking, which appears to be all too common in our brave new, depoliticized world. Sooner or later we will have to learn that neither science nor morality can do the job that politics does, or once did, which is to produce something approaching a consensus about the way in which, as a society, we are to navigate around and between a never-ending series of hard choices between the least of many, many evils.

Paradoxically, that kind of hard thinking may sometimes lead to easy answers. One such popped up earlier this week in the London Daily Telegraph, which reported on a new study from an impeccable source that would seem to indicate the choice to be made about global warming is no choice at all. No choice, no problem!

Climate change is irreversible and projects to prevent temperature rises will have no impact for at least thousand years, scientists have warned. Contrary to popular opinion, halting carbon emissions will not see temperatures reduce before the year 3000, according to the US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration”s Earth System Research Laboratory.

Nothing we can do by changing to florescent light bulbs or switching to a hybrid car will make any difference for a millennium? Hot damn! Then we might as well do nothing, right? Wrong.

Nevertheless, Susan Solomon, who led the research, said cutting emissions remained important. . . Ms Solomon said: “Climate change is slow, but it is unstoppable — all the more reason to act quickly, so the long-term situation does not get even worse.” . . . Alan Robock, from Rutgers University in New Jersey, agreed with the research, adding: “It’s not like air pollution where if we turn off a smokestack, in a few days the air is clear. “It means we have to try even harder to reduce emissions.”

Well, that’s science for you. Politically irresponsible as usual. It seems to me that President Bush had the right idea after all. The rightful place for science in public policy lies in being ignored.

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