Preposterous Universe

Tuesday, June 22, 2004
What would Shelly do?

A gaggle of Nobel Laureates in Chemistry, Physics, and Medicine have endorsed John Kerry for President, on the (sensible) grounds that the Bush administration is undermining science in countless ways, from cutting funding for basic research to ignoring honest input on bioethics issues. Probably most of these folks are good liberal academics who would have voted Democratic anyway, but the administration's specific affronts to science are what made them get together to sign the letter.

Like Chris C. Mooney, I wonder how much impact such a letter will have. It got a good amount of play on the news, and polls typically indicate that the public has a high regard for the honesty and ethical standards of scientists (compared to journalists, prostitutes, car salesmen, politicians, etc.). But as Chris says, people don't turn to scientists for policy guidance the way they used to (or we imagine they used to, anyway).

I think the laureates are doing the right thing by intervening, though. If Sheldon Glashow wants to give his opinion about globalization or literary theory, his expertise as a particle physicist don't count for very much; but in a letter focused sharply on science policy, they have every reason to stick their noses in the debate. And in a society that takes your opinion about world peace seriously once you simply demonstrate your ability to carry a tune or look good on screen, why shouldn't people with actual expert knowledge about a field make their judgments known?

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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