Science and the "Obama Restoration"
February 18, 2009 1:58 PM   Subscribe

The Essential Parallel Between Science and Democracy. "[T]he restorative steps Obama has taken vis-à-vis science are praiseworthy not so much because they respect science as because they respect the grand institutions of democracy. This is no accident, because the very virtues that make democracy work are also those that make science work: a commitment to reason and transparency, an openness to critical scrutiny, a skepticism toward claims that too neatly support reigning values, a willingness to listen to countervailing opinions, a readiness to admit uncertainty and ignorance, and a respect for evidence gathered according to the sanctioned best practices of the moment."
posted by sarabeth (28 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hear, hear!
posted by longsleeves at 2:01 PM on February 18, 2009


This article may or may not have made me pump my fist in the air like a dork.
posted by sarabeth at 2:02 PM on February 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


heresy!
posted by blue_beetle at 2:05 PM on February 18, 2009


Awesome! I can't wait to discuss this with everybody down at my government-funded "faith-based" organization! I think we'll find the "reason and transparency" part an especially interesting talking point.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:09 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't think Obama has shown much of a commitment to transparency so far. Rhetorical support, sure, but what has he done that's been so transparent? On one of the most important issues facing our country today, the disposition of insolvent banks, his administration has been clear as mud, and not many top economists who warned about the problems in the economy have been involved.

And like drjimmy points out, in the Mohamed et al. v. Jeppesen, Obama's DOJ has reviewed bush's arguments that the executive branch should be able to declare entire lawsuits 'un-litigation' due to the state secrets act, something that was never the case before bush. In the past, the government could only declare certain documents as state secrets, but here they argue that the entire case cannot proceed, even with the defense evidence that's already been published everywhere.
posted by delmoi at 2:20 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


democracy "works" when the majority rule, everything else is just a bonus, maybe that's what makes science work too but it's definitely not the same thing as reason and transparency.
posted by doobiedoo at 2:21 PM on February 18, 2009


Beautifully reasoned. Thanks for posting it.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 2:22 PM on February 18, 2009


Awesome! I can't wait to discuss this with everybody down at my government-funded "faith-based" organization! I think we'll find the "reason and transparency" part an especially interesting talking point.

An excellent point, and proof that there are many backward, hypocritical things that have happened, and are happening, and they will probably (unfortunately) take a long time to undo, if they are to be undone. By no means do I support a free pass for the Obama administration, but I find the call to recognize the intrinsic ties between scientific ideas and democratic ideals to be a step in what I, personally, think is the right direction in terms of hopefully avoiding and righting said missteps in the future.
posted by sarabeth at 2:26 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Step 1: Fire James Hansen.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:34 PM on February 18, 2009


democracy "works" when the majority rule, everything else is just a bonus, maybe that's what makes science work too but it's definitely not the same thing as reason and transparency.

You state this point as if it is obvious, but it is not. Democracies frequently fail; c.f. the Roman Republic or Golden Age Athens. This is in large part the subject of The Federalist #10, and kind of the point of the linked article.

In the words of Madison, "Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths."

That's what is meant by democracy not working.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:45 PM on February 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


AWESOME! If we could stop kidnapping people and sending them to foreign countries to be tortured, that would be great too. Also maybe get rid of the secret prisons and the keeping people locked up without habeas corpus.
posted by mullingitover at 2:51 PM on February 18, 2009


So far, I am very disappointed with Obama's lack of commitment to openness. The Jeppesen lawsuit, the explicitly reserving the right to continue renditioning people (which is inherently not done transparently) - he's preserving some of the worst aspects of the Bush administration. It's not always the case that he hasn't had time yet to decide these things; in the Jeppesen case, the ACLU offered the DoJ more time to analyze the case, and the government lawyers said they'd already done that, and were endorsing the Bush position. Now, it looks like they're trying to delay Congress's pursuit of testimony from Miers and Bolton, and cut some kind of deal with Rove.

I'm afraid we're going to have to keep trying to get the Congress to remember what that whole Balance of Powers thing is about.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:55 PM on February 18, 2009


Here's Obama letting Rove off the hook:
White House Not Challenging Rove's Privilege
In a statement provided to CBS News, White House Counsel Gregory Craig says Pres. Obama is “very sympathetic to those who want to find out what happened.”

But at the same time, Craig makes it clear that Mr. Obama is not disputing the claim of privilege.

“He is also mindful as president of the United States not to do anything that would undermine or weaken the institution of the presidency,” Craig says in the statement.
They keep saying that, the part about weakening the presidency. I think it needs some weakening.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:04 PM on February 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


It will be up to the DOJ, not the white house to enforce any congressional contempt citations, so in that sense it doesn't matter if Obama "disputes" the claim or not.
posted by delmoi at 3:35 PM on February 18, 2009


Not one word about Sir Karl Popper, who mapped out the common ground between democracy and science more than 1/2 a century ago. I feel old and sad, but you can make an old sad commenter feel young and happy again by reading 'Conjectures and Refutations,' 'The Open Society and its Enemies,' and, well, anything else by Sir Karl Popper. No links in this comment because all the online Popper is so-so in my view. In this instance, you have to go for the real thing - read his books.
posted by eccnineten at 3:42 PM on February 18, 2009 [5 favorites]


Good article. Thanks.
posted by homunculus at 4:14 PM on February 18, 2009


the very virtues that make democracy work are also those that make science work: a commitment to reason and transparency, an openness to critical scrutiny, a skepticism toward claims that too neatly support reigning values, a willingness to listen to countervailing opinions, a readiness to admit uncertainty and ignorance, and a respect for evidence gathered according to the sanctioned best practices of the moment.

as anyone who has spent any time in academia can confirm, those are grand aspirations for the society of science too...

science is for the most part a bureaucracy, a very well-funded government bureaucracy. this isn't necessarily a criticism, in the US, the b-word is usually an epithet but bureaucracies can accomplish great things to, it's all in how they are built.
posted by geos at 4:16 PM on February 18, 2009


Saying that Obama so far is not reaching farther for transparency is completely and demonstrably false. Using TARP and its related acts to support this erroneous viewpoint shows that you aren't paying attention. Every speech that I've heard in the last few days talks about web sites and other publishing mechanisms to distribute factual information that has always been held close to the vest, particularly from the Fed. This isn't a fucking game, you publish who gets TARP money and what they used it for in detail and you are facing significant and unintended consequences. Its extremely naive to advocate for doing so. I might argue that its stupid be completely open about things relating to national security matters too. Jeez, that would be moronic.

Its too bad, Obama wasn't a dictator who could snap his fingers and just fix everything.

Its a great article, and being old and sad myself, I'm going to check out Popper.
posted by sfts2 at 4:23 PM on February 18, 2009


Recession Watch: Work for the greater good
posted by homunculus at 5:02 PM on February 18, 2009


One of the things required for a sound democracy, at least in my mind, is an educated populace, or at least the portion of the populace that is participating significantly in the governance of the country.

Sadly, at least when it comes to science, I believe we're doing a terrible job at producing citizens who understand the basics of how science works (and doesn't sometimes.)
posted by ltracey at 5:11 PM on February 18, 2009


sfts2: "... you publish who gets TARP money and what they used it for in detail and you are facing significant and unintended consequences."
OK, as an outsider to the US, who has only followed the news of your TARPS and other rescue packages in very general outline: What are these "significant and unintended consequences", and what damage, if any, could they cause that's worse than the current situation?

I ask for 2 reasons. Firstly, I genuinely want to know, understand, and weigh the balance of consequences for myself. Secondly, I can't think of a single logical or essential reason why government money shouldn't come with the attached string of more public transparency & accountability, and that it's up to the potential recipients to balance the costs of transparency against the benefits of free/cheap money.
posted by Pinback at 6:24 PM on February 18, 2009


Saying that Obama so far is not reaching farther for transparency is completely and demonstrably false. Using TARP and its related acts to support this erroneous viewpoint shows that you aren't paying attention.

You forgot about Jeppesen. Or maybe by "reaching farther" you are commending him for the aspiration in his speeches without regard for his administration's practices.
posted by Slap Factory at 6:33 PM on February 18, 2009


The Constitution, the Bill of Rights, these things are not democratic. They have been installed to protect against a tyranny of the majority -- if the majority happened to think that it would be right to mandate some religious practice, say, that the minority of people with opposing religious beliefs could not muster the votes to oppose. Even if almost everyone agrees about an issue, the Constitution ensures that we will hear the outliers (kooks, crazies, call them what you will).

Science has no equivalent to these fears of a tyranny of the majority. If almost all scientists agree on something, those who disagree on that point (again, the kooks, the crazies) will be neither seen nor heard.* For the most part, this is a good thing: scientists need to have established facts on which to build further research, and ignoring flat-earthers is pretty much the rational thing to do.

However, this is an important disanalogy with political concerns. Either you say, yes, we give the crazies as much a say in distribution of resources as we give to mainstream scientists; or you say, no, they don't merit such resources because they aren't really playing the same game as we in the mainstream are. By contrast, if you were presented with this dilemma in the political realm, the second choice would simply not be on the table.

Now, this isn't a big deal, and in most cases the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of justice line up nicely. But it's important not to get too carried away with the analogy.


*An exception to this rule was the Timecube dude, who I guess gave a talk at MIT. But everyone knew they were going to see "that Timecube guy," not Hawking or Penrose.
posted by voltairemodern at 7:03 PM on February 18, 2009


democracy <> majoritarianism, y'all.
posted by eustatic at 7:59 PM on February 18, 2009


Saying that Obama so far is not reaching farther for transparency is completely and demonstrably false. Using TARP and its related acts to support this erroneous viewpoint shows that you aren't paying attention. Every speech that I've heard…
Well, my specific complaint was that he had been saying one thing and doing another.
in the last few days talks about web sites and other publishing mechanisms to distribute factual information that has always been held close to the vest, particularly from the Fed.
Government spending has never been secret. Recovery.gov has the chance to be pretty useful, but it's not so far. There are only two pages of information, one showing an overall breakdown and another showing the number of jobs supposedly saved in each state. Of course nothing has been done and hopefully as the bill progresses the information acquired will get posted there is also a timeline showing when stuff happens, so hopefully those future events will result in information being posted.

One of the more annoying things about Obama has been his creation of websites that let people say "he's got a website!" but the website doesn't actually let you do anything you couldn't do before. And like I said before, I don't really see how you could say this stuff was "held close to the vest". All of this type of information has always been publicly available, if not conveniently packaged.
This isn't a fucking game, you publish who gets TARP money and what they used it for in detail and you are facing significant and unintended consequences.
What on earth are you talking about? What could these unintended consequences possibly be? But what's even funnier then your lack of specificity is the fact that who got TARP money has been published. How could I be naïve for advocating something that's already been done? (Of course, I didn't advocate for that because I knew it had already happened. Despite your assertion, I'm obviously paying a lot more attention then you are)

When people were upset about John Brennan, those people were called Naïve, and then John Brennan was gone. When people were upset about Tom Daschle, we were called naïve, and then Daschle was gone. It's amazing how many people step up and defend anything Obama does, call the critics naïve only to have Obama cave to the critics.

And finally, if there is no pressure from the Left, then Obama can only compromise by moving to the right.

As far as being "totally open" on national security, I don't think anyone is advocating that. But Obama actually criticized bush on this specific issue of using national security to shut down lawsuits. This isn't even a question of keeping anything secret, he's preventing plaintiffs from even telling their own stories in court. How could that mess up national security? The details have been published in books.
posted by delmoi at 9:38 PM on February 18, 2009


but what has he done that's been so transparent?

Recovery.gov

Recovery.gov has the chance to be pretty useful, but it's not so far.

Oh, so you have heard of it. From the FAQ:
Q: I heard I'd be able to track recovery funds. Why can't I do that?
A: You aren't able to track funds yet because we have not yet started receiving information from Federal agencies on how they are going to allocate the money. It takes a little bit of time for them to make sure your money is going to be spent wisely. Right now, the site features an overview of the law and an explanation of what it is intended to accomplish. You will have access to data as soon as we begin receiving it from agencies.

Dude's been in office for what, 4 weeks? And the bill was passed on Monday. At least give him time to disappoint you on the merits.
posted by DU at 5:26 AM on February 19, 2009


DU: did you even read my comment? This is what I said:
Of course nothing has been done and hopefully as the bill progresses the information acquired will get posted. There is also a timeline showing when stuff happens, so hopefully those future events will result in information being posted.
So it's not clear what you think I don't know or why you felt the need to quote a FAQ answer that mirrors what I wrote in my comment.

Anyway look. I was criticizing him for two specific things:
#1) The bank bailout and how the treasury department was deciding what to do, who it was being advised by, and so on.

#2) The stuff that's happened with various secrecy related to torture, lawsuits, etc. These are things that the Obama administration has done not things that the bush administration did and just haven't been undone yet.
With regard to #2, what good could giving him "more time" do? This is something he's actively gone out and done already. With regard to the stimulus and recovery.gov my only point was that you can't answer the question "what has he done so far?" with "Well, he said he would post stuff on this website in the future!" And furthermore, it's not like any of the information that will be posted on recovery.gov would have been kept hidden or anything.
posted by delmoi at 11:24 AM on February 19, 2009


Obama's stem-cell research order means the Republican Dark Ages are finally over

With Bush Ban Gone, Stem Cell Research Will Proliferate
posted by homunculus at 6:51 PM on March 9, 2009


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