Science, Politics and Compromise


As I get ready and pack for the Science Diplomacy workshop that I’m going to participate in Trieste, Italy next week, I try to control the enthusiasm. I am part of a very selected group of scientists and politicians from several parts of the world that are going to try establishing the common ground to address the challenges of the 21st century.

Under the sponsorship of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and The World Academy of Science (TWAS), we are going to discuss Mechanisms for Science diplomacy, Linking Science to Development, National Approaches to Science Diplomacy and Priorities, Large Scale Infrastructure, Transboundary Cooperation, The role of science education and exchanges to build international links and Regional Integration and Science Diplomacy.

I’m so excited! And afraid.

I am afraid that it may impossible for us to succeed, because there may be no such common language. No such middle ground.

Science is about the search for the truth based on evidence. Politics is about the search for consensus, not always (or not necessarily) based on evidence. Consensus is obtained by compromise. And in science, in the scientific activity, there is no room for compromise.

Open parenthesis: We want consensus in science too, and because we have evidence to set our disputes, consensus in science should be inevitable. But it turns out it is neither that simple, nor that easy. We, scientists, after all, are humans, and susceptible to conflict of interest, bias, partiality and other human motivational bad choices. Fortunately, eventually, evidence (or the truth) prevails and science moves forward in a consensus that Thomas Khun named “a new paradigm”. Close parenthesis

Politics are influenced by the opinion of the majority. Science could not care less about it. The reason is simple: the majority is not necessarily (actually, rarely is) smart. In lay terms, the Brazilian author Nelson Rodrigues said once: “all unanimity is stupid!”

No mystery behind that. The skeptic Michael Shermer shows in his inteesting book ‘Why intelligent people believe in strange things’ that our choices are rarely result of an intleigente rational process. Most of the times it is result of circumstances, emotions (specially fear) and our concern about other people (specially our peers) opinions (and acceptance).

Open parenthesis: Although ‘intelligence and rational thinking are not our most used feature to make decisions, we use them a lot to justify whatever decision we have made. And we are very, very good at it. Close parenthesis.

The majority, as Isaias Pessotti mentioned in his marvelous book ‘The Mediavilla Manuscript’ is a measure of power, not intelligence. The majority is important to give mandates, not to make decisions. That is why we should give mandates to very intelligent people. In my particular opinion, as a scientist, I believe we should give mandates to very intelligent people that base their decisions in evidence. But, even though I’m not alone in this belief, we are far from being the majority.

Because politics have a mandate from the majority, they are worried about pleasing the (right or wrong) majority. Scientists… They don’t care about the majority (I could open another parenthesis here, for nowadays, many scientists are worried about the majority, or should I say, about showing up in the news). They care about being right (well, and publications, and grants, and prizes, and sometimes, they cara about money too).

“I don’t want to be right, I want to be happy” said the brazilian poet Ferreira Goulart. But for a scientist, to be right IS to be happy!

Scientists are full of defects. The are narcissist, egocentric, arrogant, jealous and envy (to list some). And the fact that they can, at least sometimes, go over all this to describe the reality in an unbiased way… is almost a miracle (ops, most scientists don’t believe in god or miracles either). To do that, we have to fight previous assumptions, preferences, intuitions, guesses, opinions. It is very hard. That is why is so obnoxious when journalists ask us to give contundent last minute statements about complex and complicated topics that we spend years studying, that are surrounded by uncertainty and to which, many times, we can only grasp a comprehension.

But we rarely put ourselves in anyone else’s shoes. People don’t understand and, most of the time, they don’t care about how things works. They want to be happy, they don’t want to be right. Politicians have to take that into account.

It was during a lecture from the physicist and ex-president of the Brazilian society for the advancement of science Enio Candotti, entitled ’Science, Politics and truth’ that I was introduced to this huge gap between the scientist’s objective perception of the reality and the politician’s subjective one.

Is there reconciliation between evidence and consensus? Objective and subjective? Right and Happy? I hope so, and I’m going to Trieste with an open mind and a lot of enthusiasm to look for it.

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