Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Intersection of Politics and Science

What is the proper relationship between science and politics when it comes to the classroom? I believe that some science may be taught in a political science classroom to understand the policies that stem from it. I also believe that politics should never be taught in the pure science classroom. Biochemistry I feel is one of those pure sciences.

That is why I was taken aback when a biochem professor decided to show quotes from President Bush, Scott McClellan and others reguarding global warming. What does President Bush's stance on global warming have to do with learning evolutionary biochemistry? I don't know either. I do know that the material seemed to be a pretty strong stance on one side of the issue. The actual comments and google seaches printed on the exam will be posted when I get back to madison.

Here is the actual dialogue that we had over email regarding the matter. The name of the professor has been removed out of respect for the individual.

Sorry about the >>>> crap. I've taken them out where they make it harder to read, otherwise you'll just have to deal with it.

Me, email 1:
Professor xxxxxxx-
I am a student in your biochem xxx (course number) class and I think I speak for the class when I say that you did a> very good job teaching section two of the course.> >> >> >> >That being said, I would like say that I feel> it> >> was >in very poor taste that you decided to take it> upon yourself to make political statements in class> and on the exam.

Politics depends upon science, not the other> way around as I am sure you are aware. Therefore, in teaching science you should never feel> compelled to> >> >refer to politics. I have reviewed your carefully crafted google> >> searches> >> >and realize that this is a thinly veiled excuse> for> >> >pushing your personal political opinions. While I would vociferously defend your right to> >> free> >> >expression of your personal political views in> an> >> >appropriate setting, I feel that we both know> the biochemistry classroom is not such a place. I look forward to your response and any> comments> >> you> >> >may have.
Scott Mehring

Professor's reply, email 2.
Thanks for the kind comments on teaching. I wish> >> part two could be at> >> least twice as many lectures so that there was> more> >> time to develop> >> these concepts. Biochem is in most places a two> >> semester course - and> >> we offer a two semester course as well.> >>> >> Re the other comments, the goal of science is of> >> course to understand> >> how the natural world works. As a science major> you> >> will hopefully have an opportunity to contribute to this> endeavor> >> in the future. It> > > is a privilege to be able to do so; a privilege> for> >> which I am deeply grateful. I am not sure what you meant by "Politics> depends> >> upon science."> >> Perhaps you meant that accurate scientific> >> information and an> >> intellectually honest assessment of that> information> >> should> >> contribute to many important decisions that we> need> >> to make as a> >> society, and as members of the world community.> >> Perhaps you also> >> meant that a scientific approach is critical in> >> politics; a> >> scientific approach involves careful analysis of> ALL> >> of the data to> >> derive, in an intellectually honest manner, the> most> >> rational> >> conclusion, as opposed to cherry picking data to> >> support a particular> >> point of view. If so I fully agree.> >>> >> The foundation of a democracy is that people> have> >> access to accurate> >> information, including of course scientific> >> information. I did not> >> view noting the suppression of scientific> >> information as a a personal> >> political opinion, but rather a phenomenon about> >> which I think> >> science majors should be aware. The google> searches> >> have to do with> >> the suppression of scientific information, and> some> >> interesting> >> developments about how some states are at odds> with> >> the federal govt.> >> I did not intend for them to be at all "veiled"> -> >> but rather to give> >> students "hits" to articles that are in the> public> >> domain in a way> >> that does not involve typing a lengthy URL. My> hope> >> is to get people> >> thinking and talking about these issues. > >

Professor again, email 3.
Turns out Scott Mehring is not enrolled in the class (although I
suppose possible he could be sitting in or using a pseudonym for his


sent beofre [sic] I knew this.

YAY! Looks like I've got another loyal reader. lol.

Me, email 4.
Professor xxxxxxxxxxx,> >> >I agree it would be nice to have two semesters for> >this course so that materials could be fully> >developed. Unfortunately, most of us are just> trying> >to meet requirements for graduation and don't have> >time for courses that do not contribute to> graduation.> >> >> >To clarify what I meant when I said "politics> depends> >on science" is that politics uses science to> further> >an agenda. Politicians may use some or all of> solid> >data or junk science to do this. I think you said> it> >best when you said,"a> >> scientific approach involves careful analysis of> ALL> >> of the data to> >> derive, in an intellectually honest manner, the> most> >> rational> >> conclusion, as opposed to cherry picking data to> >> support a particular> >> point of view." This is a perfect example of> what> >politics is, "cherry picking data to> >> support a particular> >> point of view." I assume that everyone in class> is> >intellegent enough to understand this about> politics.

Science on the other hand is complely independent> of> >politics. Scientists never need to rely on what> >politicians say to determine the outcome of their> >work. The data collected determines the outcome.

In regards to your stated objective, "noting the> >suppression of scientific information," I do not> >believe that you showed scientific information> being> >suppressed, what you showed was a refusal to accept> >results in a political arena (i.e. politics). Had> the> >information been suppressed it would not be> available> >to the public (which is it) and such supression> would> >be unconstitutional.

>Disemination of scientific information is not the> job> >of the politicians. It is your personal obligation> to> >seek the truth.

To conclude so that my argument may be clear:> >Politicians cherry-pick data to futher agendas. I> >feel all students of your class are intellegent> enough> >to know this. The outcome of science does not> depend> >upon what politician say. Therefore, in teaching> the> >suppression of informaion by politicians, you are> >teaching politics (And a quite one-sided version)> not> >science. Thus, being politics, the topic has no> place> >in the biochemistry classroom as biochem is not> about> >politics.

Also, yes, it is a pseudonym. Of course I would> want> >to stay anonymous if I disagree with you on any> topic> >that involves politics (in this case, the teaching> >of). I don't know what information you were> looking> >for when you checked the class list(or when you googled "scott mehring madison"), but I feel it was> a> >wise decision by the very fact that you did attempt> to> >gain personal information.



Professor's reply, email 5.
Thanks for the response. Re "I would want to stay> anonymous if I > disagree with you on any topic" I assure you that> any comments on > class on any topic would never affect a grade, but> of course you have > no assurance of that in advance unless I were to> announce it in > class or note it on the xxx (course number) handout which perhaps we> should do next > time. The only reason I looked up the name was that> our class > assistant handed copy of the grades to me the same> day. I like to > receive comments of any nature by email or in person> - they cause me > to think further about a topic. Most student> comments result in > clarifying something like hydrolysis in the notes> for next time I > teach; your comments have caused me to think more> about the interface > of science and politics. If you ever want to discuss> such issues > further and in person feel free to do so.

My final reply, email 6.
I appreciate your open-mindedness about this. I will consider discussing it after the course has been completed.

I notice that he didn't actually address any of my concerns in his second reply (labeled email 5.)

Also, I don't know if I buy the excuse given for seeking personal information, but I'll give the professor the benefit of the doubt.

Like I said above, I'll post the google key words handed out later.

Until then I would really like your comments.


At 9:43 PM, Blogger Steve S said...

That's a fascinating interaction, and probably very revealing. I suspect, however, that the links between science and politics do go both ways to at least some extent - otherwise there would be no public debate over whether (and how) to research stem cells. Politics can have important effects on the direction of science.

At 6:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Best regards from NY!


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