Scientists should leave the policy debates to the humanities

Travis Knoll

As a freshman at UT, I attended science courses not just because it’s required, but also to gain insight into the more quantitative side of social issues and governmental policy. Many UT students want scientists to engage the political sphere. I was no exception. In a climate science course freshman year, I would pepper the professor with politically charged questions on global climate change and then tried, to no avail, to read the tea leaves. Looking back, it spoke well of my professor that I couldn’t tease out her political philosophy. Why? What should a scientist’s role be in the political sphere? How does one maintain scientific integrity even when dealing with controversial research?

Although many students want political affirmation, there should be a red line dividing public partisanship and scientists’ empirical research. Although scientists provide critical data, the debate of abstract philosophy and how to apply scientific results to public policy is best left within the purview of
the humanities.

At UT, we see the negative consequences of crossing such a line. The University’s reputation was greatly harmed last December when UT geology professor Charles Groat, who had been researching the effects of fracking on energy policy, resigned over questions surrounding his undisclosed ties to the fracking industry. More recently, UT sociology professor Mark Regnerus’ gay parenting study drew controversy when it was used as evidence in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Supreme Court decision overruling Proposition 8 — California’s ban on gay marriage. Regnerus, realizing his credibility could be damaged, has consistently claimed to be a legally disinterested scientist merely following “where the data leads.”  This despite his decision to sign a “friend of the court” brief on behalf of Proposition 8 supporters attempting to show the state’s rational interest in “reserving the title and status of marriage to unions comprised of a man and a woman.”  Although such involvement always makes the news, not all scientists have overtly political motives for their work.

When I interviewed Charles Jackson, a professor at the UT Institute for Geophysics who specializes in tracking the cycles and effects of abrupt climate change, he made a point of avoiding partisan politics while stating that he attempts to educate the public about “the facts as [he] see[s] them.”  Jackson points out that the institute is not affected by local politics in particular because most of its funding comes from federal and private sources. 

 “I don’t think it is helpful to make a political fight out of [climate science], as we cannot afford to turn anybody off from thinking for themselves and doing what is right,” Jackson said. 

This does not mean that scientists cannot weigh in on public policy solutions. Dr. Susan Hovorka from UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology asserts that carbon sequestration, which stores carbon permanently underground, is a viable way to slow climate change while slowly weaning us off fossil fuels. Indeed, the Obama administration also includes carbon sequestration in its carbon reduction plan, endorsing the technique just as Hovorka does. However, Hovorka puts politics aside when teaching. She encourages other researchers to do the same by letting the public conduct miniature experiments to understand the processes involved in climate change for themselves. 

At the end of the day, the purpose of scientific inquiry is not to one-up the other side in a political debate, but to inform the public, allow questions and doubts and attempt to address them. Objectivity is needed to teach others, which is why I applaud our climate scientists and ask scientists who are thinking about throwing themselves into the political fray to instead follow Jackson and Hovorka’s example.

Knoll is a first-year master’s student in Latin American studies from Dallas.