The vocabulary of public discourse, part II

Several months ago I suggested we need a new vocabulary to discuss science.  From my post:

We need an intellectual framework which articulates there are instances when science is crucially important, instances when it is somewhat important, and instances when it is relatively unimportant.  Some decisions heavily rely on science while others do not.  Certain disputes are better resolved with politics rather than science and vice versa.

As I’ve said repeatedly, the very words we use impede a productive dialogue.  Merely claiming science is the foundation and the basis of policy  stacks the deck.  Along those lines, I’m curious how “The Rightful Place of Science?” was chosen as the title of the conference I  just attended.  Given what I know of Dan Sarewitz’s views, I’m pretty sure he opposes the idea that science has a single, predetermined rightful place.  So why use the definite article? Doing so only cements the idea that science does have a privileged and rightful place, something I’m sure Dan would like to avoid.

Trying to find the rightful place precludes the possibility of rightful places.  As Jamey Wetmore noted, the rightful place of science depends intimately on the specific context.  Indigenous farmers in central America, contestants in the abortion debates, and climate-change policy makers all use science in different ways (Jamey’s examples).  Contorting these different uses into a single “the rightful place” is pointless and distracting at best.  It would be best to completely do away with such a monolithic caricature.  But unfortunately our public vocabulary precludes this from happening.

Jason Delborne raised this point towards end when panelists were debating whether science belongs on a pedestal.  Delborne wondered whether simply using the word pedestal undermines some of our goals.  The 3 or 4 longtime readers of this blog know that I answer in the affirmative.  As usual, I found Wetmore’s response to be particularly insightful.  He said that it’s perfectly fine to have science on a pedestal as long as we don’t put scientists there as well.  I really liked that point, and I’ll have to think about it some more.


  1. A lot of times lately I find myself trying to get people to take science off the pedestal they’ve put it on (often for very self-serving reasons, regardless of which side of any policy issue they are on). It’s got to be down on the ground with ethics, economics, morality, whatever to be discussed honestly. I definitely agree with you that science doesn’t have a single “rightful place” in policy decisions. The same could be said of economics: it’s almost always there, but it certainly doesn’t always play the same role. Why would anyone think the role of science could be prescribed for every issue? Science shouldn’t be on a pedestal, and scientists DEFINITELY shouldn’t.

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