osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

Rant: What Does It Mean To Be "The Party That Believes In Science."

This is becoming a very significant issue for progressives. And not simply in the hard sciences, but the social sciences as well.
Hard science and social science have always been critically important to advancing progressive policies. By contrast, we have pointed to the failure of science and pseudo-science as supporting racist policies, misogyny, or advancing pro-industrial policies. The environmental movement provides many examples where hard science was dismissed time and again until the weight of real scientific evidence became overwhelming. The same with consumer protection for carcinogens. And everyone should remember the value of the "Clark Experiment" as applied social science in Brown v. Board of education. By contrast, social theories justified with little evidence such as "broken windows policing" have caused immeasurable harm until debunked and disproven by rigorous social science research.

Which is why I am becoming very concerned that legitimate suspicion of self-interested research or agency capture is morphing in some cases to objection without substance.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the field which causes the most concern for me on this is the deployment of wireless and new technologies. New technologies are an area where there is often a group of people who naturally reject them as dangerous and disruptive and a group of people who embrace them as wonderfully disruptive. Computers in classrooms and education, the impact of ubiquitous WiFi or other wireless technologies, naturally have had both advocates and skeptics.
But this is where science comes in. The properties of electromagnetic waves are reasonably well understood, if complicated sometimes to predict. So if we are asking a question "how do we know what prolonged exposure to radio frequency energy at certain power levels does?"

It's a fair question. We can start with what we know about the existing physics and biology. We can ask based on this knowledge what we might think would be potential negative impacts. We can run tests on these. We can also look over the long term to see if there appears to be some kind of correlation that cannot be explained by other means. We can test these statistical correlations in a variety of ways.

If the answer comes up with a set of conditions under which operation looks safe -- and not just "plausibly safe" but actually safe as in we don't see any evidence of a correlation with negative health effects -- then what?

If we believe in science, we go forward with deployment.

It's important to realize this isn't just about money, or toys, or other things that people who don't use this stuff understand every day. It's about life saving technologies in hospitals and elsewhere. It's about hearing aids that use Bluetooth. It's about creating economic opportunities for disadvantaged communities by providing access to affordable connectivity. It's about allowing communities to express themselves in their own voices. It's about being able to record what happens on the streets with a cell phone and have the ability to upload these images in realtime -- whether by licensed wireless or WiFi. It's about getting technology in schools so Girls Can Code and people of color can have access to the tools they need at an early enough age to feel as comfortable and at ease with them as wealthier or whiter communities. Not deploying these technologies, and not making them available to children where appropriate, has huge social cost, economic cost, and cost in lives.

Yes, there are lots of worries, and lots of pitfalls. There are lots of concerns about how these things are being implemented, and who benefits. We need to look at corporate generosity with enlightened skepticism, and know the right questions to ask about whether particular agendas are being furthered through deployment.

But we also need to remember we could not have had Ferguson without a ubiquitous wireless network. If we had simply decided not to trust the science on wireless saftey because Verizon and AT&T have economic interests and therefore we can't trust the FCC to do its job and therefore we can't really *know* if it is safe to deploy wireless technologies, then we would never had had all the very real social benefits that flow from the deployment of these technologies.

So we need to ask ourselves about the roll of progressives in fostering proper use of science and social science for a fair and just society. We cannot simply be suspects and nay sayers because of our skepticism about industry agendas and the possibility of government capture. We must be willing to address studies on the merits, to *show* where bad science or bad social science is leading to a bad set of policies. We need to do things like hold up the implicit (and explicit) biases in technological advances like Big Data. We need to ask hard questions about GMOs.

But if we *believe* in science, we can't just reject it when it conflicts with those things we find intuitively credible or where it fails to substantiate our suspicions and fears. As progressives, we need to be willing to hold other progressives accountable for baseless fear mongering and pseudo-science as we are critical of conservatives when they play similar games, or when they refuse to confront the scientific consensus.

I am deeply worried when we refuse to hold ourselves and others to these standards simply because the targets are major corporations and agencies that are often captured. If the science is really wrong, we can and should show it.

I do not want the Democratic Party to claim the mantle of "belief in science," and then use bad science to advance pro-corporate policies. I want progressives to embrace the mantle of believing in science, and modeling that behavior.
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