Plan C Anyone? The Politics In Science

12/08/2011 01:25 pm ET | Updated Feb 07, 2012

When the politics of biology rears its head all bets are off.

As I argue in my new book The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America, we are in the midst of a new biopolitics in which the power of science confounds the usual left-right spectrum of public policy, one that by no means favors one side or the other. Witness Governor Rick Perry's awkward defense of his executive order on the HPV vaccine and the rush to defend his policy (if not the governor himself), by women's health advocacy groups.

Now comes the firestorm over Plan B (the so-called "morning after pill")

These days the left and the right approach politically desirable science policy in somewhat different ways. The right's approach is to use evidence when it's available (or if someone can be found who appears to qualify as an "expert"), but quite willing to default to traditional values and to be explicit in doing so. The left's approach to a desired political outcome when science is involved is to deny that there is a conflict with evidence and engage in a search for facts to support the wanted theory.

The decision to deny over-the-counter-access to Plan B is particularly awkward for an administration that early on pledged to "base our public policies on the soundest science," and to be "open and honest with the American people about the science behind our decisions."

Whatever its political wisdom or foolishness, the administration's Plan B decision qualifies as a theory in search of the facts. For example, in her statement overruling the Food and Drug Administration (a remarkable event in itself), DHHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius stated that young girls might not understand the consequences of using Plan B. Yet evidence that reached precisely the opposite conclusion was instrumental in the FDA's approval recommendation.

As to the sort of expert opinion so valued on the left, The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine all "denounced" the HHS's decision.

Cynics will ask, why should science be different? As in business, finance, sports, entertainment and all fields of human endeavor there is always politics. In general that is a good thing, since the only alternative to politics as a way to settle our differences is violence.

Nonetheless, one feature of modernity is the intuitive sense that somehow science should be different. The value of evidence and public demonstration through experimentation is a hard-won Enlightenment principle that, seen through the 200,000-year lens of human history, occurred to us just moments ago. Considering the blood, sweat and tears that took us to this point, cynicism about science and politics is cheap and lazy.

In the short run there's still a political element when policy decisions are being made, but in the long run the scientific method does make science unique. Our task is to defend the science even -- and especially -- from those who claim to be its friends.