Books on Science and Politics

The goal of science is often not merely to discover facts about physical reality, but to apply a careful, rational process of analyzing evidence. Many of those who embrace this scientific way of thinking wish that more areas of the world at least attempted to apply this way of thinking ... and one of the realms where it seems most sorely mistaken is in the realm of politics, where it is easy to believe that ideology trumps evidence far too often.

The books listed below delve more deeply into the role of science for informing various policy considerations and the general usefulness of scientific literacy among the population.

Science for Optimization and Efficiency

One of the key roles for science in the political sphere is in determining how government institutions can most effectively achieve their end results. It is relatively uncontroversial to claim that the U.S. Department of Energy should use the best understanding of physics to guide its national energy policy, for example, or that the Center for Disease Control should use the best scientific analytical tools at its disposal to respond effectively to an infectious disease outbreak.

This isn't to say that these recommendations don't cause controversy, but that controversy is typically over whether the suggestions of the scientific community are in fact optimal, rather than over whether science is relevant to the questions. To use the Department of Energy example, there may be a valid debate over whether the scientific evidence justifies a heavy investment in a smart grid to improve the efficiency of energy usage and delivery, but few people would be willing to claim that science is invalid to the question.

Science for Eliminating Bad Ideas

The philosopher of science Karl Popper proposed that the principle of falsifiability was the cornerstone of a scientific theory or hypothesis, as opposed to a non-scientific one. While many people (both philosophers and scientists) have objections to the central role of Popper's falsifiability principle, it illustrates an important role that scientific thinking can have, and one of the key successes of science:

Science is excellent at disproving wrong ideas.

Bad ideas in science are constantly being identified and either refined to be less wrong or eliminated completely and replaced with entirely different ideas.

In politics, it often seems like bad ideas have a bit more staying power, bolstered by ideological considerations well after the evidence no longer supports them. (This can happen in science, of course, but typically only at the fringes of the field. Discredited views rarely persist with any real traction within the core of the scientific community.)

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Unscientific America: how Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future

The cover of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future by Chris Mooney & Sheril Kirshenbaum. Basic Books/Perseus Book Group

Jointly written by science journalist Chris Mooney and scientist Sheril Kirshenbaum, this 2009 book focuses on the ways in which the American public and the scientific understanding of reality are disconnected. One of the interesting findings explained in the books is that Americans know scientific facts, but don't have the context to put these together into a coherent picture of reality to guide decisions. Their suggestion, in part, is for scientists to be better at communicating scientific reasoning to the general public.

Cover of Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America by Shawn Lawrence Otto. Rodale books

What are the challenges to bringing politics directly into the American presidential race? Shawn Lawrence Otto, who attempted to get a science-centered presidential debate in 2008, offers a unique perspective on why national political candidates try to avoid frank discussions of how science can inform political policy. His efforts resulted in both candidates issuing public statements on science issues in the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign. More »

Cover from The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist by Richard P. Feynman.

Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman was one of the most well-known physicists of the latter half of the twentieth century, largely for his efforts and ability to communicate the complex ideas of quantum physics to the general public. In this slim volume, taken directly from a lecture he gave, he discusses the responsibilities that he sees for scientists to help apply their rational, evidence-based worldview to consider issues of social and political importance. Though the lectures were given in 1963, many of the issues discussed are surprisingly (and perhaps depressingly) relevant to today's citizen-scientists as well. More »

Cover of the book Energy for Future Presidents by Richard A. Muller. W. W. Norton & Company

Richard Muller has written a detailed look at the various options for energy production and consumption, and laid it out in an accessible (though extensive) book for the non-scientist reader. With growing demands on our energy consumption, this book helps clear away the various ideological considerations and look at the scientific options. Since the author was previously a climate change skeptic, and has since converted his view, the book is particularly good for those who might not believe that the claims about climate change warrant dramatic policy steps now. More »

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Space Chronicles by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Cover of Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier by Neil deGrasse Tyson. W.W. Norton & Company

In this collection of essays, astronomer and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson explains various key aspects of the American space program. Specifically of interest to understanding the connection between science and politics is Tyson's explanation of how major scientific initiatives, in particular the Apollo space program (and NASA in general), were funded because of political objectives, rather than because of purely scientific motivations.