Political science

Politics is about perceptions, and science is about facts. But when the two realms collide, facts become matters of perception and perspective, leaving outside observers wondering just where the truth lies. That intriguing intersection is explored in two news stories this week, both of which are important and have been largely overlooked by other media outlets.

As former SN&R editor Ralph Brave explains (see “The Politics of science”), our own Senator Deborah Ortiz is leading California and its biotechnology scientists on a collision course with conservative federal politicians, the pro-life movement and those who fear the Pandora’s box that cloning represents.

Embryonic stem cell research has great potential in helping us overcome some diseases and injuries. But its scientific potential is hindered by its political realities, as some of its procedures delve into the realm of cloning, with its dark eugenic possibilities.

Visceral fears can trump the best scientific intentions, something that is also a theme in Cosmo Garvin’s discovery (see “Radioactive landfills” page 18) of a subtle state policy change that could allow radioactive materials into our landfills. The shift centers on how California Department of Health Services officials define “safe.”

With technology expanding at such a rapid rate, the sociopolitical and public health impacts can often be difficult to measure until after the damage has been done. Maybe landfilling a piece of metal that emits low-level radioactivity is safe. But our history is littered with casualties from all kinds of scientific advances that were supposed to help us.

And as messy as it can be, politics is the process by which we sort through which scientific advances to pursue.