Flip-Flop: Political Vice or Scientific Virtue
Written by Lewis D. Eigen
When scientists tend to look at politicians, they have generally much more affinity for those who are pragmatic than for those who are ideologues. The politician with a strong political philosophy is for many citizens a comfort and someone who inspires confidence. “You know where he stands!” But scientists are inherently distrustful of anyone who stands for anything other than that which is demonstrable and replicable. A scientist might have very strong current views on a particular scientific issues, but the sophisticated scientist realizes that the view represents his current position based on what he knows at the time. To him there is no immutable truth. More data will change views; new experiments; new theories; new tools often will resolve issues one way or the other. Yet the politician not only revels in her immutable truths, but comes under incredible criticism if she ever changes her position—she is a “flip-flopper”. To the scientist, failure to flip-flop in the face of contradictory evidence is irrational and dangerous behavior. And scientists will often flip-flop at almost light speed. Often it takes only a single observation to flip-flop thousands of scientifically learned people.
However, it is not possible in the American political environment for any politician to change his mind from a previously stated position without being castigated by the opposition. The implication is that the politician who changes positions is either unprincipled or weak of character. To the politician, and many of the press and the citizenry, a politician who meets with people and changes his mind is at best weak of mind and character and at worst a sellout. Somehow our body politic does not give its politicians the same rights that they give their scientists–namely the right to learn, consider, reflect and possibly be persuaded that his original position was in error or sub optimum. In contrast, the same body politic and most scientists regard scientists who do not change their minds and claim new views and truths as new data is available, as ethically flawed. One of the worst insults a scientist can hurl at another is to say that he believes in XYZ. A scientist who believes is not to be trusted. A scientist can lean toward a particular scientific view or against it, but would explain her view citing the various reasons that she currently leans in this direction. And clearly, when such a situation arises, there is some combination of insufficient data, a dearth of definitive studies that can resolve the issue at the time. To the ancient scientists, the atom was the smallest particles. Then the scientific world flip flopped and accepted smaller components: electrons, protons, and neitrons, Another flip brought us quarks, and a new flop may be in progress with string theory. For most scientists, nothing can be more exciting than having new data, techniques or experiments on which to radically change their views. In a sense, that is what every scientist seeks. The situation where he and others will change their views. What is the pinnacle of excitment for the scientist is the situation to be avoided by the politician. Many of the Soviet politicians describe the terribly difficult situation for them when they were forced to change their minds about whether a communist system could lead to efficient production of material goods. The data however had been in front of them for several decades, yet the political instinct to stay the course, live by the hallowed principles of old, rationalize all evidence to the contrary. Fidel Castro, is perhaps the saddest example of this political reluctance to change. Even thought his is out of power, in the twilight of his life, he is still convinved that the reason for the economic failure of Communism in Cuba was the United States boycott. While clearly a small factor, the boycott was the natural rationalization for him and others to avoid coming to grips with the economic failure of communist Cuba. However, most politicians the world over structurally behave similarly. Execution and implementation of policy can be admitted as wrong, but rarely is the policy itself.
Perhaps the most articulate response to criticism for flip-flopping was given be the great British economist John Maynard Keynes. His reposnse to the critic was:
“If the facts change, I’ll change my opinion. What do you do, Sir?”
Related Links & References
A Typical Political Use
Conservative political columnist, Cal Thomas, criticizes an Obama Science Adviser John Holdren for changing his mind on global warming. In 1971 Holdren wrote of the possibility of a coming ice age. 38 years later Holdren advises that global warming is a major problem. Thomas castigates Holdren for flip-flopping on the issue. In his political calculus, there is something terrible about a scientist who comes to a different conclusion 38 years later after a massive amount of data has been collected and thousands of studies done, almost all pointing in the same direction. Indeed, there is probably no reputable scientists who has not learned from decades of research and additional knowledge and had a change of mind and position. Thomas is shocked that the nation’s science policy leader actually has acted like a scientist. From a scientific point of view, it is Thomas and other politicians who stay anchored to their knowledge of 38 years ago despite all the studies and data. You certainly cannot accuse them of being flip floppers. Luddites perhaps. Flip floppers, no. Click Here for the Thomas Article.
A More Balanced Use
Political commentator Ruth Marcus wrote a more rational article from a political perspective on the flip flop issue. She says, “Continually shifting positions can indicate a willingness to elevate political expediency over principle, a lack of core convictions. …. the trouble with flip-flop frenzy is that it tends to treat every shift — every, pardon the phrase, nuance — as a one-size-fits-all transgression. We in the media risk becoming the enablers of inanity by acting as if all flip-flops are created equal, and equally bad.” Hers is a classic position of the intellectual politician. A change in position is inherently suspicious, but in certain cases might be justified.” For the scientist of course, the change is necessary when the evidence is there. Click Here for the Marcus Article.
First Use of The Term
The first recorded political use of “flip flop” was in New York City. The New York Times reported on , October 23, 1890, that John W. Goff, candidate for district attorney debating against his opponent said,
“I would like to hear Mr. Nicoll explain his great flip-flop, for three years ago, you know, as the Republican candidate for District Attorney, he bitterly denounced Tammany as a party run by bosses and in the interest of bossism. … Nicoll, who three years ago was denouncing Tammany, is its candidate to-day.”