Apr 11 2017

Science and Politics

marchforscienceThe March for Science is coming up on April 22, which has prompted another round of – should science stay out of politics? I think this is a persistent debate because the answer is yes and no, depending on what you mean.

Staying Out of Politics

There are several arguments for why scientists and science organizations should stay out of politics. The first is that politics and ideology can distort science. There are countless historical examples of this. You might call this “motivated research” which is similar to motivated reasoning.

Research can be directly toward an ideological agenda in many ways. Ideology can frame how we ask questions, which questions we think are important, and which research agendas get funding. Political beliefs can also shape how research is conducted, exploiting degrees of freedom and other methods to distort the process of research and the interpretation of results. It can also bias which research gets published and cited.

Every step of the way there is the potential for bias, and if that bias is consistently in one direction it is not difficult to manufacture an entire alternate reality of scientific evidence that supports your agenda. We see this with alternative medicine research in general. We see it with pharmaceutical company research which is much more likely to be favorable to the financial interests of the company. We see cultural biases, such as the uniformly positive studies of acupuncture in China.

There are also researchers with a specific agenda whose results our out of step with the bulk of the scientific community, such as anti-vaccine researchers or anti-GMO researchers.

It is therefore important for scientists to remain objective. They need to value rigor over outcome, and seek the truth for its own sake.

Even if researchers are able to keep their research rigorous and objective, there is a perception problem when scientists become politically outspoken. An outspoken scientist ceases to become just a scientist. In the public’s eye they become a “liberal scientist” or “conservative scientists” or whatever. When they advocate for a position, for example that anthropogenic global warming is real and a problem, some in the public might wonder if that is a scientific opinion of their’s or a political opinion.

It can also be difficult for individual scientists to cleanly separate their ideological and scientific opinions. It is natural for people to think that the evidence supports their position. It is also easy for scientists to present their ideological position as if it is the correct scientific position, because they fail to perceive the line between objective facts and value judgments.

This problem can go deeper, when not just the opinions of one scientist, but the science itself is perceived as being partisan. If it is possible to characterize science in general, or perhaps one scientific position, as being tied to one political party of ideology, it becomes easier to dismiss.

Engaging with Politics

There are several compelling arguments on the other side as well. First, science does not occur in a vacuum. Most of scientific research is publicly funded, which means that politicians have a big say in how that money is doled out. The politics of science funding is therefore unavoidable.

Funding decisions are also not completely objective. They depend on our goals and values. Scientists need to be engaging with the people who are making these decisions, which means they have to address the political questions as well as the scientific.

Beyond funding, science has implications for regulations, of itself and science-based professions and industries. Quality control in science is inherently political.

Further, scientists are often the very people to understand opportunities and threats that face our society. They will understand the potential benefit of new scientific discoveries, and will be critical in understanding how best to invest in and capitalize on those advancements.

They will also often be the first people to raise the warning bells when scientific research uncovers a problem. They have to do more than just say, “Oh, FYI, we’re warming the planet with possible catastrophic consequences. Do what you will.” They need to educate the public and politicians about such issues. They need to confront misconceptions, pseudoscience, fraud, denial, and ideologically motivated distortions of the science.

Finally, scientists are an important voice in our society. If they recuse themselves from the political discussion, that critical voice will be missing from the conversation.

This includes public office. While the percentage of lawyers in Congress has declined from an historic high of 80% in 1850, to about 60% in 1960, and now to about 36%, this is still a plurality. Of the rest, 25% have a business background, and 23% an education in politics or public service. So most politicians come from a very narrow range of career backgrounds. About 7% have a medical background, but scientists did not even make the list.

How can we expect our elected officials to make complex scientific decisions when almost none of them have any science background? We know from many surveys that non-scientists are largely scientifically illiterate (depending on where you draw the line). The typical politician without a science background does not come anywhere near understanding the complex scientific issues on which they vote all the time. It certainly couldn’t hurt to have a little more diversity in Congress.

Reconciling These Positions

So how do we accommodate these valid points on both sides of the issue? It might be tempting to just pick a side and go with it, minimizing or dismissing the points on the other side. I am not saying that the answer to any controversial is always to split the middle. There are frequently asymmetries and sometimes one side is simply wrong. But in this case I do think there are valid points on both sides.

There is no simple formula for navigating these issues, nor one optimal compromise. I think it is important to be aware of the issue and try as best as one can to engage meaningful with politics while remaining objective.

One way to look at it is this: Science has to be political for the reasons I stated above, but should strive to remain non-partisan. The Science March is an excellent example. The March is overtly political. It is a public demonstration of support for science in various ways, and meant to put pressure on politicians. That is political.

However, I do not think the Science March should be either a “liberal” or “conservative” event. It should be non-partisan. It will be tempting for people to mix in their personal political beliefs and confuse that with science advocacy, but that temptation should be resisted.

We want science to have bipartisan support, and we want all politicians to listen to science and scientists.

It is important for science to inform policy. But we also have to recognize that science alone cannot determine policy, because there are also value judgments in the mix. This is where it gets tricky.

I think it’s important for scientists to recognize when they are going beyond objective science and starting to include ideological opinions and value judgments.  This does not mean that scientists should not be involved with politics. Go right ahead. Just don’t confuse science advocacy and political advocacy. Make it clear where the science ends and politics begins.

I also think that individual scientists have to be mindful of their position and goals. A scientist working in the lab but who is not a public figure might have no problems being very political active outside of their job. A science communicator may choose to avoid being too political to keep that from distracting from their science communication. Someone involved in science regulation may need to be vigilantly non-partisan.

It is an interesting conversation that is worth having, and I do think that recent political events and the Science March is prompting this needed discussion.

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