The Use and Abuse of Science in Modern Politics

The politicization of science. The role of science in politics. Typically, when these concepts are addressed, emotions run high and people start defending their “sides.” While most agree that science is foundational to modern society, politicians and general public alike dispute its legitimate role in policy decisions. Americans rely on scientific knowledge nearly everywhere in their lives, including regarding transportation, technology, healthcare, communication, art, architecture, weather reporting, food safety and more. Even so, a majority of Americans do not identify science as a passion or an interest. We rely on science but are uninterested in the scientific process.

From climate change to vaccination to genetic modification, science invades policy decisions. Science has become a partisan issue, a tool used to support one’s presuppositions rather than to aid in decision-making. People question science’s legitimacy when results oppose their agendas. These accusers cite instances when previous science has offered inaccurate or incomplete results and negatively impacted society to justify their arguments. Few, however, are well-versed in scientific methods. They are correct that science must be questioned and results must be tested until unavoidable evidence is found.

The people testing results and questioning premises or experiments cannot be untrained. Scientists must push each other and receive input from various sources, but science should ultimately be left to scientists. Politicians should fund scientists to help develop more accurate results. Currently, most government-funded science is new and innovative. Scientists must redo experiments to confirm previous scientific results, but little funding is directed toward this goal. Complaining about and discrediting science breeds inaction in policy and increases pressure on scientists to play into the agendas of companies who will fund their work.

The disconnect between scientists and policy makers and between scientists and the general public partially stems from the method with which scientists approach their work. Science is unemotional. Research relies solely on facts that are not altered by emotion. When scientists share their findings, they do not focus on the political implications. They see a problem, research causes and identify a solution.

Published science is not intended for non-scientists to read, understand and turn into policy. It is meant to contribute to scientific knowledge. This concise, complex and vetted format does not lend itself to the emotional and opinionated nature of politics. Politicians and voters alike want to feel as though they are part of a movement. Cold facts rarely sway people on issues they feel passionately about. As a result, when science aids agendas, it is supported and hailed as the ultimate truth, but when it questions views or provides reason for pause, it is quieted.

Too often, science is only funded to push an agenda, but science has no regard for the results it is “supposed” to yield. Both Democrats and Republicans need to accept science as a legitimate form of information in all instances, not just when it is politically useful.

Science must play a role in politics because political decisions are often about scientific policy or about topics in which science plays a role. For example, politicians should have a basic understanding of the science behind natural and anthropogenic factors that are suspected to affect climate in order to determine the most effective and viable policies to respond. While the common image of scientists is working alone in white lab coats, science does not happen in isolation. Especially in the increasingly globalized world, simply ignoring science doesn’t keep it from impacting you all the time.

Contrary to the appearance presented in news stories, you can’t just pick topics you agree with and then find science to support them. Science is not subjective. Science should provide objective answers that may not offer the full story but provide general ideas. Science is hardly ever complete, but waiting for the most accurate, fullest version of results limits its efficacy.

Policy makers claim that current science could be proven limited in the future, so it should not be considered when deciding policy until then. However, incomplete science still acts on the world. Conclusions cannot be ignored because there is a possibility of partial truth. However, science itself should not determine policy. Conclusive results or not, science is an aid to politics, not politics itself.

Because science does not act in isolation, it cannot be on its own when making political decisions. Economic, social, military and ethical ramifications, among others, should be considered in addition to science. Instead of debating science, which includes facts and objective study, politicians must debate the degree to which these factors influence decision. Science is not an opinion. It is a form of knowledge that does not change depending on who is evaluating it.

For society to continue benefiting from scientific advances, science itself must be trusted as objective and scientists as experts. Without reliance on experts, society stalls and fails to develop. Nonetheless, the issue of societal rejection of science does not lie solely with politicians. Scientists need to make an effort to share their work in clear and engaging ways. The logical and clear methods of inquiry scientists use may be beneficial in other fields if scientists choose to share their ideas and skills. Science is necessary and incredible, but too few scientists share their findings and try to engage the general public. This hesitancy and scientists’ general lack of eloquence creates the need for scientific communicators.

Scientific communicators can share findings and distill their results so that society is more aware of them. They can be the link between stoic science and the emotion of policy. We cannot simply accept a disconnect between the people creating policy and those investigating how our world works. Without politicians who are aware of the issues and a public invested in the integrity and celebration of science, science becomes a weapon used to support positions and emotions already held, rather than an accurate depiction of reality to inform positions and decisions.

Photo Courtesy of Superpower Wiki.

Catherine Dema

Catherine Dema is the page editor for Features & Investigations on The Hilltop Monitor. She is a senior majoring in Oxbridge: History of Ideas and physics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.