Politicized science drove lunar exploration – but polarized scientific opinions are worse than ever

Last year, one of my students in a history of science class said that “no one knows which doctors to trust because they politicize the pandemic just like politicians.” The interactions between science and politics are now so complex, so numerous and often so opaque that, as my student noted, we no longer know who to trust.

People often assume that the objectivity of science requires that it be isolated government policy. However, scientists have still involved in politics as advisers and shaping public opinion. And science itself – how scientists are funded and how they choose their research priorities – is a political affair.

The coronavirus pandemic has shown both the benefits and risks of this relationship – of the controversies surroundings hydroxychloroquine to the efforts of Operation Warp Speed enable researchers to develop vaccines in less than a year.

Against this background, it’s understandable that many people began to question whether they should trust science. Like a science historian, I know the question is not whether science and politics should be involved – they already are. Rather, it is important that people understand how this relationship can produce good or bad results for scientific progress and for society.

Historical relations between science and politics

Historically, political needs have acted as the main scientific accelerators but also sometimes stifled scientific progress.

Geopolitical objectives conduct much of the scientific research. For example, the Apollo space program from 1961 to 1972 has been led more through competition between the Cold War superpowers than through science. In this case, government funding contributed to scientific progress.

In contrast, in the early days of the Soviet Union, government involvement in biology had a stifling effect on science. Trofim Lysenko was a biologist under Stalin who denounced modern genetics. As he became the leader scientific institutions, his opponents were arrested or executed. Lysenkism – although he was completely wrong – became the accepted orthodoxy in academies and universities of Communist Europe until the mid-1960s.

As Lysenko’s story shows, when political powers decide what questions scientists should work on – and, more importantly, what kind of answers science should find – it can harm both scientific progress and the society.

Two political parties, two scientific realities

The relationship between science and politics has always been dynamic, but the rise of social media has profoundly changed it. Because it is more difficult to discern between true and false content online, it is now easier than ever to distribute fake news.

In the United States, social media has massively accelerated a long-standing political divide in scientific trust. Starting with Ronald reagan, Republican leaders have made science a partisan domain. The ideology of limited government is one of the main reasons for this attitude. Republican lawmakers often have ignore environmental issues despite the scientific consensus on the dangerous causes and effects of these problems.

President Trump has suspicion of science on another level by treating science essentially like another political opinion. He argued that scientists and institutions that contradicted his views were motivated by their political agendas – and, by extension, that science itself was wrong. On the other hand, President Biden put Science at the top of his priorities.

As a result, the divide between scientific and anti-scientific positions – at least in the United States – is now often partisan. People of different political views, even when educated, sometimes cannot agree on the facts. For example, among American citizens with a high level of scientific knowledge, 89% of Democrats say that human activity contributes a lot to climate change, against only 17% of Republicans. Democrats are not spared either, as noted by strong democratic support for the labeling of genetically modified foods. It is despite scientific consensus on the safety of these foods. But overall, Republicans tend to be a lot more anti-science than the Democrats.

The pandemic has shown the risks of this political divide. People who identify as Republican are much more likely to be resistant to wearing a mask and vaccination.

Scientific disagreements are necessary to scientific progress. But if each party has its own definition of science, scientific truths become a matter of opinion rather than objective facts about how the world works.

Where is the relationship going?

Because the confidence in science was so degraded during Trump’s presidency, several main peer-reviewed journals endorsed Biden as a presidential candidate. It was perhaps the first time in history that such large number scientific journals and magazines took clear positions for a US presidential election.

The fact that the acceptance or rejection of science is increasingly determined by political affiliations threatens the autonomy of scientists. Once a theory is labeled “Conservative” or “liberal”, it becomes difficult for scientists to dispute it. Thus, some scientists are less inclined to question hypotheses for fear of Politics and social pressures.

In my opinion, science cannot prosper under an administration that ignore scientific expertise in general; but neither can it prosper if scientists are told what political and moral values ​​they should embrace. This could slow down or even prevent the emergence of new scientific hypotheses. Indeed, when scientists align themselves with or against political power, science can easily lose its most important asset: the ability to encourage disagreement and raise new hypotheses that may go against it. common sense.

Liv Grjebine, postdoctoral researcher in the history of science, Harvard University

This article is republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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