Last year, one of my students in a history of science class said that “no one knows which doctors to trust because they are politicizing 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 from government policy. However, scientists have always been involved in politics as advisers and shaping public opinion. And the 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 the risks of this relationship – from controversies surrounding hydroxychloroquine to Operation Warp Speed efforts, allowing researchers to develop vaccines in less than a year.
Against this background, it is understandable that many people began to doubt the advisability of trusting science.
As a historian of science, I know that 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 key science accelerators, but have also sometimes stifled scientific progress.
Geopolitical objectives guide much of scientific research. For example, the Apollo space program from 1961 to 1972 was motivated more by competition between the Cold War superpowers than by science. In this case, government funding has 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 Josef Stalin who denounced modern genetics. When he became head of major scientific institutions, his opponents were arrested or executed. Lysenkoism – although it is 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 changed it in important ways. Because it’s harder to discern between real and fake content online, it’s now easier than ever to spread politically motivated 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 made science partisan. One of the main reasons for this attitude is the ideology of limited government. Republican lawmakers often ignore environmental issues despite the scientific consensus on the dangerous causes and effects of these issues.
Former President Donald Trump has taken the suspicion of science to 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 bogus.
In contrast, President Joe Biden has placed 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, compared to only 17% of Republicans.
Democrats are not immune to this either, as evidenced by strong Democratic support for labeling genetically modified foods. This despite the scientific consensus on the safety of these foods. But overall, Republicans tend to be a lot more anti-science than Democrats.
The pandemic has shown the risks of this political divide. People who identify as Republican are much more likely to resist wearing a mask and being vaccinated.
Disagreements in science are necessary for scientific progress. But if each side 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 confidence in science has been so degraded during Mr. Trump’s presidency, several major peer-reviewed journals have endorsed Mr. Biden as a presidential candidate. It was perhaps the first time in history that so many scientific journals and magazines took clear positions for a US presidential election.
The fact that 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 assumptions for fear of political and social pressures.
In my opinion, science cannot thrive under an administration that ignores scientific expertise as a whole; 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 assumptions that may go against common sense. .
Liv Grjebine is a postdoctoral fellow in the history of science at Harvard University.
This article was first published in The Conversation.