Science always has been, and always will be, political

Inevitably, with the announcement of The March for Science on Earth Day, April 22nd of this year, come the inevitable naysayers decrying the politicization of science. Astroturf groups such as ACSH (diversity excludes white dudes and scientists from industry!), have of course decried the effort as a liberal conspiracy, but I was sad to see even the New York Times found a scientist to rain on our parade.

A march by scientists, while well intentioned, will serve only to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about, turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars and further drive the wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate.

The problem is that science is inextricably a political endeavor, always has been and always will be. That does not, however, mean it should ideological, these “apolitical” critics just fail to understand or express that ideology is the real problem. Politics doesn’t have to be ideological either, it’s perfectly possible to find solutions to problems based on data and evidence rather than “beliefs”. In the interests of promoting a March for science, which is a worthy endeavor, let’s put this “politics” argument to rest forever.

Science has always been political. Even before the scientific method was described, knowledge was political power. In the modern era, spending on science, therefore control of science, is in the hands of politicians. Science is the basis of modern healthcare which extends all of our lives. And finally, science is political because it informs politics, whether people want to hear the answers or not.

Science has been political forever

Everyone has heard of the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, and the lesson of Icarus flying too close to the sun, an allegory for failing to heed warnings, or carelessness of youth. (Image Wikimedia) But the real lesson of this myth is ignored in popular culture, and informs this debate. We never talk about why Daedalus was in prison in the first place!

In the Greek myth of Theseus, the inventor and technical genius Daedalus plays a complex role symbolizing the fraught relationship between knowledge and power. First, he (possibly) plays a role enabling the conception of the Minotaur, to the shame of king Minos who forces him to make a labyrinth to contain the human/bull hybrid. The labyrinth is then used by Minos for killing the children of conquered Athens, Hunger Games style, 14 tributes every nine years. Daedalus then undermines Minos again by providing Theseus and Ariadne a trick for solving the labyrinth with string, and finally, imprisoned, with Icarus, for his careless use of knowledge against Minos (or to keep the labyrinth’s secrets), he escapes using wings he constructs of feathers and beeswax, losing his son. The fatal flaw that propels Daedalus from disaster to tragedy is his thoughtless application of knowledge. He provides knowledge and inventions without regard for the consequences of their use. He represents intelligence without wisdom.

Daedalus is also an allegory for the relationship with science and power. Science can aide the powerful for good or for evil (killing Athenian children for instance), and Daedalus is a tragic because he fails to account for how his knowledge will be used. He seems to think he will be immune to the politics.

Now, consider from the previous century, Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. After seeing the potential ruin nuclear weapons could visit upon the world, he devoted his post-war years to non-proliferation and control of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes such as power generation. Einstein too, and many of the Manhattan project leaders saw the importance of acknowledging the importance of politics in how the creations of science are used in the face of such immensely powerful technology. As scientists, and citizens, they realized they had a responsibility not just provide powerful technology to politicians and step aside, but to make sure their creations were vehicles for more than gross destruction and human malevolence.

Control of Science is in the purse

Then you must consider the modern role of government as an engine of discovery. Since the Manhattan project there have been numerous examples of government-funded collaborations with the sciences with world-changing results. We tend to remember the big projects, like the moon landing or the human genome project (which one must note was basically scooped by private industry research), but we forget that government is also the major engine of basic science research. Industry spends more research dollars overall than government, but they only spend half as much as the government does on basic research . (NSF Data via SSTI) This is a shame, as labs like Bell labs have won numerous Nobel prizes for basic science research (they invented the transistor – all modern solid state electronics depend on this!), but Bell notably ended its basic research program in Physics in 2008.the first transistor.  Really. The first transistor. Really. And it’s basic research that opens up new frontiers in human knowledge and revolutionizes scientific fields. For instance who would have predicted that Isidor Rabi, a physicist (and immigrant) working on nuclear magnetic resonance would make discoveries that would revolutionize medical imaging with MRI? Or how research into antibodies in the 70s at Cambridge would result in monoclonal antibodies (another Nobel prize), a revolution in diagnostics and therapies from human transplant to cancer. Or how about unexpected consequences of goal-directed funding? Who would have predicted research efforts poured into understanding HIV (more Nobel prizes) would teach us about how to manipulate the immune system for immunotherapeutics? In the last 20 years we’ve opened a whole new world of gene regulation, and likely a new therapeutic revolution with Mello and Fire’s discovery of RNAi (from their control dsRNA no less) another revolutionary discovery in a basic science lab. Electronics, computers, the internet, modern medicines, communications, all of these things were birthed from basic science discoveries, and almost all can be tied to government, university and industry scientists who had no idea what the application of their ideas may one day bring.

So, surely the government unabashedly supports basic science then right? Not so much. Congressional representatives and Senators routinely mock the government as wasteful for basic science funding. The most egregious examples tend to come from Rand Paul and Jeff Flake, who publish lists of scientific grants they consider “wasteful” but invariably on closer inspection have been described incorrectly, out of context, or fundamentally misunderstood. Many scientists have become fearful about their work being taken out of context in this fashion, and are forced to construct their grants into narrower and safer language whenever possible. The sequester was further devastating to research funding, and poor leadership has seen paylines at agencies like NIH drop dramatically (meaning fewer researchers/grants get funded) while the cost of administration and funding for the offices of the director at NIH have increased exponentially from a few million a year to > 100 million. We have failed, politically, to explain the benefits of basic science to the public and to our representatives in government, and failed to defend our colleagues from misrepresentation of their work for cheap political gain by small-minded demagogues.

The transactional nature of Trumps worldview is anti-thetical to basic science. Basic science is an investment in exploration, and can not guarantee specific results. We know we need basic science to learn new things, and we need to learn new things in order to propel our medicine, our technology, and our economy into the future. I also sincerely doubt he can appreciate basic science as he appears to be pathologically incurious, exhibits below-average knowledge from history to basic biology and medicine, and seems actively hostile to intellect, seeming to believe anyone who espouses knowledge he does not have is lying. Because that is what he does, he lies, repeatedly, consistently, to the point even the paper of record, the NYT has described him as lying on the front page of their paper, which is historically unprecedented (or unpresidented as it were). We need to march to reassert the importance of exploration, of curiosity, and of intellectualism, against leadership which denigrates these virtues.

Science provides answers to political questions, often providing answers no one wants to hear

Then, there are the representatives who go beyond misrepresentation, and are actively hostile to science, namely where science and certain ideologies collide. Evolution, Vaccines, GMO, global warming, all have the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community on their side, but are attacked, from the left and the right, using the same denialist tactics. Some of them, like James Inhofe, are cranks who deny multiple fields of science from vaccines to global warming (and makes jokes about being a Holocaust denier too).

Here’s Inhofe with, no joke, a snowball in winter, declaring it proof global warming is a hoax.

These are the people representing us in congress. People who presume to be wise on matters of science, but, as in this example, still can’t distinguish between “climate” and “weather”. In other words, incompetents.

Then there is the science proscribed by ideology. Research into gun violence for instance is vastly underfunded for how serious a public health crisis it is.

We know that gun violence spreads like an infectious disease but without funding to see how it can be contained and controlled, we let the disease spread, infect our citizens, and kill them, over and over.

Science has some uncomfortable things to tell people- things people do not want to hear. Like the best way to decrease abortion is to pay for birth control, not ban abortion (there are more abortions in countries where it is illegal Lancet Link). Abstinence education just doesn’t work. Gun violence is a disproportionate problem in the United States and certain laws appear to have decreased the problem by as much as 90% in some states. Now do we have definitive data to suggest that these results can be generalized? No. Because we can’t even fund the studies to find these answers. Note the funding sources for the article just cited, “none”.

Science prolongs our lives

The most self-interested reason to support science is it prolongs our lives. Modern healthcare is science applied to longevity. In the last century we’ve seen the average lifespan double due to improved knowledge. The next public health challenge is making sure all our citizens have access to the healthcare that prolongs life.

We’ve known for over 2 decades that lack of health insurance increases mortality. This is an effect that has been consistently observed in the following decades. It extends not just to chronic health problems but even to unexpected medical problems such as trauma and even in child trauma victims. Being insured saves lives. Lacking insurance causes death at all ages from all sorts of medical problems. The ACA has decreased the uninsured and has undoubtedly saved lives. Loss of insurance coverage will kill people. Is there any political issue more important than life and death? This should be nonpartisan. We need to find a way to make sure healthcare is accessible and paid for, or say we don’t value preservation of life as a society. If that’s the case, it needs to be debated and stated honestly, that’s a possible ideological position, but the data, the science shows that access and insurance saves lives. This debate is enormously complex but there are critical things we know from studying universal health care system. The general findings are that universality saves lives, they save money, they slow cost inflation, and that the US system provides poorer care because of administrative cost, drug costs, and solvable obstacles, not because of the fundamental “quality” of our care.

Summary

The fact is, science is inextricably linked to politics, always has been, always will be. If only because science is a human endeavor, and we are political creatures, science is political. If only because we recognize science is an effective tool for answering questions, including political questions, science is political. If only because the modern model of scientific exploration and discovery is paid for in large part by government, science is political. If only because science drives the health care that keeps us alive, the loudest debate raging today in the halls of power, science is political. And if only because science has provided answers about our bodies, our planet, and our universe that people don’t want to hear, science is political.

So those who ask for science to remain apolitical are either grossly missing the point, as I believe Dr. Young is in his NYT piece, or they are trying to coax scientists into disarray and silence, as I think is typified from the commentary from ACSH. Science can never be apolitical, it’s too powerful a force in our lives to remain divorced from politics. What science must be, however, is non-ideological.

This is where science has gone wrong in the past. For example eugenics was the application of racist ideology to science, and bias was so pervasive that for decades it was accepted into the mainstream, even resulting in state-sponsored sterilization programs. Science has fallen victim to ideology before, and when it has the results have been disastrous. A more modern example? Complementary/altie med infiltrating the NIH. We’ve literally spent billions trying to validate these modalities that are not based on science, that have been forced on us by politicians who have no capacity to judge science and what is the result? After billions of dollars none of these modalities has been validated by rigorous study.

On the individual level, we see scientists fall for ideological traps as well, and suddenly even highly-intelligent, experienced scientists will look like fools. No one is fully immune from ideology, because humans don’t think like scientists by default. Most people form a belief first then gather data to support it. Beliefs are formed in our upbringing, are based on unrealistic ideals, and are solidified for ego protection. People’s belief form who they are, and when scientific facts challenge belief, do you think people change fundamentally who they are? Nope.

Scientific thinking requires one to constantly address one’s own biases, and that is not how we naturally think. When scientists fall from grace, again and again, it’s when their rationality has been poisoned by some political ideology. Even Nobel prize winners have been susceptible to foolish pseudoscience from creationism, to believing in psychic powers, to global warming denialism – hence the “Nobel disease”. Ideological beliefs are a very human flaw and ideology is poison to reason.

Now, how should the March for Science organize without being political? It can’t! Science is inextricably linked to politics at every level, from history, to funding, to the questions it asks to the results it provides. What it can do is be non-ideological. We have to accept the results of science even when they offend our worldview, which should change when they are in conflict with its results. What does that mean? Vaccines work, global warming is real, GMOs are safe, gun violence is a solvable problem, contraception prevents abortion, and universal healthcare saves lives. Let’s let the March for Science be political and let’s divorce our beliefs from ideology and let the data speak to the truth of things.

Two articles, from vastly disparate sources, that do a better job promoting this view are this balanced discussion from Kavin Senapathy at Forbes and Kevin Folta at Huffpo. From the capitalist anti-regulatory right to the nature-worshiping left, we should all agree the data are real, and they will not always agree with our preconceived beliefs or ideologies.

21 thoughts on “Science always has been, and always will be, political”

  1. Some of them, like James Inhofe, are cranks who deny multiple fields of science from vaccines to global warming (and makes jokes about being a Holocaust denier too).

    Your Scibling Orac describes this tendency (of cranks embracing multiple crank theories simultaneously) as “crank magnetism”.

  2. “Evolution, Vaccines, GMO, global warming, all have the overwhelming CONSENSUS of the scientific community on their side …”

    I agree with what Michael Crichton said:
    “Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics…
    The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.”
    …..
    “… there are more abortions in countries where it is illegal…”

    For such countries, do you have any data on the number and rate of arrests/prosecutions/convictions of those involved in abortion?
    ……………
    Probably the only point of yours I agree with is this:
    “… science is political.”

  3. Ahh. The Crichton consensus speech. One of the most reliable gotos for antiscience ideologues. Crichton was not a scientist. He was never a scientist. And while he was a talented writer, he was also an antiscience crank. That speech of his has been mocked so many times but Orac is probably the most thorough.

    The TL;DR version? Yes I’ve heard of that deeply stupid speech by a nonscientist who was trying to dismiss real science. It is a favorite of cranks denying everything from evolution to gravity. Both of which are consensus science, as are relativity, and germ theory.

    Nice try. Next I’ll hear about how Galileo was persecuted…

  4. Crichton may not have been a “scientist” technically, but he was probably smarter than you and more knowledgeable about science than you. After all, apparently he graduated from Harvard summa cum laude with a degree in biological anthropology and got his MD from Harvard as well (with a fellowship and lecturing at Cambridge University in between).

    Hey, do you have any of that data I was asking about on abortion law enforcement?

    P.S.
    Nice try trying to draw an equivalence between evolution and gravity.
    So old, so pathetic.

  5. “So old, so pathetic.”

    Yet so appropriate and quite a valid comparison. It is quite typical of you (sn) to adore someone who is educated, even when you are not, only when that person
    a) is demonstrably wrong about stances on so many issues
    b) supports the same ignorance you espouse

    So tell us – are you still pushing the “poor people are poor because they deserve to be” line? How about the “the only thing women should give opinions on is having babies” idea? Maybe the “nobody should spend any time or money doing scientific research unless there is an immediate application for it” you used so often?

  6. I love being patronized by creationists. Thanks for presuming I’m uneducated but I have more degrees than Crichton, I have a PhD and contribute to the scientific literature, and I actually practice medicine, whereas he did not indergo residency training. He basically never moved beyond “medstudent”. Thanks for your assumptions though. Orac, another MD/PhD in the link above fully explains why Crichton is a crank, and has no leg to stand on, with this argument. I realize you want to believe he is super smart because he agrees with anti-consensus BS, but he was a fool, he believed in all sorts of nonsense including astral projection and clairvoyance, was a nonscientist and a dilettante. I remain unimpressed.

    Finally, we don’t actually argue with denialists here. If you want to push creationism you can do it elsewhere, but we find arguing with denialists to be futile and ill-advised.

  7. Let’s not forget that MDs aren’t scientists. It’s a ‘professional’ degree for a vocation or an avocation, not a course of study to advance scientific thinking. As Ira Breite, MD, says ‘we’re not scientists, sorry guys, but it’s true. We ‘practice’ medicine.’
    And as far as Crichton, regardless of being an intern or resident, he did all the same med school classes as any other physician. He got out before the bureaucratic ‘residency pecking order’ nonsense.

  8. To MarkH:

    For the third time I’ll ask you,
    where is your data on abortion law enforcement for those high-abortion countries where abortion is illegal?

  9. It might help if we had something better than “GMOs are safe”, since if we wanted, it would be easy to make unsafe or stupid ones. Maybe GM is a useful tool. We fiddle with mouse genes all the time, just as a research tool.

  10. To MarkH:

    For the third time I’ll ask you,
    where is your data on abortion law enforcement for those high-abortion countries where abortion is illegal?

    And for the third time I’ll ignore you because I’m not your librarian or your research assistant. Don’t give me orders. Why are you still here?

    It might help if we had something better than “GMOs are safe”, since if we wanted, it would be easy to make unsafe or stupid ones. Maybe GM is a useful tool. We fiddle with mouse genes all the time, just as a research tool

    This statement presumes current mechanisms of safety testing which are based on surprising compliance to voluntary industry standards are applied to future products. It is conceivable someone could GM engineer a poisonous plant (just as one could breed and select for negative traits), why someone would do this and then have it evade detection is the question. As to safety, every national scientific society body that has weighed in has determined the literature shows safety in addition to decades of product on the market without apparent harm.

  11. To MarkH #13:

    Me: “For the third time I’ll ask you, where is your data on abortion law enforcement for those high-abortion countries where abortion is illegal?”

    You: “And for the third time I’ll ignore you because I’m not your librarian or your research assistant. Don’t give me orders. Why are you still here?”

    I just thought that, maybe, you might try to back up the misleading statements you make.
    But I was wrong.
    Sorry.

  12. Hey,
    Thanks so much for this post! You provided some really interesting insights about the political nature of science throughout history. I love the images and videos you included for evidence as well. I think it’s interesting to hear about how something scientific like meteorites can be turned into a political discussion
    Best,
    Dennis

  13. Great piece, save for one point.

    GMOs and agrochemicals have denialism on their side, but in a flipped way. It’s risk denialism. It’s industry funded propaganda.

    I know that GMOs are “fairly safe by and large” given the testing for each new trait with lab animals. But some traits have been shown unsafe and not put on the market. (GMO peas come to mind — allergenic lung damage in mice.)

    But the extent of how “safe” they are is distorted by industry propaganda. They’re not taking chances. They have a huge propagand machine. They even attack the New York Times, Danny Hakim’s articles for instance. Andrew Kniss and Kevin Folta an Steve Savage and Robert Wager and Bruce Chassy are some names on the propaganda-pushing pseudoscientist list.

    So…. while you must know climate change denialism is an industry propaganda creation, you ought to follow the money and the propaganda in other sectors as well. Otherwise you’re the gullible fool.

    I’m not a crank, not a tin foil hat person, but i see some propaganda at work in some multi-billion dollar sectors beyond climate / fossil fuels.

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