Science is not political. Doing science isn’t a radical political activity. Doing science isn’t about being a Democrat or a Republican. Nonetheless, science seems constantly embroiled in political conflicts, at least since the time of Galileo. If science isn’t political, then why is it so controversial and why are the scientists marching? Should scientists hide in their labs and avoid political discussions? Does science have a place in public policy?
Science shouldn’t be controversial. Science is simply a method for uncovering the state of the world. Science is incredibly easy and reflects something basic about human nature. Of course, some scientific investigations are technical, depend on fancy tools, and involve complicated mathematical analyses. The easy part is that scientists start with questions. Why does this happen? How does that work? Scientists answer their questions through observations and experiments. Everything depends on clear empirical evidence.
Every child begins life as a scientist. They constantly ask why. They want to know how things work. No child is satisfied when you say: “Because I said so” or “That’s just how it is.” Children love getting real answers and love science. Good scientists retain a childlike curiosity and joy in discovery.
So why is science under attack in the political world? Why does science seem so controversial? I think the controversies boil down to two fundamental problems.
First, science is hard. I know I just said that it's easy. But there is a critical part that is hard: Data win. Always. In any argument, empirical findings trump all other claims. You have to accept that your ideas, theories, and beliefs may be wrong. You have to accept the outcome of empirical research, especially replicated findings. If the data don’t support your theory, then the theory needs to be revised or maybe even dumped. If the empirical evidence is inconsistent with your beliefs, then you have to be willing to change your mind. You don’t get to ignore the data.
Discounting your personal beliefs and experiences can be really difficult. In essence, the basic human thinking process of searching for answers runs smack into another basic feature of human thinking. We are all biased information processors. We get attached to our ideas, our perception is limited, and our memories are biased. We understand and remember things that are consistent with our beliefs. Let me give three examples of scientific evidence running into personal experience and beliefs.
Global warming and climate change serve nicely as a first example. The empirical evidence is completely clear. The world is getting hotter and human activity is contributing to that change. Why is this so hard to accept? In part because the changes are small – only a few degrees over several years. (Of course, the ramifications of those small changes are huge and threatening). You can’t see or feel those small changes. Global warming is overshadowed by the weather on any given day. We had a snow storm; there was a blizzard; we’ve always had hot days. To accept climate science, you have to discount your personal experience of a cold winter and that snow storm last week. To have confidence that the average global temperature is rising, you cannot rely on your personal experience of the weather.
In addition, you may believe that your personal actions are too small to impact global climate. You’re right. By yourself, you can’t change the climate. But none of us can directly see how the actions of billions of people add up to more carbon in the atmosphere. It is hard to set aside your own experience of cold days and your knowledge that your car isn’t changing the planet.
Implicit attitudes concerning race and ethnicity provide another example. If you’ve grown up in the United States, you’ve been exposed to countless messages concerning race. This leads almost everyone to have negative implicit associations about black people. You undoubtedly share these implicit attitudes. But your personal experiences may tell you something different. You are a good person and good people don’t discriminate. You know you aren’t racist. You have black friends and co-workers. You can remember times when you treated all people fairly. You believe our society is more diverse and inclusive than when you were young.
Here’s the problem: We tend to remember things consistent with our beliefs. You don’t easily remember the times when implicit attitudes influenced your behavior. Implicit attitudes don’t guide every decision, but they do provide subtle influences on your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It is also hard to see how those implicit attitudes impact daily decisions made by millions of people. But these widely shared implicit attitudes contribute to biased outcomes in society – from how job applicants are treated to the likelihood of being pulled over by the police. To accept the preponderance of evidence concerning the impacts of implicit attitudes, you have to set aside your beliefs that the U.S. is a fair society and that you are always a good person who treats people of all races as equals. We can’t easily see the overall pattern without scientific data and we don’t remember the times when we’ve behaved in ways inconsistent with our positive beliefs about ourselves.
One more quick example of how accepting scientific findings can be hard. The empirical evidence is utterly clear that using a cell phone while driving impairs performance and safety. But most people feel they are fine to use their phones while driving. Most people believe they are safe. Of course, you are unaware of the mistakes you make when you drive while using your phone. You aren’t aware of all the risks and hazards you don’t see because your attention is focused on your cell phone, that text message, your phone conversation. You falsely believe that you are fine. To accept the science, you have to discount your own experience. You have to become aware of all the things you are unaware of.
This is one reason science is controversial: Science is hard. Some research findings are counter-intuitive and conflict with your personal experience. To accept science means setting aside your beliefs. To accept science may mean setting aside your personal experience of things like the weather, race relations, and driving safely. To accept science means accepting that some of your ideas, beliefs, and views may be wrong. This makes many scientific findings controversial.
There is another reason science often becomes controversial: Scientific findings frequently have public policy ramifications. Public policy changes have economic impact – there is a lot of money at stake. Let’s consider the same three examples.
If we accept the evidence that human activity is contributing to global warming and climate change, this should influence public policy. We should decrease our reliance on fossil fuels. Maybe we should put solar panels on every rooftop. Of course, there are a lot of economic forces tied to the fossil fuel industry. Those groups have often worked to undermine agreement concerning climate science. Attacking the science and scientists is one method of strengthening their side in public policy battles.
Similarly, there are policy implications with respect to implicit attitudes concerning race. Perhaps we need better enforcement of fair housing and employment laws. Given implicit attitudes, we certainly should work on many aspects of criminal justice reform. But these are political decisions that must balance competing interests. When concerns are raised about any of these topics, there are forces that push back.
The research on using cell phones while driving has also been controversial in public policy discussion. We still lack reasonable laws banning the use of cell phones when driving. People are dying because other people have false impressions that they can safely use their cell phones while driving. And there are substantial economic forces interested in you having access to your phone when you’re driving.
In these cases, public policy could be guided by scientific findings. But public policy is never based only on the best empirical evidence. When other interests are at stake, science and scientists will be attacked. Science becomes controversial. Public policy isn’t about truth, but really about winners and losers in complex political and economic systems. Winning may mean attacking both the science and the scientists.
Science is easy and reflects some basic aspects of how people think and understand the world. But science is also hard. You have to be willing to set aside your personal beliefs as the evidence accumulates. And science becomes controversial when people consider the public policy implications.
Nonetheless, if we want public policies to be effective, we should rely on the best information we have. Science isn’t political, but scientists have an important role to play in politics. Public policy should at least reflect our best understanding of the actual state of the world. And science is our best tool for gaining that understanding.
Scientist can’t simply hide in their labs. They have a moral obligation to share their findings. Rational public policy considers scientific findings seriously. Rational politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, should talk with rather than attack scientists.
I will attend the March for Science on April 22nd. Come join us if you respect and value scientific evidence.