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Politics and Science: A Losing Combination

When politics gets in the way of science, we all lose.

Key points

  • The U.S. is founded on the principle of separation of church and state. A formal separation of science and politics seems just as important.
  • The denial of science as a political strategy is simply a losing strategy for all of us.
  • Data should be used to inform public policy, but political agendas should not shape the endorsement of data.
 Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

The scientific process is a self-correcting process that has the primary function of advancing our understanding of the world and our place in it. That said, the human world is a political world and politics has a way of seeping into everything. Politics affects such wide-ranging human phenomena as school curricula, hiring processes, invitations to family Thanksgiving dinners, salary adjustments at work, roles in high school theatre productions, tax laws, internal corporate policies, and more. The human animal is a political animal and politics, construed broadly, affects the gamut of our behavior.

So we have something of a conundrum. At its core, the goal of science is to help us understand the world through carefully implemented data collection and statistical processes.

On the other hand, political behavior is all about how certain narratives and decisions are endorsed because they ultimately advance the goals of some select individual or groups of individuals.

The second that politics enters the world of science, we have a problem on our hands.

Politics, Science, and COVID

In the U.S., COVID has been politicized from day one. In one study on this topic, Leventhal et al. (2020) found that people who identify as "politically conservative" are less likely to follow CDC guidelines designed to help stop the spread of the virus relative to those who identify as "politically liberal." Indeed, in recent research from my own team, we found evidence that individuals in the U.S. and the U.K. who identify as politically conservative are, in fact, more likely to become infected with the virus relative to those who identify as politically liberal (Rolon et al., 2021).

According to data supplied from the World Health Organization, the U.S. has seen more COVID-related deaths than has any other single nation (with more than 500,000 U.S. deaths so far as of the time of this writing). The politicization of COVID in the United States has been, and continues to be, nothing short of tragic.

And the large-scale political resistance to COVID vaccinations in the U.S., which is fully inconsistent with CDC guidelines developed by some of the nation's top scientists on the topic of communicable diseases, will almost necessarily lead to thousands of additional needless deaths. Think about that.

The COVID/political interface is, perhaps, in modern times, the most salient example of what happens when politics interferes with science.

Politics and Science Beyond COVID

In fact, COVID is but one of a plethora of issues where political agendas have interfered with the dissemination of scientific information. Climate change is another famous example, with the lion's share of experts in the geological and related sciences across the globe indicating that human-created climate change is real and is having adverse effects on our planet.

Some people don't like this idea. Most people don't like this idea, I would guess, in fact. I don't think that I like this idea, now that I think about it carefully! I wish that human-created climate change was not a thing! But science is not about whether we like ideas or not. Science is about what carefully collected data have to tell us about the world.

Another famous example of politics interfering with science is found in the realm of evolutionary studies. Going deeply back into the 1800s (see Wilson et al., 2019), people have been denying the role of evolutionary forces such as natural selection as factors that shape the nature of organisms. The denial of evolutionary science has a storied history, including, for instance, the famous Scopes Monkey Trial when, nearly 100 years ago, the state of Tennessee was ultimately ordered to allow for the teaching of natural selection in high school biology classes. It was not an easy battle. And today, evolution denial is still very much a thing.

In more recent times, political resistance to the idea of human behavior as being the result of evolutionary processes has been famously politicized, leading to such adverse outcomes as distorted presentations of the evolutionary/behavior interface in a large proportion of textbooks that include sections that summarize the evolution and human behavior interface (see Winegard et al., 2014).

The examples included here are, of course simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to scientific domains that are adversely affected by political agendas. And that iceberg, unlike real icebergs in the Arctic, is not melting away any time soon.

The Data Are What the Data Are

One saying that I like to tell my students is this: The data are what the data are (with data simply meaning observable pieces of information).

Sometimes I will have a thesis student run an analysis only to find, often sadly, that their main hypothesis was not supported. While such moments can be deflating, they need not be. If the study was well-conceived and well-implemented, then any null findings do tell us something: that the main hypothesis is probably not exactly right. And that is information about how the world is. And those data, then, are actually useful.

Given how the scientific process works, we can't simply choose data to present data that we like and dismiss data that we don't like, no matter how tempting that may be. From a political standpoint, we can't just endorse results that support our political agendas and cover up results that fail to support our political agendas. As scientists, that is not the business that we are in.

Again, to put it simply, when it comes to the work of science: The data are what the data are.

Science and Public Policy

All this is not to say that science has no place in the public sphere. In fact, at the end of the day, using science to help make the world a better place is, arguably, an important goal related to science. When policymakers are deciding on policies and laws to help advance the health and well-being of citizens in a particular nation, for instance, relying on scientific findings should always be considered best practice. Scientists are regularly shedding light on such issues as factors associated with physical health, factors associated with mental health, gun violence, climate change, communicable diseases, racism and discrimination, factors related to a healthy economy, and more.

Pretty much, nearly all the issues that we care about in terms of the health of our broader communities and nations have been studied extensively by all kinds of scientists. And given the intensive training that scientists receive, it only makes sense to defer to their wisdom when it comes to shaping policies that will have effects on our world. Denying the expertise of the scientific community is like thinking that anyone can fix an airplane as well as an airplane mechanic who has been extensively trained to do that kind of work. It is just probably not the best practice! I personally like airplanes that I fly in to be tended to by expert airplane mechanics.

Bottom Line

As science is a human endeavor, it makes sense that it is at least somewhat politicized. This said, efforts to keep politics out of science are actually critical to allow the scientific process to best inform questions that ultimately bear on the human experience. The more that politics interferes with the scientific process, across the board, the worse off we all are.

Separating politics and science should, at the end of the day, be just as foundational in our nation's ethos as the separation of church and state. And this is especially true if we want public policies that ultimately are in the best interests of us all.

References

Leventhal AM, Dai H, Barrington-Trimis JL, et al. Association of Political Party Affiliation With Physical Distancing Among Young Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic. JAMA Intern Med. 2021;181(3):399–403. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.6898

Rolon, V., Geher, G., Link, J., & Mackiel, A. (2021). The COVID Personality (or How Extraversion Kills). Presentation given at annual Darwin Day event at the State University of New York at New Paltz

Wilson, D. S., Geher, G., Mativetsky, H., & Gallup, A. (2019). Darwin’s Roadmap to the Curriculum: Evolutionary Studies in Higher Education. New York: Oxford University Press.

Winegard, B. M., Winegard, B., & Deaner, R. O. (2014). Misrepresentations of evolutionary psychology in sex and gender textbooks. Evolutionary Psychology, 12, 474-508.

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