Yes, It's Time to Politicize Science
Scientific integrity doesn't require political apathy
Posted Feb 04, 2017
With today’s post-truth politicians denying climate change, opposing the teaching of evolution, and even forcing doctors to relay misinformation about reproductive health, it’s no surprise that the idea of a March for Science—now scheduled for April 22 in Washington and other locations around the country—has rapidly gained momentum. The planned march can be seen as a direct response to the rampant anti-intellectualism that has gripped American political life.
But even as our jaws drop at the brazen disregard for truth in politics and government—with the White House silencing scientists one day and promoting “alternative facts” another—there is no unanimity, even among scientists, about rallying for science. In an op-ed this week in the New York Times, geologist Robert S. Young argues against the march, saying the event will only “increase polarization” and “trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about.”
What Young doesn’t seem to grasp is that political marches are often intended to polarize—marchers are challenging society to look anew at a particular issue, contending that there is a clear right and wrong that has been overlooked for too long. Whether the cause is civil rights, women’s equality, LGBT rights, or something else, public rallies and marches are intended to call attention to an issue and sway the weight of public opinion in one direction. The exercise is designed establish and assert moral authority, thus isolating those who are on the wrong side even to the point of shaming them.
By calling out wrongheadedness and injustice, successful rallies and marches reshape public dialogue and effect change. They are the ultimate democratic tactic, gathering people in numbers to show that there is mass support for a righteous idea.
Young, however, sees such activity as no place for science and scientists. He worries that a science march will “turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars,” apparently oblivious to the fact that scientists have been casualties of the culture wars for years. And the results have been devastating, not just for science but for all of society. The United States is a nation that embraces the advancement of technology while simultaneously placing the scientific mindset—and the appreciation of rationalism and empiricism that are its foundation—far outside its core values.
Young is correct that a march will likely “further drive a wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate,” but the idea of a march is to do just that—to openly challenge those who obstruct legitimate science, to shine a light on them and raise awareness of the need to support good science.
We can all agree that the usual role of scientists in government should be to dispassionately relay facts and findings so that lawmakers and regulators can make informed decisions that are in the public interest. But the mistake would be to believe that scientific integrity requires scientists to be silent in the face of politicians who lack integrity themselves. Scientists and those who appreciate science shouldn’t have to march, but the sad truth is that in today’s America they must. An array of anti-intellectual forces—religious groups, corporate interests, cynical politicians, and others—have both the motives and resources to obliterate truth and, with it, public policy. Never has the politicization of science been so necessary.
To be sure, some degree of caution is important. As sensible people march for science they should bear in mind that nobody—and certainly no political party—owns science. Even those politicians at the front of the crowd should be seen as having the potential to misuse science for their own interests. Numerous forces—monetary, ideological, intellectual, and psychological—can corrupt the application of science to policymaking, and these forces require vigilant monitoring, meaning that facts and conclusions must be scrutinized regardless of who is backing them. Nobody gets a free pass, and as we apply science we must give serious consideration to our values.
Indeed, because science is ultimately amoral—it is inherently neither good nor evil, but only a tool for humans to use as they see fit—this might explain why there is some appeal to Young’s cry to keep scientists off the streets. Let scientists focus on determining facts, the argument goes, and let society at large decide how to apply values to those facts. The problem with this argument is that we have a society, and a political leadership, that simply isn’t concerned about determining facts accurately. Large segments of society, particularly corporate and religious sectors, reach their opinions and conclusions first and then assert facts—true or not—later.
This explains so much of what is happening in America, from the false “debate” over climate change to the attacks on public education. And when society embraces anti-intellectualism at this level, it’s time to march.