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The Politicization of Science: Skeptical Inquirer on a Danger to Democracy

August 11, 2017

In the national debates over contentious scientific issues such as climate change, vaccines, and evolution, political and cultural identification have become a determining factor as to whether one accepts the facts of science. In its latest issue, Skeptical Inquirer, the magazine of science and reason, traces the roots of the politicization of scientific issues, and how these anti-scientific attitudes threaten the very foundations of American democracy.

“There are striking similarities of Galileo’s world with ours today in the twenty-first century,” writes Jeanne Goldberg, formerly of the American Cancer Society, in the issue’s cover feature, showing that today, as then, political and ideological concerns are being held above evidence and scientific consensus.

Goldberg explains that science can be alienating to the general public, as its complexities can only be grasped by “experts,” distant elites located in coastal urban areas with little connection to the beliefs and culture of a population who feel their self-sufficiency threatened in a changing world.

At the same time, many urban elites have also come to reject science “almost in a tribal fashion,” falling for anti-vaccination misinformation or spending exorbitant amounts of money on pseudoscientific “alternative” medicines in what Goldberg sees as a “distrust of the Enlightenment principle of rationality.”

The implications for society as a whole are dire, says Goldberg. “There is no doubt that a threat to our democracy exists when there is scientific illiteracy, complacency, or extreme polarization regarding scientific issues,” she writes, as powerful interests work to suppress scientific truths that threaten their positions. “This constitutes a form of authoritarianism that can be used to impede scientific progress and, in the long run, cause a government to fail.”

Also in this issue: Philosopher Maarten Boudry powerfully critiques the skeptic community’s attacks on “logical fallacies”; Scott O. Lilienfeld highlights the positive potential in teaching critical thinking skills to children at an early age; James “the Amazing” Randi rails against the use of the pseudoscientific polygraph lie-detector; and much more.

The September/October issue is available on newsstands and in mobile app stores. For more information, visit http://www.csicop.org/si.

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Skeptical Inquirer is the official journal of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), a scientific and educational program of the Center for Inquiry. CSI encourages the critical investigation of paranormal and fringe-science claims from a responsible, scientific point of view. Learn more about CSI and SI at http://www.csicop.org.

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. The mission of CFI is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at www.centerforinquiry.net.