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The Politicization of Scientific Issues


Jeanne Goldberg

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.5, September/October 2017

“My dear Kepler, what would you say of the learned here, who, replete with the pertinacity of the asp, have steadfastly refused to cast a glance through the telescope? What shall we make of this? Shall we laugh, or shall we cry?”

These words of Galileo, written in a letter to his friend Johannes Kepler, expressed his frustration related to the fact that evidence clearly supportive of heliocentrism was not respected and was in fact rejected as being heretical, in direct opposition to biblical scripture. Galileo was hopeful that if people who believed in the ancient theory of geocentrism would, to paraphrase him, “just look through the lens” of his telescope, they would see evidence to support the theory of heliocentrism (in which the Earth and its planets revolve around the Sun), first contemplated in Hellenistic times and then later supported by Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus’s work On the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs, published in 1543.

Aristotle’s work in physics and astronomy was largely respected among astronomers at the time Copernicus’s book was published, and they had difficulty accepting Copernicus’s work. In addition, biblical views were prevalent among the population. Galileo was well aware of this fact but stated that “the Bible is written in the language of the common person who is not an expert in astronomy.” He argued that “Scripture teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go” (Van Helden 1995). His discoveries, published in 1632 in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, and those of Kepler further supported the scientific foundation of Copernicus’s work, ensuring that most serious astronomers subsequently were Copernicans.

Galileo’s book, however, was incendiary by espousing a worldview that contradicted one long accepted. There are striking similarities of Galileo’s world with ours today in the twenty-first century. Since his time, however, scientific research has furthered our understanding of the world and led to advances that have transformed the lives of billions of global citizens.

Why, then, have partisan politics permeated the discussions and decisions related to science-based issues such as climate change, evolution, vaccination, GMO technology, stem cell research, and other topics not only here in the United States but globally? Is a lack of understanding, disinterest, or ignorance of scientific facts to blame? Is scientific literacy and research not prioritized in our nation? What threats to people’s lives are posed by accepting—or at least considering—scientific evidence? If citizens would “just look through” (Galileo’s) telescope rather than the proverbial looking glass, would they understand the importance of science for themselves and be more accepting of the findings of scientific experts?

It is illuminating to step back in history again and consider the important role that philosophy played in the ancient world. Philosophy, the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, is regarded as a distinct academic subject today. Philosophy in the ancient world, however, represented the discipline of studying the natural world in a rational way, as a variety of scientific disciplines do today. Science and philosophy, considered to be such distinctly different disciplines today, were in effect one branch of knowledge in the ancient world.

Consider the poem that Lucretius wrote in 50 BCE, “On the Nature of Things.” In The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Stephen Greenblatt (2011) tells a fascinating story about a papal secretary who, in the Middle Ages, traipsed across Europe in search of a copy of this reportedly lost poem. The story of the adventures of this secretary is in itself intriguing, but the actual poem was earthshaking in its time and, interestingly, still is today!

Lucretius’s poem portrayed religions as cruel and superstitious, fueled by ignorance and fear. In his poem, he proposed a scientific world vision in which all things, animate and inanimate, are composed of invisible particles, moving randomly and continuously in a void. There is no creator; living things have come into existence over eternity by random collisions of the particles and have evolved by a process of trial and error. Their purpose is only to survive, reproduce, and participate in a life of pleasure. Humans are not at the top privileged level of existence, and by understanding their own insignificance and the fact that there is no afterlife they will appreciate the wonder of life and be filled with pleasure (Greenblatt 2011, 185–201). The poem, which addressed Lucretius’s natural (“scientific”) worldview, was regarded as subversive and heretical, and those who openly supported it risked their lives. In fact, in 1600, the Roman Catholic Church Inquisition questioned Giordano Bruno, a defrocked Dominican monk, Italian philosopher, and scientist, and then burned him at the stake for openly supporting the views expressed by Lucretius in “On the Nature of Things.”

The fusion of science and philosophy was also a cultural feature of pre–Revolutionary Era America, reflecting the values of The Enlightenment in Europe. In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter describes the fact that the early American Puritans, although criticized for serious, cruel actions, “came as close to being … a class of intellectuals intimately associated with a ruling power … as America has ever had” (Hofstadter 1962, 59).

A respect for science continued into the Revolutionary Era as the American Founding Fathers demonstrated their support of science and reason. Although Christianity was an important cultural feature of U.S. history, they embraced the secular values of Christianity in preference to its dogma. There is a plethora of quotations to support this fact. In Poor Richard’s Almanack, Benjamin Franklin stated that “The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.” Thomas Paine wrote, “To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead” (Paine 1778). (Interestingly, George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson were citizen scientists who found, to quote Thomas Jefferson, “supreme delight” in pursuing scientific topics by conducting their own experiments.)

In a broader sense, the Founding Fathers understood the synergistic relationship of science and democracy. They transported the scientific method of testing of hypotheses and ideas, peer review, and free speech without fear of retaliation into a governmental context. John Adams referred to the “science of government” and applied the relationship of the scientific principle of equilibrium to the system of checks and balances, a critical component of democracy. The Founding Fathers also recognized the potential of scientific knowledge to solve problems and improve the lives of Americans in the future (Union of Concerned Scientists 2017).

The years following the Revolutionary Era in our country, however, marked an abrupt departure from the rational, secular orientation of the Founders. A current of anti-intellectualism, described in Richard Hofstadter’s brilliant book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Hofstadter 1962), grew progressively stronger during the early nineteenth century, changing the public’s attitudes toward science and other scholarly subjects. Hofstadter describes the early nineteenth century westward migration of the U.S. population away from the cultural centers in coastal New England as a critical factor in the development of anti-intellectualism. An upsurge of revivalistic religious sentiment accompanied this migration too, with a demand for preachers who could deliver emotional appeals to the uneducated lay people in the frontier regions. Dwight L. Moody, a prominent evangelist of the period, scorned reading books and described learning as “an encumbrance to the man of spirit.” His scorn for science was widely shared among the public, amplified when he stated that students were taught that man was the “offspring of a monkey” (Hofstadter 1962).

As science became more complex and differentiated, the common man began to feel dependent upon “experts,” many of whom were located in coastal eastern urban areas. Individuals’ treasured feelings of self-sufficiency and independence were compromised, leading to resentment. Americans respected intelligence but not intellectuals, and they complained that the value of an idea was governed by its utility—it had no value in itself. This belief pervaded the business world as well, creating Americans’ strong admiration for a self-made man, one whose path led to economic and social success without much education, often in spite of it.

So what has happened in our country? How have issues with scientific implications become politicized and analyzed through partisan rather than objective lenses? How can political candidates gain public support by professing views that contradict objective scientific evidence?

It is a paradox that in a nation that has been in the forefront of scientific developments, climate change was mentioned as an important issue by only one candidate, Bernie Sanders, in the 2016 presidential campaign. No questions related to climate change were posed by moderators in the televised debates. It is also remarkable that in the current 115th Congress, there are 222 members with law degrees while there are fourteen physicians. There is only one PhD scientist, Representative Bill Foster, who has a PhD in physics. Eighteen members of the House have no degree beyond their high school diploma (Manning 2017).

The War on Science by Shawn Otto is an authoritative new source of information concerning the questions raised in this article. He makes the point that “knowledge is power, and power is political” (Otto 2016). In view of its dynamic, ever-changing knowledge base, science may threaten vested interests and conflict with fixed worldviews, including those based on superstition and religion.

Another interesting paradox that Otto points out, however, is that the scientific method is inherently democratic since one’s hypotheses and results are subject to evaluation and testing by other independent sources; nevertheless, the public often regards scientists as authoritarian, arrogant elitists (Otto 2016). Scientists in our country admittedly have often retreated to the laboratories and haven’t actively engaged with the public, with the exception of a few stellar individuals such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, E.O. Wilson, Rachel Carson, and Carl Sagan. These scientists have performed an excellent service by making complex scientific issues understandable and interesting to the public. Unfortunately, their work is often undermined by the public’s feelings of envy and alienation.

Anti-science views have been amplified by the political wave of populism that is sweeping not only America but also Europe. Key elements of populism are anti-elitism and nativism, which can translate into anti-immigrant views (Toker 2016). The role of globalization in the creation of not only economic but also knowledge inequality has amplified these feelings of resentment.

A critical driver of the politicization of science is the perception of threat to religious beliefs, and the school choice issue brings this into sharp focus. For example, many evangelicals feel that tax-supported vouchers should be used to promote anti-science religious dogmas such as creationism. Indeed, the recently appointed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stated several years ago that one of the goals of our schools should be “to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom” (Rizga 2017). Evangelicals feel threatened by evolution, now universally accepted by the scientific community. Interestingly, 81 percent of self-identified white, born-again evangelicals voted for the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, while only 16 percent voted for the Democrat Hillary Clinton (Smith and Martinez 2016).

In addition to posing a threat to one’s religious beliefs, some individuals perceive scientific research as a threat to their business interests. This is especially true if the research results in governmental regulatory policies that are perceived to harm profits. Climate change is an obvious example of this dynamic. Shawn Otto points to the example of Exxon, which in the 1970s promoted climate science only to take the opposite stance as a climate denier in recent times (Otto 2016). The Republican Party, traditionally the party representing business interests, formulated a platform in the 2016 presidential election that supported cuts to scientific research, halting of funding for the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, cancellation of the Clean Power Plan, and other deregulatory actions. The Trump Administration appointment to Secretary of the Environmental Protection Agency is an individual who has sued that very agency many times to weaken its environmental regulations and would like to see its power severely reduced.

Another facet of the politicization of science in our country is the effect of the postmodernism movement, which occurred in the latter part of the twentieth century. This movement represents a distrust of the Enlightenment principle of rationality. Although the term postmodernism has traditionally been applied to the humanities, it has broad implications for attitudes toward science, promoting the idea that truth is contextual, depending on one’s culture, education, and life experiences. This attitude is misplaced when dealing with scientific facts such as evolution. Otto further describes the role of journalists in promoting the “other side” of disagreements regarding scientific issues, even when the weight of evidence overwhelmingly supports one conclusion. This mistakenly gives opinion the same weight as fact (Otto 2016).

One of the unfortunate results of postmodernism is that individuals see scientific issues in ways that fit their preconceptions and make them comfortable. As individuals mature, they may gravitate toward the political party whose views they share on other nonscientific issues and then proceed to adopt unquestionably, almost in a tribal fashion, the views of that party on scientific issues. The public’s gravitation to biased television reporting, social media, and Internet resources that fit their worldview as sources of information on scientific issues further calcifies their opinions.

Unfortunately, the public’s respect for scientific developments can be modulated by fear. Progressive Democrats have traditionally been strong supporters of scientific research and have endorsed the validity of evolution and climate change; nevertheless, some regard GM foods, vaccination, fluoridation of drinking water, and a variety of chemicals as threatening developments. Even many scientifically literate progressives are skeptical about the safety of GM foods and are concerned that the food industry’s vested interests may outweigh safety issues. Conservative Republicans, on the other hand, may or may not personally approve of GM foods, and business interests could override their safety concerns (Funk and Kennedy 2016).

The issue of vaccination is complex, involving strange bedfellows. This debate arose in recent times as a result of a Lancet medical journal article that contained fraudulent information indicating that autism could result from vaccination (General Medical Council 2010). Some progressive Democrats, usually supportive of regulations that they see as contributing to public welfare, object to vaccination on the (faulty) grounds that it may result in autism. Some conservatives, mainly Republicans, object to it because they feel that their personal freedom is threatened by school requirements for vaccination.

Another issue with strange bedfellows is food supplements. In his illuminating book Do You Believe in Magic?, Paul A. Offit outlines the steps by which Congressional members from both the Democrat and Republican parties enacted legislation in 1976 that effectively freed the entire supplement industry from the FDA requirement that products had to be shown to be both safe and effective. Later attempts to pass legislation requiring supplements to meet FDA requirements were made primarily by Democratic legislators but were defeated by Republicans who had political constituencies or personal financial investments in the industry (Offit 2013).

In The War on Science, Shawn Otto describes the “marriages” between different segments of our society, which by sharing common agendas became the two major modern political parties in our country. These marriages are as follows:

  1. The anti-regulatory, pro-corporate business interests and the anti–reproductive-control religious interests found their representation in the Republican Party.
  2. The pro-environment, pro-choice, anti-corporate elements of scientists and environmentalists found their interests best represented in the Democratic Party.

These marriages have catalyzed the extreme polarization regarding scientific issues that we witness today. In the current parlance, this is “identity politics” (Otto 2016).

It is beyond the scope of this article to propose potential solutions to this situation. Shawn Otto, however, has articulated a comprehensive strategy in his book to raise the awareness of the importance of science in our democracy. Scientists, teachers, and businessmen can engage in public outreach, and candidates running for public office must demonstrate their knowledge of and commitment to science in public debates. Otto lists ways in which concerned citizens can become effective activists and offers an exhaustive list of organizations that are engaged in this effort (Otto 2016). The hundreds of thousands of citizens in the United States and across the globe who participated in the March for Science on April 22, 2017, sent a strong, clear message to world leaders and to other citizens that science plays a vital role in our lives and is ignored only at our peril. After all, it’s difficult to name any issue that isn’t either directly or indirectly related to science!

An increasing number of businesses are endorsing policies and positions that are fact-based. Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of GE, for example, stated recently, “We believe climate change is real and the science is well accepted. We hope that the United States continues to play a constructive role in furthering solutions to these challenges” (Wall Street Journal Business section, March 30, 2017).

As one of many nations that are intensely focused on the welfare of children and grandchildren, an emphasis on personal, corporate, and governmental responsibility could be powerful and universally appealing. Although a rational approach to scientific issues is essential, emotional appeals regarding specific issues incorporating the message “for the children’s sake” might incentivize people with differing views and orientations to work together on controversial issues. Imagine the power of this approach with regard to environmental preservation, for example. A video could be produced showing a child enjoying a bird’s song today in 2017 but not in 2050 because of environmental destruction. Or consider the alternative, a video of the child looking and listening to the same bird in 2050 as a result of environmentally responsible actions! This child-centered approach has been woefully underutilized.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that a threat to our democracy exists when there is scientific illiteracy, complacency, or extreme polarization regarding scientific issues among the general public. This is fertile ground for powerful vested interests to use baseless “information” (i.e., “fake news”) to lobby for their positions on issues that threaten or support their views. This constitutes a form of authoritarianism that can be used to impede scientific progress and, in the long run, cause a government to fail. We have only to look at examples where that has occurred (e.g., China during the Cultural Revolution, Nazi Germany, and the Ottoman and Roman Empires) to see the catastrophic results. We must “look through Galileo’s lens” rather than through an imaginary looking glass and respect the power of science to preserve our democracy in the United States and globally.