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When science mixes with politics, all we get is politics

Credit: Tryfonov / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Who decides if science is right or wrong? Scientists, obviously.
  • However, attacks from a variety of interest groups have undermined scientific credibility, with catastrophic results that cost lives and compromised our collective future.
  • We all lose from this absurd confusion of how science works. Science needs more popular voices, and science education needs to catch up with the times.

“To be ignorant of causes is to be frustrated in action.” So wrote Francis Bacon, counsel to Queen Elizabeth I of England and key architect of the scientific method. In other words, do not base your actions on ignorance, or your actions will fail and cause damage. Bacon proposed that careful observation of natural phenomena, combined with experimentation and data collection and analysis, could be used to obtain knowledge of the mechanisms of nature. His method, known as the inductive method, looked at particulars (e.g., observations) to achieve the general (e.g., laws). When King Charles II founded the Royal Society in 1660, Bacon’s ideas were taken as the guiding principles of natural philosophy (the old name for science).

The method is not foolproof. No scientific theory based on the inductive method can be equated with the final truth on a subject. But, and this is an enormous but, the method is incredibly efficient at gathering evidence that is then used to formulate general principles that describe the operations of the natural world. Once vetted by the scientific community, scientific knowledge is the only way to develop technological applications that will serve society, from antibiotics and vaccines to cell phones and electric cars.

The only reason you step into an airplane with confidence is because, knowing it or not, you trust science. You trust the hydrodynamics used to design wings, you trust the chemical physics of combustion, and you trust the guidance system — an incredibly complex system that involves radar, GPS, intricate electromagnetic circuitry, and even the Theory of Relativity to achieve amazing levels of precision navigation. You trust the expert, the pilot, who has training in the operation of the airplane and its instrumentation.

The paradox of our age

The paradox of our age is that although we live in a world that depends in essential ways on science and its technological applications, the credibility of science and of scientists is being questioned by people with no expertise whatsoever in science or how it works. This is not just about silly attacks on social media. It is about questioning knowledge that is painstakingly obtained by years of hard work and study to then superficially decide that this knowledge is wrong — or worse, manipulative. How did we get ourselves into this mess?

After the Second World War, scientists enjoyed an all-time high in public perception. The technological inventions that decided the outcome of the war depended heavily on cutting-edge science: quantum and nuclear physics, radar, computers and code-breaking, effective explosives, aeronautical technology, faster planes and ships, and deeper-diving submarines. The list goes on. There was an intensified alliance between science and the State, which has been present in Western history since Greek times — think of Archimedes and his catapults and fire-inducing mirrors, applied to protect Syracuse from Roman invaders.

The Cold War amplified this prestige, and defense support has sustained a large part of the scientific research budget. There was also an understanding that basic science is the cornerstone of technological innovation, so that even more abstract topics were worthy of funding.

As science advanced, it also became more technical, complicated, and arcane, moving farther away from general understanding. Quantum physics, genetics, biochemistry, AI, and machine learning are all part of our everyday life, even if few know much about any of these fields. Even the experts are siloed inside their research areas. Specialization is how new knowledge is produced, given the enormous amount of detail within each subfield. An astrophysicist who specialized in black holes knows practically nothing about the physics of graphene or quantum optics. Specialization has a dual role: It strengthens its own subfield but weakens the global understanding of a question. Specialization makes it harder for scientists to be a public voice for their fields in ways that are engaging to the general public.

Inconvenient truths

To complicate things, the relationship between science and society changed. Beginning roughly in the 1960s, scientists started to use their findings to caution people and governments about the dangers of certain products or of unchecked industrialization and population growth. Cigarettes are bad for you. There will be a shortage of energy and water as more and more humans fill up the world. Climate change is going to create hell on Earth. Plastics are evil. Pollution of waterways, oceans, and the atmosphere will make people sick, kill animals, and destroy natural resources. Meanwhile, we, as a species — even if we claim to be the most intelligent on this planet — cannot act collectively to change what we are doing to our own environment.

These discoveries (some of them predating the 1960s by decades) were inconvenient to many. They were inconvenient to the tobacco industry, the auto industry, the fossil fuel industry, and the chemical industry. So, scientists, the darlings of the 1950s, became the harbingers of annoying news, threatening people’s way of life and the profitability of large sectors of the economy. They had to be stopped!

Scientists sounded the alarm, denouncing how the tobacco and fossil fuel industries developed a corrosive strategy to undermine science’s credibility, attacking scientists as opportunists and manipulators. Politicians aligned with these industries jumped in, and a campaign to politicize science took over the headlines. Scientific knowledge became a matter of opinion, something that Francis Bacon fought against almost 400 years ago. The media helped, often giving equal weight to the opinion of the vast majority of scientists and to the opinion of a small contrarian group, confusing the general public to no end. The growth of social media compounded the damage, as individuals with no or little scientific training jumped in ready to make a name for themselves as defenders of freedom and liberty, conflating lies with the American ideal of individual freedom.

The results, not surprisingly, have been catastrophic. From Flat-Earthers to antivaxxers to climate deniers, scientific authority and knowledge became a free-for-all, a matter of individual opinion aligned with political views, often sponsored by corporate interest groups and opportunist politicians.

The path forward

To get out of this mess will take a tremendous amount of work, especially from the scientific community, the media, and educators. Science needs more popular voices, people that have a gift to explain to the general public how and why science works. Scientists need to visit more schools and talk to the children about what they do. Educators need to reenergize the science curriculum to reflect the realities of our world, inviting more scientists to visit classes and telling more stories about scientists that are engaging to students. This humanizes science in the process.

Historians often say that history swings back and forth like a pendulum. Let’s make sure that we do not allow the pendulum of scientific knowledge to swing back to the obscurantism of centuries past, when the few with power and means controlled the vast majority of the population by keeping them in ignorance and manipulating them with fear.

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