Science and Politics: An Abusive Relationship

Decades before Luis Pasteur fostered scientific consensus on germ theory, Ignaz Semmelweis was imploring obstetricians to wash their hands after handling corpses. His work did little to inspire his fellow medical practitioners. On the contrary, he was met with indignation and disbelief at almost every turn. Though aided by his increasingly erratic behavior and political inelegance, there is no doubt that his alienation from the medical community was due in part to his then-heretical proposals.

We’ve come a long way since the Roman Inquisition locked Galileo under house arrest for advancing the theory of heliocentricity. Yet still, skepticism is a trait that can inspire zealous culture warriors to brand others “deniers” or deride them as being “anti-science.”

Of course, there’s nothing more scientific than scrutinizing an accepted norm. The scientific process is dependent on constant refinement by people attempting to prove each other wrong. Indeed, science needs skepticism to sharpen its ham-fisted hypotheses into acute theories.

Our devotion to explaining the universe through rational observation and rigorous testing has catapulted us from a species-wide state of destitution to one of unimaginable wealth. That’s largely due to thousands of years of continued knowledge expansion and the pursuit of logical explanation. If science is the vehicle that brought us this far, then the fuel is undoubtedly…well, doubt.

This unique feature stands in sharp contrast to another primary way humans have explained the world: religion, which asks us to accept without questioning. Doubt may have been bad for Thomas, but Copernicus did wonderful things with it. There are few things as amusing as the rabid atheist who has not so much embraced doubt as become a cynic. Remember that uncertainty, regardless of its target, is the very heart of science.

A cursory glance at the past is all one needs to find examples of misplaced faith in science of the day. As the story of Dr. Semmelweis illustrates, there was a time when nearly all doctors were pretty damn sure that they didn’t need to wash their hands after handling dead bodies. In fact, they were offended by the notion.

More recently, Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia tried to replicate 100 studies appearing in top psychological journals; he and his team were unable to replicate about two thirds of them.

Treating scientific consensus axiomatically is a step in the wrong direction. We need to keep gathering information, and that information has to include research by iconoclasts in order to be well rounded. Remember that many widely held beliefs started out as heresies. Behind each of them was someone willing to come out against conventional wisdom, sometimes at great personal or professional risk.

The greatest minds of humanity used to believe in a static universe, phrenology, and many more things that we might find ridiculous today. So if skepticism is so demonstrably useful and deserved, why do people demonize each other for failure to follow the herd?

It’s politics, stupid.

Like basically anything today, science often finds itself mired in the ostentatious game of political signaling. Opinions and interpretations of scientific research are as much a part of political identity as a bumper sticker or a lawn sign. This is hugely unfortunate because it leads people to adopt dogmatic approaches to a process that should be objective.

Politics ruin science (and pretty much everything else) because everything is reduced to a zero-sum game: an us versus them scenario where concession is likened to defeat. They also reduce diversity of opinion and promote groupthink.

If you think I’m exaggerating, consider this: as people’s scientific literacy increases, their opinions on climate change polarize depending on their political affiliation. But that’s not all. According to the same study, conservatives who are more scientifically literate are also more likely to believe that there is a scientific consensus on global warming. Dan Kahan writes:

Accordingly, as relatively “right-leaning” individuals become progressively more proficient in making sense of scientific information (a facility reflected in their scores on the Ordinary Science Intelligence assessment, which puts a heavy emphasis on critical reasoning skills), they become simultaneously more likely to believe there is “scientific consensus” on human-caused climate change but less likely to “believe” in it themselves! 

While skepticism of climate change science is a markedly right-wing prejudice, those on the left are more likely to display similarly rock-ribbed opinions on fracking, GMO safety, and other areas that conflict with scientific consensus.

Politics are an inevitable part of living in a republic, but scientific debate loses integrity when we let our politics decide how we feel about science instead of the other way around. It’s divisive, but worse: it’s lazy and positively unscientific.

In an increasingly polarized country, we would do well to remember the humanity of our detractors. We also might make a conscious effort to both admit and overcome our biases, even as we argue with conviction.

Perhaps most importantly, we should stop acting like morality and argumentative position are inextricably linked. Doing so makes it that much easier to demonize people with differing opinions (If my opinion is moral and yours is different, it is less moral. Therefore, since you are putting forth an immoral opinion, you are evil)  and makes us far less capable of changing our own.

Leave the crusades in the 15th century.

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One thought on “Science and Politics: An Abusive Relationship

  1. ‘One of unimaginable wealth’
    Meanwhile back on the ranch five hundred million Indians defacate in the open because they have no toilets.
    How about some basic knowledge application or are we obsessed with quantum mechanics and black holes.

    Like

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