The Politicization of Science

The Politicization of Science

There is a worrisome trend toward rejecting science over ideology that we, in this community, have been up against. Distrust over climate change, vaccines, evolution, stem cells, GMO, nuclear energy and most recently viral outbreaks such as Ebola. Public attitudes on these “hot button” issues is driven by political and religious beliefs, or by self-assigned pundits in the media, and not by scientific literacy. Take the jaw-dropping assertion by a Kentucky Senator that “the temperature on Mars is exactly as it is here”, hence climate change is a fraud (http://goo.gl/nD4Enu). 

But there is a lesson to be learned from history, from the story of a Communist Party loyalist named Trofim Lysenko. Read the Forbes article for the reference to Lysenkoism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lysenkoism) and how it destroyed the agricultural system of the Soviet Union in the middle of the last century. 

Fortunately, since then, scientists have self-assembled to form professional societies that police themselves to keep out the corrupting influence of politics and support the scientific method. They are not perfect, but they help keep politics at bay. 

But things are changing: Vaccines are now considered more dangerous than the diseases they protect against. Fluoride in the water sparks conspiracy theories. Despite the assurances of virologists and epidemiologists, there is public hysteria over a patient with Ebola being brought back into his home country, the US, for treatment. 

We need to remember: Science isn’t a belief system. It’s proven knowledge. It either knows the answer to a problem, or admits it doesn’t and keeps looking for it. Every time we ignore the scientific community, bad things generally happen.

Are we heading towards Lysenkoism?  Was Mr. Obama warning against the manipulation or distortion of the scientific process as a way to reach a predetermined conclusion as dictated by an ideological bias, often related to social or political objectives

Read More:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2014/08/03/science-is-not-democratic/

H/T Pratik Mukherjee for sharing the link to #ScienceSunday  .

http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2014/08/03/science-is-not-democratic///cdn.embedly.com/widgets/platform.js

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90 Comments


  1. Well let’s just consider this; the GOP doesn’t believe in global warming,Democrats do, they don’t agree with evolution, Democrats do. The GOP pick some issues from science and agree with, therefore they are not with science (at least completely) it is like a scientist supposedly believe in God but he didn’t believe in jesus or the holy spirit, then he can’t be called Cristian.

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  2. “Science” as such, also cannot be left to determine its own ethical limits, it rejects the existence of idea, so ‘the will of the people’ does not exist in science. Corporations are not democratic either, so I don’t know why Forbes is picking on ‘science’ and not ‘capitalism’. Could Forbes have a bias? 

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  3. Dale Husar


    We must all try to remember that we are all human and errors and misrepresentations do occur, even amongst scientists.  The perfect is the enemy of the good however so we will have to motor on as best we can.

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  4. “science” is valueless but also valuable; as a method of objective investigation it can’t reach subjective values on its own, but is subject to our subjectivity in its use/interpretation. Like any tool it can do harm or good, so drink responsibly like +Meg Tufano and her comment on knowledge above.

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  5. Dorian Mattar science provides data via objective investigation; check.


    Science does not include our subjective values, and is thereby valueless; check.


    what we do with science, like any tool, or gun if you prefer, is a different story that can include our values and thereby be valuable; check.


    sorry, I still can’t find that contradiction you mentioned

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  6. We’ve already warned people to stick to the topic and to stop personal attacks. We won’t ask again – abusive comments will be removed and abusive people will be banned.


    The point of this thread is that ideologies (religious and political) are used to refute scientific evidence. We’re seeing a little of this in this thread: subjective ideas and conspiracy theories being brandished about without credible evidence. This is not science. Science is using evidence to test hypotheses, to collect and analyse evidence, and draw conclusions through the peer reviewed process. Professional organisations also exist to address issues that arise within science, as we’ve noted. The article is written by James Conca, a geologist, who has focused on Obama’s critique of politicians “who espouse either an active distrust of our scientific community or passive ignorance of its findings.” Obama’s point, which Conca illustrates with various examples, is that rejection of science based on personal beliefs is dangerous. Politicians need to listen to science experts. Failing to do so leads to misinformation and scaremongering of the public; it leads to bad decision-making and bad policies.


    So to bring it back to the topic at hand: are we heading towards Lysenkoism?  

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  7. Dale Husar Actually you are pretty much wrong ( like many other people)


    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funding_of_science
    ” According to OECD, around two-thirds of research and development in scientific and technical fields is carried out by industries, and 20% and 10% respectively by universities and government. Comparatively, in countries with less GDP, such as Portugal and Mexico the industry contribution is significantly lower. The US government spends more than other countries on military R&D, although the proportion has fallen from around 30% in the 1980s to under 20%. Government funding for medical research amounts to approximately 36% in the U.S. The government funding proportion in certain industries is higher, and it dominates research in social science and humanities. Similarly, with some exceptions (e.g.biotechnology) government provides the bulk of the funds for basic scientific research.”


    And a reason why government spends money on basic research is obvious – no sane CEO will pay for it. To spend 30 years and billions of dollars and then learn that your farmaceutical company discovered wonderful construction material instead of cancer cure?


    Nation from the other hand will always benefit from basic research – some industry will get an advantage.

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  8. Rajini Rao Actually, the way government funds scientific experiments is by contracts with private industries.  (My husband is a scientist.)  They send out the equivalent of RFP’s and private companies bid on the contracts.  I will say that oversight is pretty damned intense so I don’t think there is very much, “Let’s put these results in a drawer.”  (That happens at private universities on occasion because the results are not what the (again, private funders) wanted to be the results.) 


    Once we understand the Byzantine ways in which science is funded in the States, we might begin to understand why there’s so much more money for creating more military arms ,uh, profit, than there is for basic research.  NO PRIVATE COMPANY funds basic research.  Some well-endowed universities might.


    As citizens, we really should be more aware of how big a share of what is called “government research” is really private for-profit research.  


    AND, we should start funding real government research (as in no beholden to any private contractors).  ALL other countries on this planet who are not totally in a state of war are funding science.  We are falling behind, fast.

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  9. Dale Husar


    How about the scientist at the University of Alabama at Huntsville who is getting a lot of state money for denying climate change? Your blanket anti-scientist statement alone, not to mention the rest of your generalizations, can only be classified as opinions arising in cynical prejudice.

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  10. Dave Whipp


    That last observation can go various ways, some of them diametrically opposed to each other. the danger is in creating an inherent mistrust of anything any scientist says, which is different from healthy skepticism of a report of a result.


    I should note that as a biologist, I am not a climatologist, but I can sift through enough in a climatology research article to tell if there is something amiss in the analysis or interpretation of the data. What I get from your post is that you believe nothing can be trusted from scientists.

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  11. One problem I have with the article is that it says science is “proven knowledge”. Only in the colloquial sense is it proven. Proofs are only found in theology, philosophy, and mathematics. When sufficient evidence supporting a hypothesis is discovered, then the hypothesis becomes a theory. This is not the same as “proving” something, although if there is sufficient evidence, the theory is accepted until (if ever) new evidence overthrows it.

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  12. Wales Nematollahi I pointed that out above (but this is a long thread).  And I disagree that proofs are found in theology and philosophy (I teach both).  In fact, the great “idea” of philosophy is to know that we do NOT know!  And theology is all about faith (HOW many times have I had to explain that a person can exclaim that they just “know” God is true!  But that faith is neither proof nor knowledge, it is faith.  If one knew God existed, one would not NEED faith!)


    Funny story.  Many years ago, some relatives’ children were staying with us for a while because the parents were unable to take care of them.  It was expensive and when one of the parents finally picked the children up, I sat in my kitchen and worried about how I was going to tell my husband that I had spent way more than our budget on these kids.  I was also worrying about the kids’ safety.  _Would they be OK_ ?  And as I sat and worried, I heard someone come down our driveway in their car and thought, “Oh great!  They brought the kids back!”


    It was the postman.  I signed a paper and opened an envelope.  It was a check for tens of thousands of dollars!  My great uncle had had no children and this was part of my inheritance (which I knew nothing about).  


    Instead of telling my husband that I had broken our budget, I went in and told him about this incredible bounty!  I told him that God says he will take care of orphans and those kids really were more like orphans.  “Now do you believe in God?” I asked him.


    He said, “If we get another check next Saturday, I will.”


    We did (it was after the New Year, so my uncle could give more money with no taxes). 


    He didn’t.


    “Proof,” does not give people faith either.


    They just keep asking for more “proof.”  


    Faith and knowledge are two very different domains.


    Science different again.  (See above.)

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  13. Meg Tufano


    Sorry I took so long to get back to you. If there are no proofs in philosophy, then the whole topic of logic must be part of another area of learning. When in science we say nothing is proven, we mean that what we accept as facts could possibly be disproven, but that does not mean we do not treat them as facts. However, to say something is proven means that it is immutable.


    I would say that philosophy, like natural science, can discuss and investigate with or without the assumption that God exists. However, I would not say the same for theology. Belief in the _supernatural_always requires faith; belief in the natural does not. A result of that is that I consider many creationists to have a faith that is a house of cards. If they require proof through “creation science”, which is pseudoscience, and that “science” is shown to be false, then their faith will crumble.


    I read the following view in a book at Georgetown University many years ago. I wish I could remember the citation, but the argument was that the entire universe should be explainable by recourse to physical principles alone without recourse to a Creator because that gives mankind the ultimate free will to accept or reject Him based on revealed truth. As a practicing Catholic and a biologist, I find that explanation to be superb.


    Now, if one looks at the likes of Richard Dawkins and his cabal, one realizes he attempts to use (natural) science to disprove the existence of God. Since science only studies the natural world, Dawkins is guilty of pseudoscience, at the least.

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  14. Wales Nematollahi you are describing the believer, Galileo’s, scientific method: if God is rational then all his/her creation will be rational too. Jesuits are well known for their rationality!!!! ;’).

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  15. Nathan Tarantla Care to explain why? The only other time you used that expression was to comment on those who view science as faith-based.I don’t view science as a faith-based system of belief, and neither did I say that. I’m a biologist with grad. degrees in it and a Roman Catholic Christian. I suspect your problem is that I’m a believer. If so, I don’t care.

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  16. Meg Tufano I’ll take that as a compliment. However, I was a scientist before I converted from Protestantism to Catholicism. Also, I attended grad. school at Georgetown, and I converted as much in spite of the Jesuits as because of them. Really, the laity (the Catholic students there) converted me without trying to do so. I’ve know people who left Catholicism because of the Jesuits. IMHO, Pope Francis is not a typical Jesuit. 🙂

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  17. Wales Nematollahi If you can not understand that choosing to use the word “Democratic” instead of “Political” colors the perception of the article in a completely needless way (and STOP trying to imply that I do not understand the word – that’s just underhanded) then I can’t help but wonder about other times you’ve had to use critical thinking skills. It’s very simple. They CHOSE to use THAT WORD because of how it would color the article to a certain number of individuals in the audience who are unsure of the word.  That’s the last reply I’m making to anyone who chooses this tact. And you may continue to believe the world is picking on you because of your faith if that makes you all happy and defensive. As for any implication of my lack of understanding of common English words – Poppycock. 

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  18. Bear Field Well said, ” Science itself never claims to have the final word on anything. It says, “according to the evidence so far, it seems that X is probably true” (and usually gives error bars to indicate the statistical measure of that “probably”). In fact, one of the generally accepted measures of how well a scientific claim has been put is whether or not the claim is falsifiable. If it cannot be disproven by new evidence, then a claim is probably not stated in a scientifically valid way.”

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  19. Wales Nematollahi Certainly a compliment.  My grandfather, father, husband and sister went to Georgetown.  I am a Christian.  I teach philosophy (and formal logic).  The distinctions we are discussing here might be better understood through a graphic Science on Google+ which you also might enjoy.  Please note this is the DRAFT for a course that has not yet been completed.  But the graphic is helpful in understanding the different domains of knowledge.


    http://www.synaptiqplus.com/critical-thoughts/critical-thoughts-1

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  20. Nathan Tarantla Well, well. First, I was implying nothing of the sort of which you accuse me, and you know it. Apparently you’re quite umbrageous, and take offense where none is given, However, your claims are really a red herring.


    Why? Because you wrote “And you may continue to believe the world is picking on you because of your faith if that makes you all happy and defensive.” I DON’T believe the world is picking on my faith. However, I now believe you‘d like to pick on my faith, because that’s what you’re really doing, aren’t you? Furthermore, your response was to a later post. not the one you’re addressing.


    You’re hoist by your own petard. So you can resent and hate me all you wish, along with a billion-plus other Catholics, another billion other Christians, and all the Jews, Muslims, Hinds, etc. in the world.


    “That’s the last reply I’m making to anyone who chooses this tact.” t’d have been nice if you’d decided that before. You belong on Facebook or Yahoo! rather than Google+. Try to get over yourself and your fulminating bigotry.

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  21. you write “Science isn’t a belief system. It’s proven knowledge. ”  And yet string theorists are insisting that string theory is correct and doesn’t need to be verified experimentally.


    It’s scary when scientists say “Trust me”.

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  22. Jack Martinelli That is a strong claim you made against some string theorist or theorists. Cite your source.


    Your last sentence could be applied to non-scientists as well. Why do you restrict it to scientists? Why do you mistrust scientists?

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  23. @Jack: I never wrote that scientists are as corruptible as anyone else. You should know that if you read my post to you.


    Your last sentence of your previous post came across to me as the beginning of an anti-science rant. Is it less scary when non-scientists say “trust me”? I’ve dealt with some anti-science Luddites recently, and that statement by Michelle Bachmann several weeks ago was essentially, “Don’t trust scientists, trust me and like-minded politicians.”


    I do thank you for providing me the links,. I don’t exactly trust YouTube, but I may look at it. I believe I have read the Nature News article already, and perhaps the PLOS ONE article. Which reference has to do with what you wrote a bout string theory?


    How do you feel about modern science, Jack? Do you trust scientists less than others? If so, why?


    Merry Christmas!

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  24. Wales Nematollahi , here’s the key quote:


    “Chief among the ‘elegance will suffice’ advocates are some string theorists. Because string theory is supposedly the ‘only game in town’ capable of unifying the four fundamental forces, they believe that it must contain a grain of truth even though it relies on extra dimensions that we can never observe. Some cosmologists, too, are seeking to abandon experimental verification of grand hypotheses that invoke imperceptible domains such as the kaleidoscopic multiverse (comprising myriad universes), the ‘many worlds’ version of quantum reality (in which observations spawn parallel branches of reality) and pre-Big Bang concepts.”


    This is from : http://www.nature.com/news/scientific-method-defend-the-integrity-of-physics-1.16535

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  25. OK. I think that nature News article is on target, and I’ve been involved in discussions on testable vs. untestable hypotheses.


    As with you, I do have a problem with the attitude presented in the quotes. Unfortunately, people who are knowledgeable in a trade of profession can cross the line between confidence and arrogance. However, does it apply to all string theorists?


    If you want someone who intentionally blurs the line between science and belief, look at Richard Dawkins. His writings ares much better examples of pseudoscience, pseudophilosophy, and pseudoreligion.

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