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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. It would have been a more even-keeled headline if it was “Science is Not Political”, but given the source — Forbes – I understand they have to spin it to attack the Democrats in some way, shape or form, even if it’s just using the phrase “democratic” (which is enough to confuse the howler monkeys in their audience as a weak implication that it is somehow connected to the Democratic party, and the Democrats are somehow concerned with politicizing science). The first sentence of the article would have made a much better source for the headline, imho. (And btw, I totally agree with the article itself  – I just find exception to deliberately spinning the title when it could have just as easily been crafted to be completely politically neutral. Yet, Forbes chose not to go that way.)

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  2. Nathan Tarantla the article read even-handed to me, don’t you agree? I was concerned that the Obama pix in the link would make people think this was a pro-Democrat post (which it isn’t).

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  3. Dale Husar I’m not reading the same ones you’re reading. While I note that many include very accurate and reliable information about the damage caused by manmade pollution (material that only the most rabid anti-science climate change denier would find questionable) , I rarely find one about “human scum”. Perhaps you are reading something more into it. 

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  4. Science may be apolitical, but scientists are not. No matter who you are, you are not an expert in most disciplines. So your knowledge of these fields will be colored by the summarizer from whom you learn the facts. Scientific literacy will help you spot obvious cranks, but even an honest account of sound research will emphasize some results over others. And for those fields where you are an expert, that very expertise may render you oblivious to how the jargon of you field may be misinterpreted by others. Of course both these facets will be exploited by those who deliberately, and maliciously, lie about what science has learned and the predictions of its models.

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  5. When I see people politicizing science, I go for the source and run it to ground. You rarely find the power and powerless involved in politicization of science because there is big $$$ involved. Poor and powerless will do it when they can twist a local agenda in their direction but the impact is far, far less and far reaching than when it is done on a massive, national or geopolitical stage. Politicization at that level can (and dare I say DOES) effect the globe and while it’s a big money game, there won’t be any winners in the end. Unless you count holing up in your bunker paying for every drop of clean water and every breath of clean air for  the rest of your life, never being able to venture outdoors, never being able to hike or be in a “wild” area, swim in an ocean, eat a piece of wild fruit from a tree … as some kind of “win”, that is. But too many among the 1% don’t care because they can escape at will to the still clean places and leave the heavily polluted areas (where their factories churn out profit) to the “unwashed masses”. The wealthy how build and manage factories that foul the air and water won’t change until they are forced. By then the lives of the poor and powerless will not be worth living. What do you think will happen when enough of the poor realize this is happening? 

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  6. Brian Freeman fortunately, there is self correction built into the scientific method. Every discovery is incremental in the big picture and must be replicated as an intrinsic part of the process of moving to the next step. The truths and knowledge that are referred to in that quote relate to broad paradigms of scientific consensus: evolutionary theory, the germ theory of infection and so on. Sure, individual findings in any paper or two are frequently refuted and overturned, but that is a cherished and relished part of science. We scientists get as much kudos (or more) for overturning a popular finding, as the original observations themselves. The erosion into the gutter, as you put it, is from vested political and economic interests, as this article so clearly points out. 

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  7. Dave Whipp  writes: “Science may be apolitical, but scientists are not.” 


    I disagree. Scientists can think politically, as many do in public. We have to separate their scientific works from their political activities. 

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  8. Exactly, Siyavash Nekuruh Motlagh . A well controlled and executed experiment does not care whether the scientist is left leaning or right. Always read the original paper, look at the data for yourself instead of reading the “spin” put on it in the popular press. But, to read the scientific literature, one does has to be scientifically literate and that’s a challenge for most. 

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  9. Brian Freeman 


    Of course many scientific theories have been corrected by times. It will also be the case in the future. But the author is meaning something else. 


    Scientists try to test their theories. Einstein e.g. tried for many years to prove his “relativity theory” would be wrong. His own theory wasn’t part of a belief system. 


    The author is talking about science in another context. But he also write that “it is not perfect, yet” 

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  10. Rajini Rao Indeed. One publication of a false conclusion, or a bogus study designed to support some kind of enedeavor MUST be followed by yet another BOGUS study or tweaked data, and every subsequent study must then be twisted further to support the original. This is VERY difficult to do and from what I’ve seen usually impossible. At some point they get found out. In order to keep telling the lie, big money needs to capture a LOT of influential people or propagandize a critical mass of individuals who aren’t capable of understanding the true science and/or just don’t care. We have a mass of just those kind of people in the United States today. I’ve watched this happen over the generations (I’m in my 50s). Until recently the young have been systematically trained to hate intellectuals, and scientists are in the group. It’s starting to turn the other way, but look at the resistance Neil deGrasse Tyson is getting from the howler monkeys in the religious community over COSMOS. Those same people want their mythology taught to my children on my tax money as science. It sickens me. 

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  11. Rajini Rao  Between: I have nothing against the popular press, as long as they understand the original paper and summarize it for the public. It’s their job, since not every one is having the time and opportunity to look at the original paper. I think it is important to distinguish between good and bad popular press. I agree with you that the original paper is often better 😉 


    And many times, I read your summaries rather than the origin paper, because I don’t understand them. It’s not my field and I don’t know every word  😉

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  12. To follow up, scientists are humans not emotionless Spock-like automatons. They make mistakes, they have egos, but the scientific community as a whole (as Rajini says) lurches forward driven by the weight of new evidence and reasoning. One cannot deny the scientific and technological marvels today that did not exist yesterday.


    Indeed the scientific community is a democracy; it is a democracy based on evidence, logical reasoning, and objectivity (ideally). Anyone can put forth a hypothesis and support the hypothesis with data and reasoning. It is an imperfect democracy but it functions a lot better than our political system, which often devolves into rhetorical tricks, appeals to prejudice, and truthiness all motivated by money. 


    IMO scientists need to be more active in public education correcting egregious errors made in the public forum. So many inaccurate and scientifically incorrect statements are made by politicians, mostly from the republican party (this is not a partisan statement; it is statement based on data). These errors must be pointed out and corrected.

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  13. Nathan Tarantla the cheaters and liars do get caught out, perhaps not as often as they could, but enough for there to be mandatory training in research ethics at all academic institutions.  And yes, this rise of anti-intellectualism is scary.


    Siyavash Nekuruh Motlagh well said, I should not generalize about the press. There are many good writers who do an important job in translating the jargon into something comprehensible!  Tau-Mu Yi that was eloquently explained, the picture that emerges is of the scientific community “lurching” forward, imperfect though it is. 

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  14. Nathan Tarantla , I don’t know whether you are misreading the Forbes article’s title or simply unaware of the dual meaning of the word “democratic.” It’s quite clear that the article refers to “democratic” as in a political system governed by votes of the people as opposed to “democratic” as in one of the two major parties in the United States. 

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  15. Peter N. Steinmetz Well, here’s the funding sources: Government, Private, Corporate. None are immune to politicization of course. You could add self funding through kickstarter-type programs I suppose. It is what we’ve got. Look to who can be held accountable the most easily. Private – no, you won’t get any accountability there it has to be a form of self policing and that could go anywhere. Corporate – accountability to shareholders, who often (if we can go by history) don’t care about anything  but the bottom line and making profit (with some notable exceptions, but damn few). Corporate accountability is governed by the dollar more than any other form of funding, period. Government – accountability comes from taxpayers, who (in theory) should fund it so we can all reap the benefits. Sure, ideologues can pervert it but damn it we’ll find out faster than we would if it was private or corporate funded. Government also provides for regulations and overseeing. Yeah, you can cry all you want about how reliable this is, but its STILL more than we have in private or corporate funding options. So, which one is best in my opinion? I think you can guess. 

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  16. Brian Freeman “Proven Knowledge” isn’t quite right either.  But I agree with you.


    The scientific method was invented by Galileo (and others) who was a believer.  He invented science (source the word “invented” is Latin, invenire “to find”) as a way to know God’s creation.  If God is rational then whatever we find in creation will be too.  So far?  He’s been proven right.


    But the method he founded does not end in “knowledge,” it ends with, “The hypothesis has not been disproven.”  In other words, it ends with the humility human beings should have when facing something as awesome as matter, energy, light, life, etc.


    Science is extremely limited in its purview (to space and time and those things which can be measured in numbers).  Much of human experience is “out of time” (thoughts), and almost nothing we care about can be measured in numbers other than our bank account balances.


    So, just saying that science’s attitude is humble which allows its results to be absolutely correct within the limits of the experiment .  Facts exist.  Knowledge is that which requires an intelligent being to put the facts together into some coherent meaning.


    THAT is outside science’s purview.  Meaning is outside science.


    But science is SO valuable because of its limits.  It does not pretend to know everything.  It knows that it does NOT know everything (the sign of great intelligence).


    ;’)

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  17. Despite what you may have read, having “government” resources does not mean one is actually paid by the government to do scientific experiments.  Science is lagging because we are NOT spending government money, especially on basic research.  We are letting capitalist companies (Lockheed, etc.) fund research.  They tend to be pretty good at making sure the science is good (their planes would not fly, etc.), but our government is NOT supporting science as it should.

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  18. Nathan Tarantla In some sense I think private funding can be more answerable because there is more diversity. People will not give funds to charities that don’t support the things they want. Government is always subject to the equivalent of regulatory capture.

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  19. Brian Freeman You are attempting to indicate that exceptions hold sway over the vast majority of scientific discoveries and facts. You’re on very shaky ground. This, however, is often how the sowing of doubt is spread in the minds of the woefully science-ignorant. It begins by sowing the seed of doubt and then making a grand claim. Baloney. You keep thinking that way. But I’m not about to rig my microwave so I can run it with the door open just because people don’t seem to agree egg-sourced cholesterol is good or bad. 

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  20. Dale Husar ” 80% of my taxes go to wages, health care and retirement for a myraid of union employees.” Factually incorrect. Propaganda. But nice try at attacking the people who gave us 40 hour work weeks, vacation time off, and safe work places (just a start of benefits YOU GET from unions). We need more unions, not less, and the real reason you’re mad is because of corruption, not unions. But you’ve been trained to blame unions. The US gets worse and worse as unions get less and less power and it’s consolidated in the hands of the wealthy who don’t give a flying damn about your life, period. Unions are the only way the worker has of influencing the employer to “play nice”. If you think they’d do it out of the goodness of their hearts you live in a fantasy world. 

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  21. Peter N. Steinmetz the allocation of government funding is through a review of scientific merit by one’s peers, not by politicians (not yet, anyway..there is an alarming proposal for political oversight of social science funding by NSF). It’s actually important that tax payer’s money funds many kinds of research that is for the public good (such as basic research, or health related research). The peer review system is apolitical: if a grant receives a high score by a panel of experts, it is funded whether or not some politician approves of the research. 


    While I would welcome private funding, the fact is that such funding is highly limited and too circumscribed. Grass root organizations like American Heart Association or Autism foundations are great, but they have limited resources. Industry/Pharma almost never fund basic research and get into the process late in the game, when it is clear that there is profit to be made (which makes sense, because they must answer to their share holders).

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  22. Peter N. Steinmetz that sounds like a remarkably negative and cynical view of the best merit based system there is. I don’t share your view, even if I’ve had my share of rejections. What’s your alternative? I’d love to know of other sources of funding I can apply for! 

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  23. The problem science has today runs two-fold: the first is the dumbing down of society. With so many kids and adults who are indoctrinated by government education, this actually causes the people to carry their beliefs on their sleeves. While most scientists hold that their word is law/indisputable fact.


    The other is the most basic: all humans no matter how smart make mistakes.


    So with these two combined it IS easy to see why people mistrust scientists.

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  24. Rajini Rao Good and interesting question. In terms of alternatives, I would suggest a direct tax credit (not deduction, a credit) for funds individuals donate to scientific research charities. This would encourage funding for projects that people think are worthy and interesting. I believe people are the best judges of how their money should be spent. Yes, there will be some crazy projects funded (sometimes of course those work out and one major complaint of current peer review is that it is too conservative), but on average, I think it would work well.

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  25. Politics has been much maligned over the years. But, things aren’t improving the right way. So, people have to raise sight. Shouldn’t talk of merely politicization of things but theolization of things which is slightly difficult to comprehend. When science has progressed so much why should the smoke be still billowing over the chimneys?


    Science progress is welcome, as in any other sphere. That is not the point. But the distribution of progress is. Cream of the progress is segregated and lapped off to palatial merrymaking  while leftovers are there for rest to fight over. And this happening even in democracies is clearly a foul play.

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  26. Peter N. Steinmetz a similar option is crowd funding as with Kickstarter, but that’s another skill set altogether (not to mention the time spent in all that social media cultivation). Currently, target size for funding by crowd funding is too small to support most biomedical research and certainly won’t cover personnel costs. 

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  27. Peter N. Steinmetz I believe, with such system, there would be no Roentgen, no Christilography, etc. All oft these stuff were uninteresting for the public. Their would be some ‘alien research’ and may be also some neuro science …

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  28. Dale Husar WTF TV shows are you watching? I have never seen that style of reporting. The only place I have ever seen that sort of claim is in political tracts building a strawman about environmentalists.

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  29. Siyavash Nekuruh Motlagh Lol on alien research! This reminds me of the time that a bunch of us scientists were asked to have dinner with a wealthy donor (who made his money from trash/recycling I believe). We were trying to make small talk with him when he announced that we should all be researching aliens and other life forms. There was a brief, embarrassed silence (we were all molecular biologists/neuroscientists and such) and then we bravely nodded our heads and attempted to say something legitimate and scientific about aliens 🙂

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  30. Siyavash Nekuruh Motlagh Doesn’t the timeline belie this point. I don’t think Roentgen had any funding from a peer-review panel. He was a professor. These were very different days, so I don’t think that example argues against private funding for science.

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  31. “Democracy” is not democratic. Science is ONLY as good as it can prove…over time. Medical science is only as good as the scientists…some of whom can be, and HAVE BEEN, bought and paid for. It’s the “elite” who run the universities and decide who gets licenced to practice medicine. Would you trust Rockefellers or Rothschilds with YOUR kids??? Really?? Wow!

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  32. It’s simply a mistake to pretend that science is divorced from politics. Naive and foolish. This intrusion of ideology is happening precisely because politics has always been a part of it.  What has changed is just how pervasively scientists have adopted an arrogant pretence of distance from the society they serve. It might be a good policy to take an empirical look at its own behaviour.

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  33. Brian Freeman


    You are laboring under a misapprehension that comes from reading the general media [mis]representations of science rather than the scientific papers those reports are based on. Even the Forbes article this thread is based on makes the same error. 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. (edited to correct a couple of typos)

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