Has Science Become Overly Politicized?

Experts say differences in opinion, issues with science education contribute to public distrust.

February 1, 2016

science panel

Panelists discuss why the findings of scientific research has become a polarizing topic. (William Atkins/GW Today)

By James Irwin

Is science on trial? Research has come under increased scrutiny in recent years from presidential candidates and Congress alike. On Wednesday, a panel of experts convened at the George Washington University attempted to explain why.

“Science currently finds itself in a rather peculiar situation,” said Leo Chalupa, GW’s vice president for research. “Poll after poll after poll shows the general public values science and scientists very highly. On the other hand, almost a majority of people in the United States do not believe in evolution, do not believe there is a human factor in global warming. So, we’re in this situation where we are valued, but the offerings of science are not universally accepted.”

In a one-hour discussion moderated by Science magazine Senior News Correspondent Jeffrey Mervis, five panelists—including GW Center for International Science & Technology Policy Director Allison Macfarlane and American Association for the Advancement of Science CEO Rush Holt—examined several topics that help identify why the findings of scientific research has become a polarizing topic.

Differences of opinion

Science policy doesn’t exist in a vacuum, Dr. Macfarlane said.

“Often policymakers, media and the public appeal to the science, as if the science is going to make the decision,” she said. “We should recognize there are other aspects that are important.”

Those include cultural issues and economic interests. Science policy isn’t very different from any other policy in that regard, Dr. Macfarlane said.

Findings and recommendations also can differ depending on the scientist or field, said Dahlia Sokolov, minority staff director of the Research and Technology Subcommittee, part of the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

“We see this in all the headlines around breast cancer screening for women—how often should they get screened? I think the radiologists say something very different than the cancer specialists,” she said. “And toxicologists and epidemiologists had very different approaches when the Clean Air Act regulations were being developed.”

Not knowing who or what to believe can create public mistrust. But scientific evidence can shift over time, as can recommendations. The general public is not comfortable with that, Dr. Holt said, which brings up a fundamental issue with science education.

Shortcomings in education

The way science is taught creates a problem, Dr. Holt said. And it dates to at least the 1958 National Defense Education Act.

“We teach science in schools for future scientists, and not for the rest of the population,” Dr. Holt said. “And so most of the population nowadays is not good at handling evidence. Scientists are very comfortable with uncertainty. They know every experiment and conclusion is provisional. Scientists are generally not troubled by the disclosure that coffee is bad for you this year and good for you last year. And the general public, including the representatives of Congress, are not good at dealing with uncertainty.”

A chasm between those who understand science and those who don’t—combined with a 24-hour news media that either sometimes oversimplifies or botches the coverage—can lead to unrest over something that doesn’t deserve it, Dr. Sokolov said. She remembered the ebola “panic” among people in the United States as an example.

“There was certainly concern that did not reflect the actual risk,” she said.

Polarizing topics

Science, Dr. Macfarlane said, is often expected to give a definitive answer on all questions. But that’s not how science works.

“You’ve all been misled if you think that’s so,” she said.

Dr. Macfarlane, the former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said nuclear power—as an example—is a very contentious issue and for good reason.

“I think there are legitimate views on both sides of that debate,” she said. “At the same time, nuclear power is a source of electricity that’s carbon-free. And we are in desperate need of that.”

That last statement sparked a short but somewhat contentious debate over climate change with Benjamin Zycher, the John G. Searle scholar and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Dr. Macfarlane considers climate change to be settled science.

“[But] is there a debate about the magnitude of effect?” Dr. Zycher asked pointedly.

“Of course, there is a debate about many aspects of it,” Dr. Macfarlane said, proceeding then to rattle off examples of climate change—melting glaciers, ocean acidification—before Mr. Mervis steered the conversation to another topic.

National elections

Science usually doesn’t play a role in elections, Mr. Mervis said. But the election of Justin Trudeau as Canadian prime minister this fall was, in part, a reaction against his predecessor, Stephen Harper, who was dismissive of scientific evidence, Dr. Holt said.

“Harper was so dismissive that the rest of the public reacted,” he said. “And it’s the only example I can think of, in any country, where science was a real issue in a national campaign. It was a reaction against the Harper government.”

Al Teich, professor of science, technology and international affairs at the Center for International Science and Technology Policy, remembers Mr. Harper’s science minister speaking at an AAAS science policy forum and demonstrating the administration’s disdain for scientific evidence.

“I can barely describe the way that he presented himself and the kinds of giggling that took place in the audience over what he was saying,” Dr. Teich said. “It was outrageous.”

Science has not played a large role in the 2016 presidential campaign thus far. But one particular moment stands out to Dr. Zycher. He remembers two doctors—Rand Paul and Ben Carson—standing by while Donald Trump made an assertion about the relationship between vaccines and autism during a September Republican debate.

“I was really quite appalled by their failure to rebut that assertion,” Dr. Zycher said. “I thought it was quite irresponsible for two medical doctors not to have said something.”