Are more social and policy discussions based on science? Or is science being used as cover for political and social machinations?
In an interesting interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Rachel Maddow — one of today’s most informed, thoughtful, and sensible personalities — discusses the roles of facts and reputations; specifically, how malleable and variable facts and reputations have become in the modern world, and how difficult it is to get people to be accountable for their statements and claims, despite the fact that both are often dressed in scientific garb:
. . . it bothers me as a rational human being . . . as somebody who wants accountability. . . . I think this is a contested area, in terms of not only how the media has diversified over the last couple of decades, but in terms of how we argue with one another. People who disagree on important issues don’t agree on the facts. It used to be, I think, that we agreed I think on the basic facts we were fighting over and we had different opinions about them. Now, I think we accept different sources of authority.
The interview goes on to discuss how scientific authority is too easily had or invented — from temporary statuses with slow-moving associations that take time to detect and reject rogue members, to fake statuses with make-believe organizations of their own invention. Maddow recounts a situation in which a person masquerading as an authority was later kicked out of one association, relocated to another, was kicked out of that — but in the meantime, he was able to get cited literature into the scientific record and into books that had large cultural consequences, including justifying at least one despot to terrorize a class of citizens based on this false science.
A recently published study by Gordon Gauchat at the University of North Carolina brings further perspective to the heart of this phenomenon. His study made waves this week because it found that conservatives and those who regularly attend church distrust science at an increasing rate. Reading the study itself, it’s a very nuanced and informative bit of research and interpretation of data.
In essence, there are four competing sociological hypotheses about how the reputation of science might proceed:
- Ascendancy — the hypothesis that trust in science will increase over time.
- Alienation — the hypothesis that trust in science will decrease over time.
- Deficit — the hypothesis that more education creates more trust in science, while educational deficits lead to decreased trust of science.
- Politicization — the hypothesis that political systems and beliefs create more or less trust in science.
Gauchat’s study, covering trends in public trust from 1974-2010, found that only the politicization hypothesis conformed with the data. As for the other three hypotheses, trust in science is not increasing or decreasing uniformly, and educational attainment did not correlate directly with trust in science in all groups (it seemed to more in political moderates).
While science has always been politicized, the credibility of scientific knowledge over the past century has been tied to perceptions that it’s politically neutral and objective. But recently, science has exerted an amount of regulatory authority — via the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and other governmental bodies — which puts it directly at odds with conservative deregulatory tendencies. As Gauchat writes:
. . . public trust in science . . . may be slowed by a general distrust in power and authority.
This is particularly problematic for science and scientists, since both have skepticism as their modus operandi. As Gauchat puts it, summarizing other research findings:
. . . the cultural authority of science is destabilized by the application of scientific rigor to itself; that is, the intensity and ubiquity of scientific skepticism undermines its own credibility and ability to influence public debate.
Inherent skepticism provides the perfect lever for anti-authority forces to pull — namely, amplify skepticism, and you undermine science. This is done deftly by claiming evolution is “just a theory.” It sounds ultra-skeptical, but is intended to undermine science.
In 2005, Chris Mooney published the excellent, “The Republican War on Science,” a book that revealed the many tactics that have been used to cloud the scientific record. One such tactic is to create false equivalency — publish a fringe study to introduce statements or weak facts to confound discussions and conclusions. Conservative and right-wing think tanks, media outlets, networking sites, and publishing houses represent new voices in scientific discourse, voices that are:
. . . an alternative to academic locations and the scientific community and is often socially distinguished and reinforced through its criticism of “liberal” bias
Mooney’s book outlines many battles in which conservative politicians, entrenched business interests, and right-wing advocates combine forces to foster confusion, confound sensible and evidence-based policies, and maintain the status quo. Gauchat notes that in his data sets:
. . . conservatives were far more likely to define science as knowledge that should conform to common sense and religious tradition. . . . [conservatives appear to be] especially adverse to regulatory science, defined here as the mutual dependence of organized science and government policy.
Of course, common sense isn’t as common as we think — and generally leads to disagreements about values, priorities, and politics. It’s a form of circular thinking. And religious tradition has an unflattering history when it comes up against science. Yet, in the United States, this is where we find ourselves — with an increasingly reactionary religious right holding more power in government and creating tremendous problems for science.
It’s worth noting that it’s not an entirely bleak situation — science’s authority has grown to such an extent that it is no longer separable from governmental policies. It is culturally dominant. But science’s strengths in finding truth are also its weaknesses in the political arena — no politician would survive long being open to skepticism, accepting alternate hypotheses, and always seeking better evidence.
Where do we go from here? How can we have accountability, honesty, facts, and debate to some conclusion beyond status quo orthodoxy?
Obviously, science won’t be enough. We need leadership. Unfortunately, there’s even less evidence of that in our politics than ever.