The Weirdest Science of All

At its heart science is apolitical, but—like any tool—science can be perverted and twisted to serve political ends. That is more or less what we’ve got on our hands in our current political moment: various scientists, pundits and politicians alike are determined to use “science” as a partisan cudgel rather than the simple, helpful, boring, uninteresting method of systematic interaction and exploration with the natural world that it really is.

Indeed, “science” itself has become a kind of silly metonym for a particular worldview and a particular set of political priorities and policies that accompany that worldview. The word “science” carries with it some measure of weight and authority, and so it often serves as a substitution for rational and coherent debate. Thus, for instance, how the entire debate over man-made climate change—an extremely contentious discourse dealing with incredibly complex variables of ridiculous breadth and sensitivity, and involving policy questions that could have profoundly negative effects on human civilization and the course of human history itself—-generally boils down to: “Ummm I believe in SCIENCE, why are you so anti-intellectual?!?!”

Such politicization naturally leads to paranoia and hysteria: if you weaponize the scientific method in this way, you’re naturally going to be afraid that it will, at some point, be used against you. That appears to be happening to a significant degree under the presidency of Donald Trump, wherein science partisans have declared that the new president is waging a “war on science.” However, at Slate, Daniel Engber writes that the arbiters of science should not take the bait; as he puts it, this “war” is “a trap” that may actually end up working in Trump’s favor:

The War on Science works for Trump because it’s always had more to do with social class than politics. A glance at data from the National Science Foundation shows how support for science tracks reliably with socioeconomic status. As of 2014, 50 percent of Americans in the highest income quartile and more than 55 percent of those with college degrees reported having great confidence in the nation’s scientific leaders. Among those in the lowest income bracket or with very little education, that support drops to 33 percent or less. Meanwhile, about five-sixths of rich or college-educated people—compared to less than half of poor people or those who never finished high school—say they believe that the benefits of science outweigh the potential harms. To put this in crude, horse-race terms, the institution of scientific research consistently polls about 30 points higher among the elites than it does among the uneducated working class…

Thus we find ourselves in a position where America’s anti-science sentiment, such as it exists, has gathered behind a single candidate. Science partisans have noticed, too, and their “war on science” rhetoric has never been so frantic and intense. “Is Trump the most anti-science president ever?” asked Newsweek the day after the election. Other outlets have since then been cataloguing Trump’s most aggresive, anti-science moves and other warning shots that mark an epic war to come.

There are two important things to note here. The first is that, contra Engber, one’s affinity for “science,” as it were, often does indeed depend upon one’s own political persuasion; you just have to ask the right question. Only two-fifths of Democrats, for instance, believe that human life begins at conception—this in spite of the fact that decades of embryological scientific study have proven otherwise. The progressive obsession with abortion, and their ascientific justification of it, overrides the clearly-established evidence that affirms the humanity of the youngest of the unborn. “Anti-science,” if that’s what you want to call it, is a bipartisan affair.

The second thing worth mentioning is simply a matter of practical denotation: in a strictly elucidative sense, the question “Is Trump the most anti-science president ever?” is meaningless and stupid. Newsweek justifies this question, and implicitly affirms it, with some remarkably weak and irrelevant evidence, such as this quote from Ars Technica writer David Kravets: “For energy, [Trump] plans to do the exact opposite of what would be required to address climate change, and he plans to seek a wholesale culling of federal regulation regardless of whether there’s a scientific basis for the rules.” Note, again, the weaponization of science for partisan political ends: if your policy goals don’t go far enough in “addressing climate change,” then you’re somehow “anti-science,” rather than, you know, someone who for any number of reasons just doesn’t buy into the overhyped global warming hysteria. “Science” partisans mistake the product for the process: they believe “science” refers to the affirmation of Democratic policy goals rather than a methodology of investigation that may or may not lead to that affirmation.

This kind of binary thinking—“You’re either with us, or with the anti-scientists”—is what has inspired many people to stop paying attention to the histrionics of the “science” crowd. To be sure, in the end Trump will probably have little to no effect on the United States’s scientific undertakings; a little funding might get cut here or there (which will surely usher in a fresh round of hysterics), but that’s probably it. The real threat to the integrity of our scientific culture comes not from our blowhard president but from the zealots who have turned “science” into a half-bright political enterprise for their own silly political ambitions.

4 comments

  1. Robert Burger

    Actually, perhaps the group in the best position to determine what is or is not “anti-science” are well, scientists. The overwhelming majority of those whose principal field of endeavor (and for that matter, most other scientists as well) involves the study of climate change would dismiss your arguments as political in nature and not being evidenced based. Many things in science are incredibly complicated, but nonetheless well understood. The scientific method has, in about 500 years, given us many wonderful things that make everyone’s life easier and more fulfilling. The scientific method relies on answers validated by experiment and formal peer review, not on “that’s the way I see it” political advocacy. If you wish to contest the finding of the overwhelming majority of scientists on this issue, consider writing an article that is based on peer reviewed experiments for a scientific publication.

    And have you considered that

  2. Marita McDonough

    Wait just a minute, here. “Extremely contentious”? That doesn’t sound quite right. Not when the vast majority of published scientist come out on the side of human created climate change. I don’t think that falls in the category of extremely contentious. That a minority of scientists contend that climate change is not happening or is not created by human activity? Well, yes, that sounds about right.