When scientists communicate with the public about politics, they often frame the issue as “science vs. politics.” For instance, some scientists champion speaking truth to power, while others suggest that they stay out of the political fray altogether. Both arguments assume that science and politics are independent and mutually exclusive. Furthermore, they presuppose that science could and should remain politically neutral. I’d like to discuss why this framing is problematic and how we might instead understand the political role of science. Since Earth Day was this past Sunday, let’s focus on climate science in the public discourse.
This same science-vs.-politics framing has arisen in the discussion of the past actions of the Trump administration. Many scientists and science supporters consider the White House to have an “anti-science agenda,” especially regarding environmental science and climate change. This agenda included a temporary suspension of all Environmental Protection Agency grants, removal of the White House’s climate change webpage, and restriction of public communications for agencies such as the National Park Service. In response, many scientists condemned the White House’s actions as politics interfering with sound science. Following the Women’s March on Washington, they focused their energy toward a public demonstration, now officially “the March for Science,” which first occurred on Earth Day (April 22) 2017, drawing hundreds of thousands of participants.
Critics of the march have bemoaned its politicizing effect on science. Coastal geologist Robert Young has argued that taking to the streets in white lab coats will simply exacerbate the problem: “A march by scientists, while well intentioned, will serve only to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about, turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars and further drive the wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate.” Young’s concern, however, ignores the sociological reality today that climate science is perceived as a partisan issue, that is, a liberal agenda or an elitist ruse. Rather than seeking to keep science clean from “political dirt,” we need to understand how science is political and rethink how it ought to be political.
The sociological problem in the U.S. is the widespread perception that environmental science is partisan politics. Americans overwhelmingly praise science, but their trust in the climate science community correlates with party lines: while 69% of Americans in 2016 believed reports of the previous year’s record-high temperatures, only 27% of Republicans attributed the rise to human actions, compared with 72% of Democrats. All of this is despite the scientific consensus that humans have caused the changes we are experiencing. As social psychologist Dan Kahan has said, “Positions on climate change have come to signify the kind of person one is.” That is, climate science in the public discussion has been co-opted into the “culture wars” that pit conservatives against liberals, further polarizing American society and debilitating our democratic system.
Thus, climate science is already politicized–but primarily in partisan terms. However, the cause of this partisan effect is not party ideology. Rather, the history of climate science tells us that its politicization is the result of private industrial interests. Just like the tobacco companies founded scientific-looking institutes to cast doubt on the health risks associated with smoking, so too has the oil industry challenged climate science by funding think tank opposition. In the late 1980s, the George C. Marshall Institute released a report that the warming trend was due to the sun. While flatly misrepresenting scientific reports, it influenced President Bush’s decision to oppose a carbon tax and fossil-fuel restrictions. Since then, corporations such as ExxonMobil have spent millions of dollars on think tanks like the Marshall Institute to oppose the veracity of climate science.
Because of the economic stakes of climate science, it is unable to be politically neutral. Documenting the warming effects of greenhouse gases challenges buisness-as-usual. So in some sense, climate scientists do speak truth to power, but only because of the political power of science. This requires us to rethink the political role of science, to go beyond an impossible neutrality. Much of public discourse conceptualizes the relation of science and politics as merely partisan. But this is not the only way to be political. The fact that science has been cast in partisan terms, moreover, is the result of corporate interests. Thus, we need an alternative vision for the political role of science.
One of the core principles of the March for Science is that science serves the common good rather than special interests. This is both a political and a scientific ideal. Rather than pushing for the autonomy of science, we as scientists and supporters of science could advocate for the use of science toward democratic ends. This compels us to create a forum for science and politics to interface rather than compete. It requires exposing the corporate interference in these public debates. It entails the participation of those across the political spectrum, working together to show that science is not a liberal agenda or a tool of the elite. Instead, science is and ought to be a tool for the common good.
The public discussion of climate science has been co-opted by corporate interests, seeking to obscure the power that climate science could have for everyone. In the spirit of Earth Day, I suggest we take a more global perspective. Let’s oppose the framing of science-vs.-politics and work to reclaim science for the people.