The Politicisation of Science

August 2018 Pulse

The Swedish meteorologist working in the UK, Lennart Bengtsson, is without doubt one of the most respected climate scientists in the fraternity. In April 2014, Bengtsson joined the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a think tank that raised questions concerning the current ‘consensus’ on climate change based on data.

Bengtsson pointed out that climate change predictions that are based on computer models might not give the true picture of the actual state of global warming. ‘Since the end of the 20th century’, he said, ‘the warming of the Earth has been much weaker than what climate models show’.

Note that Bengtsson did not deny that global warming was occurring. He merely raised the scientifically valid question about the accuracy of model simulations and pointed out that observational results have differed.

Shortly after raising this issue, Bengtsson faced the ire of the climate community for challenging the prevailing orthodoxy. He came under such unbearable pressure from his colleagues that he was forced to resign from the think tank.

‘I have been put under such an enormous group pressure in recent days from all over the world that has become virtually unbearable for me’, he writes. ‘If this is going to continue I will be unable to conduct my normal work and will even start to worry about my health and safety’.

He adds: ‘Colleagues are withdrawing their support, other colleagues are withdrawing from joint authorship, etc. I see no limit and end to what will happen’.

The politicisation of science is an inevitable fact, argues Roger Pielke in The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics. Politics is enmeshed in many of the hot-button issues raised by the biological sciences, including evolution, stem cell research and protection of endangered species.

‘The only time you can stay above the fray is when you are a grad student’, says Pielke in an interview. ‘The minute you have to file a grant proposal with NSF or NIH, you’re in the realm of connecting science with the world outside of science’.

That science should be the candidate for politicisation should not surprise us. In the modern world, scientific authority is replacing religious authority, and the pronouncements from the scientific community have achieved the status of dogma. ‘The scientists have spoken’ appears to be an updated version of ‘This is the Word of the Lord’.

Science has ventured beyond the laboratories and exerted its influence in almost every aspect of society. Science has pontificated on how parents should raise their children, how relationships should be conducted, how we should have sex and what food we should eat.

In an age of moral relativism, as politicians find it more and more difficult to justify their agendas and ideologies by moral arguments, science has become an invaluable ally. The authority of science is asserted surely but subtly in our habits of discourse across the disciplines.

For example, with regard to climate change, Sir David Read, the vice-president of the Royal Society, is reported to have said: ‘The science very clearly points towards the need for us all – nations, businesses and individuals – to do as much as possible, as soon as possible, to avoid the worst consequences of climate change’.

The profound significance of the definite article before the word ‘science’ must not be missed. As Frank Furedi puts it, ‘“The Science” is a deeply moralised and politicised category’. Science is hailed as an authority that demands almost unquestioning submission.

The politicisation of science is an extremely complex and multifaceted phenomenon.

One the one hand, we have politicians commandeering scientific evidence – albeit selectively and at times even dishonestly – to advance their own political agendas. On the other, we also see scientists jumping on this bandwagon and aligning their scientific findings to certain ideological commitments.

Politicians and scientists could respond to the same published research in dramatically opposing ways, depending on which side of the political fence they happen to be situated. A case in point is the 2003 paper published in Climate Research that argued that from a millennial perspective climate changes in the 20th century are unremarkable.

Advocacy groups comprising politicians and scientists who oppose the Kyoto Protocol on climate change praised the paper as a sterling example of ‘sound science’. But the groups that supported the Protocol immediately denigrated it as ‘junk science’.

This example makes it painfully clear that issues like global warming are no longer of just scientific concern. They have become political causes. As Kim Holmes observes, ‘Political activism has so penetrated the science of climate change that one can barely tell the difference between a United Nations conference of scientists on global warming and a rally of political activists lobbying governments to adopt controls on carbon emissions’.

To make matters worse, there is also considerably bullying going on in the scientific fraternity. Those who dare to question the findings and conclusions of the majority or contradict the prevailing orthodoxy are sometimes humiliated and ostracised.

Such baneful attempts to shame and shun dissenters go against the spirit of science, which encourages open inquiry. But it shows just how politicised science can be in our modern world.

It should be noted that both the political right and left are guilty of the politicisation of science, even as they blame each other for this crime. So, if as Pielke points out the politicisation of science is a fact of life, what should our response to this state of affairs look like?

For the Christian, both science and politics are moral activities that should be carried out in the service of the truth. While the politicisation of science cannot be entirely avoided, one should nonetheless always strive for an ever-greater objectivity and truthfulness.

To begin with, scientists should be more self-conscious of their political commitments and scrupulously avoid conflating science with ideology in a way that is misleading.

In addition, scientists should also make it clear to the public when they are engaged in advocacy. And instead of merely championing a particular cause, scientists should clarify how the data allows for a variety of policy choices.

Pielke and others have argued that both scientists and politicians must understand the difference between politics and policy. The political perspective is necessarily narrow, limiting the range of alternatives as it pursues a particular agenda and desired outcome.

However, as Pielke explains in an article entitled, ‘When Scientists Politicise Science’, ‘For science, a policy perspective implies increasing or elucidating the range of alternatives available to decision-makers by clearly associating the existing state of scientific knowledge with a range of choices’.

One way in which science can be depoliticised, Pielke suggests, is to ‘ask scientists to participate in the process of connecting science with policy alternatives, to explicitly consider what alternatives are and are not consistent with scientific understandings in relation to different valued outcomes’.

Finally, both scientists and politicians need to achieve a more realistic appreciation of the possibilities and limits of science. Sobriety is the best response to scientism’s distorting portrayal of science and its alleged omnicompetence.

A sober appreciation of science would lead us to conclude that although science is helpful in many ways, it can never be the sufficient basis for solving the world’s problems. By itself, science cannot even resolve political debates on important issues.

To accord science with the competence it does not in fact possess and to use it for political ends is to court disaster for the human community.

As Daniel Kemmis perceptively argues: ‘… the repeated invocation of good science as the key to resolving complex ecosystem problems has itself become bad science. What is infinitely worse is that this bad science is all too readily made the servant of bad government’.


 

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.