3 min read

Science is a front in a lot of “wars,” even if there is no “war on science” itself

Scientific American recapped a recent conversation at a major scientific meeting about whether or not there is really a “war on science.”

As a communications practitioner who has helped many scientists deal with political attacks on their work, I don’t think there is a war on science itself. Rather, I think we’re dealing with politicians and advocates who see science as one of many fronts in a series of ongoing battles. Or, to drop the war metaphor for a second, science is simply caught up in a bunch of different democratic disputes.

Science is incredibly powerful

Science historian Mark Largent told meeting attendees that scientists shouldn’t approach this topic from a position of defensiveness, even when they are being attacked. Instead, he argued, researchers should recognize that science remains an incredibly powerful institution and that with great power, comes great responsibility.

It’s a provocative thought and my first instinct was to reject it. I know a lot of scientists who have felt absolutely helpless when politicians, advocates and straight-up trolls have attacked their research and their integrity. But as I thought about Largent’s point a bit more, I asked myself why people attack science in the first place. It’s usually because everybody in a political debate wants to be seen as having science on their side.

So even when individual researchers feel unfairly targeted by politicians or advocates, it’s helpful to understand that that is happening precisely because outsiders rightfully see the scientific community as a powerful arbiter of credibility in many democratic debates.

Different types of science provoke different reactions from citizens, advocates and politicians

In response to a series of Tweets I posted about this topic, sociology professor Aaron McCright pointed me to a helpful distinction he and his colleagues have made between various fields of science that have been caught up in public controversies.

war on science
March 2015 National Geographic cover.

“Production science,” they say, creates new things. That includes new medicines, new ways to harness and produce energy, new chemical compounds and new crops and food products. “Impact science,” meanwhile, focuses on what’s happening to our health, our air, our water, our atmosphere, and the world’s built and natural environments.

These distinctions help explain how someone like Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House science committee, can be bullish on NASA’s production science, such as looking for life on Europa or the James Webb Telescope, but eager to cut NASA’s impact science, namely the agency’s Earth monitoring and climate research.

Conversely, anti-vaccine advocates think the pharmaceutical industry — a behemoth in production science — is poisoning children. So when they saw a piece of impact science by Andrew Wakefield, long-since retracted, which linked early-childhood vaccines to autism, they ran with it. And when public health impact scientists tell them they’re wrong — that vaccines save lives — they try to box those public health researchers in with the pharmaceutical industry, too.

Similar dynamics also play out in the scorched-earth world of disputes about agriculture and biotech. It strikes me that many people involved in that debate brand themselves as pro-science and are often tacitly arguing about whether or not agricultural production science or environmental and public health impact science should determine public policy outcomes on everything from crop subsidies to GMO labeling.

Better science communication relies heavily on history and other social science

There are plenty of other useful frameworks for examining why people accept or reject certain types of science. Cultural cognition research offers another lens, based on political ideology, for understanding challenges to everything from nuclear power to gun violence research. Conspiratorial thinking also helps explain the persistence of misinformation on many of these topics, which can stem from a simple distrust of elites, including scientists. And political science offers many lessons in how corporate spending on front groups, scientific consultants, and political speech can warp democratic debates, as well as the practice of science itself.

None of these frameworks offers a holistic explanation for why people reject science on a given topic, but they are all useful.

If we want to resolve any of these “wars” or “battles” or “disputes,” it’s important to understand why people outside the scientific community accept or reject specific scientific findings. We need to be able to accurately and effectively communicate with audiences about these topics on their terms rather than hoping, or insisting, that people outside the scientific community will learn to love and appreciate science for the same reasons we do.

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