Science is and always has been political

Why American scientists should care about the political state of the nation.
Why American scientists should care about the political state of the nation.

Humans are very good at self-deception, and at believing we’re thinking rationally and dispassionately when the opposite is true. One way we deceive ourselves is thinking and saying that “science is apolitical”. What we really mean, of course, is “science should be allowed to pursue the ends we like, without undue interference from politics” (with hands out for government grant money).

The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States really brings the political nature of science to the forefront. Even before he has taken office, Trump has met with antivaccination groups, tweeted that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China, and threatened government regulations on food safety, water quality, and environmental protection. Some of these things are more obviously science than others, but they are all areas that are informed by science, and affect all of us.

Climate research is an obvious branch of science that is and has been under political attack. Trump spokespeople have already said NASA’s climate studies will be defunded in favor of other programs. Since NASA Earth-observing satellites provide a lot of the essential publicly-available data for climate research, this will have a huge impact on the whole field. And that’s not to mention the NASA-employed scientists, engineers, and support staff for these programs. (We can and should also talk about how NASA Earth-observation programs often have many roles, including ocean current observations and monitoring conditions of drought or flooding.)

Climate change is real. Demanding NASA not study it won’t make it go away. And more to the point: politicizing what science is done and what isn’t will have impacts on the life and health of hundreds of millions of people. Atlantic science writer Ed Yong outlined many of the stakes of an anti-science President and a like-minded Congress:

The cumulative effect of these acts would be to “gut the scientific foundation of many of our landmark health and public safety laws, like the Clean Air Act,” says [Michael] Halpern. “They’re not going after the laws directly but going after how the government can use science to fulfill those laws.” If all this happens, it will be more than just a war on regulation. It will be a war on expertise itself, on the role of science in informing American society.

Cassandra versus Pangloss

Concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest for all technical endeavors concern for the great unsolved problems of the organization of labor and distribution of goods—in order that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing and not a curse for mankind. Never forget that in the midst of your diagrams and equations.

—Albert Einstein, addressing Caltech students in 1931

New York Times science writer Dennis Overbye penned a rather odd (to put it charitably) piece on the future of NASA programs in the Trump era. While he mentions the problems of politicization of NASA (and the lack of transparency already in evidence in the Trump transition team), the tone of the piece is bizarrely upbeat, reading the tea leaves to indicate a potential return of astronauts to the Moon. He even cites Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great”, which Trump has largely used in nationalistic and jingoistic terms.

Overbye’s piece is strange, but he’s not alone among those who think Trump could be good for certain types of science. The American Physical Society, the premier professional society for physicists in the US, issued a press release with problematic nationalist overtones, calling for Trump to commit to science. It was retracted and the APS apologized. A few have argued that moving NASA priorities away from climate change frees money and resources toward exploring other planets.

These views are phenomenally short-sighted. The problem with declaring some branches of science OK and others not is that the division can always be moved again. Cutting off funding to regulatory agencies and climate funding isn’t a hard choice made under duress; it’s Darth Vader making a blaster-point “bargain” with Lando Calrissian. Trump and his administration could alter the bargain again, deciding other areas of science should also be cut off.

Journalist Sarah Kendzior is an expert on authoritarian regimes, and she has sounded the warning loudly for more than year. “Your loyalty to Trump won’t be rewarded,” she writes. Dictating which science is acceptable science is another way of saying no science is safe from government interference and censure.

It’s a lesson we should learn from the 20th century totalitarian regimes: Hitler, Stalin, Mao. When the government decides some science is unacceptable, scientists lose their jobs; sometimes they lose their possessions, families, freedom, countries, and lives. Einstein fled Germany when the government seized his house; Landau went to the gulag. Many Jewish scientists and others guilty of practicing “Jewish science” lost their jobs. Other scientists died under Nazi and Stalinist purges. (People who say “we’ve survived worse” miss the fact that others didn’t survive. We’re not the best examples to use.) Now we hear about building walls, rounding up immigrants, and monitoring American Muslims. Some of those “undesirables” are scientists…or could be, if we get our prejudices out of the way of our science.

Science has always been political, whether we admit it or not. Perhaps the most important ways science is political is who is allowed to be a scientist, and how they’re allowed to do their science. In the US, racist and sexist laws have kept science largely white and male; educational segregation still keeps science largely white. And that’s in “ordinary” times, without openly racist and xenophobic national leadership. We white scientists were just able to ignore it better because it didn’t seem to affect us directly.

Now we have to stop playing pretend. We can’t ignore the fact that science could soon be Lysenkoized: both scientists and research accepted or rejected based on authoritarian whims. We can’t assume studies of Mars are safe because they haven’t been targeted yet; Martian studies are used in understanding climate on Earth, and it’s only a matter of time before someone notices that. If you’re a white American but have Iranian or Mexican colleagues, you can’t assume you’re safe if your colleagues aren’t. (And if you don’t care what happens to them, you suck.)

This goes for science writers, journalists, and other communicators as well. If science is hurt, our jobs are going to suffer too. But there’s also the attacks Trump and his surrogates have made on our profession, threatening journalists who write things they don’t like. We’re not excluded from that category.

Like it or not, we’re political writers, and political actors. And we have much more at stake than our own lives and jobs.

Science can supply information as input to a moral decision, but the ethical realm of “oughts” cannot be logically specified by the factual “is” of the natural world—the only aspect of reality that science can adjudicate. As a scientist, I can refute the stated rationale for Nazi evil and nonsense. But when I stand against Nazi policy, I must do so as everyman—as a human being. For I win my right to engage moral issues by my membership in Homo sapiens—a right vested in absolutely every human being who has ever graced this earth, and a responsibility for all who are able.

— Steven Jay Gould, from Dinosaur in a Haystack

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