The Politics of Scientific Knowledge
The Politics of Scientific Knowledge
- Elizabeth SuhayElizabeth SuhayDepartment of Government, American University
This article discusses the various ways in which political concerns among government officials, scientists, journalists, and the public influence the production, communication, and reception of scientific knowledge. In so doing, the article covers a wide variety of topics, mainly with a focus on the U.S. context. The article begins by defining key terms under discussion and explaining why science is so susceptible to political influence. The article then proceeds to discuss: the government’s current and historical role as a funder, manager, and consumer of scientific knowledge; how the personal interests and ideologies of scientists can influence their research; the susceptibility of scientific communication to politicization and the concomitant political impact on audiences; the role of the public’s political values, identities, and interests in their understanding of science; and, finally, the role of the public, mainly through interest groups and think tanks, in shaping the production and public discussion of scientific knowledge. While the article’s primary goal is to provide an empirical description of these influences, a secondary, normative, goal is to clarify when political values and interests are or are not appropriate influences on the creation and dissemination of scientific knowledge in a democratic context.
- Communication and Technology
- Health and Risk Communication
- Political Communication
Science, these days, is political. Few people would disagree with this sentiment. And, yet, this represents a conundrum: many also would agree that science is supposed to be value free—objective, and certainly independent of political influence. In what ways does politics influence scientific knowledge, and why does this influence occur? This article sets out to answer these questions, providing an overview of various political influences on the production, communication, and acceptance of scientific knowledge. The potential scope of such a discussion is admittedly very broad. To provide a detailed accounting of politics and science within the bounds of this research article, the focus is largely restricted to the U.S. context. Focusing on one nation has the advantage of allowing for an integrated discussion of relevant actors in society—scientists, government officials, journalists, and the broader public—who react to one another, as well as to their shared history, as they shape scientific knowledge.
The structure of the essay is as follows. It begins by offering a definition of the politics of scientific knowledge and then proceeds to explain why science, which is supposed to be value free, is so often imbued with political meaning. The remainder of the essay discusses four groups of actors and the distinct ways in which they influence scientific knowledge at its various stages: government officials; scientists; journalists; and the public. This article aims to mainly provide a dispassionate, objective description of political influences on scientific knowledge. This said, at points the essay indicates where normative theorists generally endorse or denigrate political influences on scientific knowledge, and the end of the essay takes up normative questions in a more direct manner.
Defining “the Politics of Scientific Knowledge”
It is important to understand what is meant by the politics of scientific knowledge. This term (and closely related ones, such as the politics of science) carries a wide range of meanings—and not only because scholars disagree over how to define “politics” and “science.” Unless one intends to signal any way in which politics and science intersect, greater specificity is needed. The word politics in the above phrase could be understood as a noun (i.e., particular types of activities engaged in by scientists) or an adjective (i.e., an attribute of science). Further, the adjectival use could imply that science is an instrument used to influence politics, is influenced by politics, or simply has political implications or effects (Brown, 2015, p. 6).
This essay discusses one piece of the politics of scientific knowledge. Building on a framework introduced in Suhay and Druckman (2015), it focuses on political influences on the production, communication, and acceptance of scientific knowledge (and not the reverse causal relationship—scientific influences on politics). Politics, here, is not used in the broad sense of power relations in society. Rather, it is used in the more formal sense: describing government actors, government activities, and—among the public—both preferences and actions related to how government should be structured and what it should do. Scientific knowledge means conclusions drawn by scientists from systematic empirical study in their areas of expertise that are formally communicated to the scientific community (and, normally, the public).
This article focuses on scientific knowledge, as opposed to the scientific process that produces it, for two linked reasons. As noted in the next section, science is political because it is powerful, and its power ultimately rests in the knowledge it produces, its epistemic authority (Douglas, 2009). For this reason, discussion of political influences on science that are not associated with concern over the topics studied by scientists and/or the conclusions they draw with respect to those topics is largely avoided. A prominent example of political influences on science that largely fall outside of this purview would be efforts by government actors to ensure the integrity of the scientific process among scientists who hold government grants (see Guston, 2000). But focusing on scientific knowledge does not solely narrow our purview, it allows us to extend beyond the formal products of the scientific process to examine how those products are communicated to others and how they are understood by nonscientists, the lay public.
Finally, it is important to differentiate the definition of the politics of scientific knowledge employed in this article from a related concept commonly discussed today—the politicization of science. Numerous definitions of this term have been used in published work (e.g., Bolsen & Druckman, 2015; Fowler & Gollust, 2015). While the precise definitions vary in their details, they overlap in asserting that some actors have purposely imbued a scientific topic with political meaning and that this outcome is normatively problematic. The topic of this article is broader, encompassing unintentional actions (such as motivated cognition, bias that often operates below the level of conscious awareness) as well as political influences on scientific knowledge that are welcome from a democratic perspective. Of course, the term politicization is used when relevant.
Why Do Politics Influence Scientific Knowledge?
Many philosophers argue that understanding and describing real-world phenomena as they exist is a different endeavor from advocating for a particular phenomenon. In other words, “is” should not be confused with “ought” (Hume, 2000). Believing that one can deduce what should be done from what is true is called the “naturalistic fallacy” (Moore, 2004). Given that science is the province of “is” (or fact) and politics of “ought” (or values) this suggests science and politics should not mix.
Yet they do, even when science proceeds in an objective manner. While scientific knowledge cannot directly dictate values, it can indirectly bolster or undermine them. Scientists often investigate phenomena thought to be problematic, raising the question of how something has come to be defined as a problem. What values and/or whose interests are threatened? Given limited resources, scientists cannot investigate all problems, which raises the further issue of whose problems are considered (by scientists or their sponsors) worthwhile enough to pursue. In addition to influencing which scientific studies are carried out, values are also involved in translating scientific findings into societal action. Values influence when evidence for a specific threat is deemed sufficient to justify action. Finally, scientists inevitably advance certain preferences and interests at the expense of others when they attribute blame for a problem to specific individuals or groups as well as when they argue certain corrections are more promising than others. In sum, for a variety of reasons, scientific study to determine what “is” is often intertwined with “ought” (see Douglas, 2015; Jasanoff, 2012).
The general nature of this relationship between societal values and science is not country specific; however, in the United States, it has become stronger and more formalized over time as the federal government has increasingly recognized the importance of incorporating scientific knowledge into policymaking. The government’s reliance on scientific advice grew rapidly in the 20th century. By the end of the century, science advising could be considered a “fifth branch of government” (Jasanoff, 1990). In turn, the U.S. government has sought to foster scientific study thought to be in the public interest. This special status of science within the U.S. government not only exemplifies the critical role such knowledge plays in many policy decisions, it also represents a new locus of power over government action.
With science’s role in studying societal problems and influencing collective action (including government action) now in view, it becomes easier to understand why so many actors wish to influence scientific knowledge, in ways that often go far beyond what philosophers of science find appropriate (e.g., see Douglas, 2009, 2015). As Suhay and Druckman (2015) write, “individuals with strong convictions regarding which societal goals are most important and how those goals ought to be achieved … have an interest in what is accepted as ‘fact’” (p. 8). This interest sometimes motivates problematic attempts to get science on one’s side—such as miscommunicating scientific findings to shore up an argument in a public forum or simply resisting new scientific information that undermines a strongly held viewpoint. As indicated, not all attempts to influence scientific knowledge are normatively objectionable, however. For example, a citizen group concerned over a particular problem may try to influence the scientific agenda such that a solution might be discovered (Bucchi & Neresini, 2008). Here, individuals wish to direct the topic of study but do not wish to bias the resulting knowledge. Below, we discuss these—and many other—examples of political influences on scientific knowledge.
Government Influences on Scientific Knowledge
Government officials and the policies they create are the most obvious place to look for political influences on science. Sometimes officials act in the pursuit of personally held values. More often, their actions are driven by the preferences of colleagues, interest groups, and constituents. In other words, government policy is a route through which a variety of actors directly and indirectly influence scientific knowledge. This section first provides a brief history of the relationship between the U.S. government and scientists as well as the origins of contemporary left-right disagreements over the value of government-sponsored science. Then, in keeping with the remainder of the essay, it discusses in a more fine-grained manner the specific ways in which government actors can influence scientific knowledge—in terms of the agenda that establishes topics of study, the actual doing of science, and the communication of scientific knowledge.
A Short History of (20th Century) Government-Science Relations
While the U.S. government employed scientists in many capacities in the 19th and early 20th century, the close relationship between government and science we know today was forged during and shortly after World War II (Douglas, 2009; Kevles, 2006). President Franklin D. Roosevelt greatly expanded the role of the federal government, and this expansion included increased attention to scientific research and training (Kevles, 2006, p. 768). This greater focus on science under Roosevelt would expand dramatically during World War II, when the United States found itself greatly in need of technical assistance for the war effort—not only for the purpose of creating armaments, but also for developing new medicines and information gathering technologies (Douglas, 2009). Large numbers of scientists were hired to work directly for the government in government labs and indirectly via the contract research grant. New government-science institutions were created, including the important Office of Scientific Research and Development, which coordinated many scientific endeavors that supported the war effort. Scientists also began to play a greater role in advising government officials, particularly the president. The most influential of these advisors was Vannevar Bush, who not only advised President Roosevelt but also was one of the primary architects of the new government-science institutions of the period (Douglas, 2009; Guston, 2000).
After World War II ended, the United States found itself with a greatly expanded scientific capacity but a less-than-clear scientific mission. Government officials and scientists embarked on an intense period of collaboration in repurposing this capacity for a post-war world. While scientists generally were eager for the close relationship between government and science to be made permanent with such institutions after the war, they resisted the continuance of the hands-on character of government actors necessary for wartime. In Science: The Endless Frontier—technically a report to President Truman, but widely read—Vannevar Bush (1945) advanced a vision of government-science relations popular among scientists. This report argued that science is essential to the public welfare, but that scientific productivity is best ensured by preserving scientists’ autonomy—specifically, by investing in independent colleges, universities, and research institutes carrying out basic research. Bush writes: “Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown” (p. 7). The advice of Bush and his compatriots was heeded to a considerable agree. As detailed by Guston (2000), a social contract for science emerged. Trusted in large part because of their essential contributions to the war effort, scientists were given a great deal of deference, autonomy, and funding.
In the years following World War II, many new federal government institutions were created to both sponsor and oversee research. Prominent examples included the Office of Naval Research (founded in 1946), the Atomic Energy Commission (1947), the Research Grants Office of the National Institutes of Health (1946), and the National Science Foundation (1951). The role of scientists as policy advisers would become more formalized during this period as well. The most prominent of the new advisory groups was the Science Advisory Committee, initiated by Truman in 1951, which would provide advice to the federal government, especially the President (Douglas, 2009; Kevles, 2006).
Federal science would continue to expand at least through the 1970s, responding to national and international events. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) (created in 1958) and heavy investment in the space program was a direct response to Sputnik, a satellite launched by the Soviet Union, within the context of the Cold War. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (1970) was a response to a new environmental movement among Americans. These expansions were joined by even more reliance among government officials on scientists—with respect to “virtually every technically related area of government policymaking” (Kevles, 2006, p. 769). This growing role for science in government was supported by both Democrats and Republicans in government, a consensus that largely held until the end of the Cold War (Kevles, 2006).
Confidence in government-sponsored science among political leaders on the right and left began to decrease in the 1970s. It was in this era that science began to be politicized in a manner we are familiar with today, and the elevated status of scientists that had brought them considerable autonomy (in addition to esteem) was diminished. In a sense, government-sponsored science would be a victim of its own success. Scientists were playing a greater role than ever before in directing government policy. In addition, new medicines and technologies were developing and entering the marketplace at a rapid pace. In both capacities, science was becoming increasingly intertwined with Americans’ lives (Kevles, 2006). All manner of interest groups and activists took notice of the power of science and technology, publically lauding scientific reports that confirmed their perspective, opposing those that undermined them, and in some cases opposing the reach of science and technology, period. All of this fed scientific controversy (Kevles, 2006; Nelkin, 1995).
The slow fracturing of the bipartisan consensus on government science was uneven, however. Those on the right eventually became far more critical of government-sponsored science than those on the left. This difference is best understood within the context of growing ideological differences between the two parties. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Democratic Party shifted to the left, increasing their support for government intervention in a range of issue areas, most prominently civil rights and the environment (Noel, 2014). In supporting the government’s work in these and other areas, the left almost necessarily supported the technical experts on whose knowledge government action was based (Kevles, 2006). In reaction to the Democrats’ leftward shift (and to the growing power of the federal government in general), the Republican Party moved in the opposite direction, becoming increasingly conservative and anti-federal regulation (Noel, 2014).
The challenge to government science from the right would take two forms. At the least, conservatives argued, government funding for science should decrease in an effort to control the federal deficit. As conservatives had argued in the past, government-funded science should be limited and practical in nature; government funding of basic research was largely superfluous. Private funding of science should replace much federal funding (Kevles, 2006, p. 772). A newer argument would emerge, however, that was more damaging to the scientific endeavor and a direct response to science’s hand in federal power: conservatives seized on the idea that they could challenge government’s increasing intrusion into Americans’ lives by challenging the science on which it was based (Jasanoff, 2012, pp. 12–13; Kevles, 2006; Oreskes & Conway, 2010).
The end of the Cold War was perhaps the nail in the coffin for conservative support for large-scale, government-sponsored science. For many Republican Members of Congress, the worth of scientists rested largely in their ability to counter foreign threats, as they had during World War II and the Cold War; with the fall of the Soviet Union, this impetus disappeared (Kevles, 2006). Republicans’ ability to act on this increasing skepticism of government-sponsored science would also grow in subsequent years due to electoral successes at the Congressional and Presidential level.
How Government Actors Influence Scientific Knowledge
With this brief history in place, let us discuss in more detail some of the ways in which government actors influence scientific knowledge—scientific agendas, discoveries, and communication. Before beginning, it is important to recognize that both the President and Congress have the ability to substantially influence government-sponsored science. The President is the formal head of the bureaucracy and exercises power through appointees as well as direct executive actions, such as executive orders. The Congress writes the legislation that shapes the parameters of bureaucratic institutions, controls the purse strings of those institutions, and exercises oversight (Lowi, Ginsberg, Shepsle, & Ansolabehere, 2014).
It is no secret that the U.S. government plays an enormous role in setting the scientific agenda of the nation. It does so in large part through the expenditure of research dollars, much of which is distributed through grants. The government’s agenda-setting ability with respect to scientific knowledge that is most powerful is simply its ability to drastically expand or contract research funding in general. Yet, despite this blunt power over the overall growth or contraction of scientific knowledge, it is rarely exercised. Sarewitz (2013) shows that the relative size of the Research and Development (R&D) budget remained remarkably stable in the years following World War II and particularly since the 1970s. Since that time, total R&D (including military and nonmilitary) has ranged from 13 to 14% of discretionary spending. In constant dollars, the amount of federal science spending has increased during this period, but this increase has been in concert with an increase in federal spending overall. This stability stems at least in part from an institutional quirk of the U.S. budgeting system for science: it is highly decentralized, thus resisting strategic planning by ideological presidents or members of Congress (see Sarewitz, 2013). The one clear aberration in the overall size in the R&D budget over the last six or so decades occurred in the 1960s, when nondefense R&D briefly doubled as a percentage of nondefense discretionary spending. This occurrence is linked to one very expensive priority of the Kennedy Administration, however: sending people to the moon (Sarewitz, 2013, p. 15).
Presidential administrations and members of Congress tend to exercise their budgeting powers by setting priorities within a relatively stable budgeting pie. The most obvious shift in priorities has occurred if we compare funding for NASA to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Even after the Apollo mission to the moon had been concluded, the NASA budget far exceeded those of other science-related agencies. However, the NIH reached parity with NASA in the 1980s, and, today, its budget is 2.5 times that of NASA. NIH currently has a budget of $30 billion, with 80% of those funds awarded through grants to nongovernment researchers (National Institutes of Health, 2015). Other institutions, such as the Department of Energy, have seen their budgets rise and fall as well (Sarewitz, 2013, p. 16). To some extent, these changes carried out by government officials reflect the public interest: a growing, then waning, perceived need to compete with the USSR; greater desire to devote monies to public health as medical technologies continue to advance; greater, and then lesser, worry over access to energy.
However, agenda setting by government officials is not only due to widespread public concern. Interest group lobbying—carried out on behalf of particular groups of researchers, industries, and private citizens—can noticeably influence the size of specific government-science institutions’ budgets as well as to what subjects they allocate funds (Greenberg, 2001). The concerns of individual members of Congress also can play a role. For example, beginning in 2009, Republican members of Congress sought to reduce social science funding within the National Science Foundation (NSF) and sought to completely eliminate Political Science funding (see Coburn, 2011; Sides, 2015). The efforts, spearheaded by former Senator Tom Coburn, did result in reduced spending in these areas. While part of a general crusade against wasteful spending, Coburn’s intense interest in eliminating Political Science funding in particular suggests some idiosyncratic personal beliefs were at play. As Sides (2011) points out, the Political Science program Coburn sought to eliminate cost only $5 million (around 0.1% of NSF’s billion-dollar budget), hardly a big contributor to the deficit.
These decisions to increase or decrease government investment in particular research agendas have an enormous influence on where scientific discoveries occur. For example, recent increases in government funding of biosciences via the NIH has led to greater expertise on these subjects and many important discoveries, such as our still rapidly growing understanding of the intricacies of the human genome. Such funding also has important ripple effects. Graduate students are trained, and researchers develop expertise they will continue to develop even after their grant has expired. Furthermore, the excitement surrounding such discoveries, and the research dollars attached to them, attract the attention of scholars in other disciplines. Not only are there more people working within the biosciences today due to increased government funding, but also a range of other disciplines—including in the social sciences and humanities—have begun to incorporate biological approaches into their work (e.g., see Krimsky, 2013).
Agenda setting is just one aspect of government influence over scientific knowledge—one that (depending on the reason for influence) need not necessarily be worrisome. More problematic are efforts by government actors to change the conclusions and public reports of scientists working on behalf of the government.1 Jasanoff discusses how the regulatory process in particular is vulnerable to political influences, as scientists within agencies must meticulously deconstruct knowledge claims to examine their strength and certainty, which invites politically motivated arguments over the strength of the evidence for or against a particular policy (Jasanoff, 1987). Although political meddling in regulatory science and other technical areas of government occurs with some frequency, the George W. Bush administration stands out as unusually politicized. An extensive investigation carried out by the Union of Concerned Scientists, discussed in two reports (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2004, 2005), found that the Bush administration had been consistently suppressing and distorting research findings at federal agencies on a wide range of topics. Those topics included environmental concerns (climate change, endangered species, forest management, strip mining); health concerns (HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, contraception, abstinence-only education), and the war in Iraq (whether the Iraq government was building weapons of mass destruction).
Presidential administrations are not the only ones who try to influence the conclusions of government-sponsored research. When faced with a federal agency generating inconvenient scientific conclusions, members of Congress may threaten to decrease or eliminate an agency’s funding or, short of that, conduct hearings or subpoena information in an effort to discredit or harass scientists. For example, at the time of this writing in late 2015, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex)—a well-known “climate skeptic” and also chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology—had recently issued a subpoena for internal deliberations of scientists working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who had worked on a well-regarded study published in Science that refuted claims that global warming had slowed in the preceding decade. While Smith stated that his intentions were to investigate whether scientists had rushed the study and published it despite important flaws, many scientists and administrators, including the head of the NOAA, interpreted the subpoena as politically motivated, with the goal of intimidating scientists (Rein, 2015a, 2015b). This pattern of unusually aggressive interference with, and skepticism of, government-sponsored scientists by Republican leaders in recent decades—particularly surrounding the issue of climate change—has led some to declare that there exists a Republican war on science (Mooney, 2005; also see Kolbert, 2015; vanden Heuvel, 2011).
Political influences on science in the federal government extend to science advising as well. From the politician’s perspective, science advisers serve two functions: to help him or her make quality policy decisions (evidence-based decisions), and to provide justification for already made policy decisions to colleagues, the media, and the public (what we might call, more critically, decision-based evidence). Befitting the post-war bipartisan consensus on scientists’ perceived important contributions to the public welfare, Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy both emphasized the first role, listening intently to their science advisers (Douglas, 2009). Yet, throughout history, “both presidents and Congress latched onto technical views that suited their political purposes” (Kevles, 2006, p. 762). Nixon famously disbanded the President’s Science Advisory Committee when its members refused to rubber-stamp his war-related initiatives (Kevles, 2006, p. 763). More recently, the George W. Bush administration continually applied political litmus tests to appointees on advisory committees, thus ensuring ahead of time that those advisers would be on the President’s side (Kevles, 2006). Congress competes in the contest for science-backed credibility as well, with Democrats and Republicans cherry-picking scientists based on known perspectives to appear as supportive experts in Congressional hearings. Because of these behind-the-scenes efforts to control which scientific perspectives are expressed in public forums, even politically neutral scientists who agree to speak in such venues can add fuel to the fire of political debate, particularly where value differences between opposing sides are high and scientific certainty is low (Pielke, 2007).
The Influence of Political Values on Scientists at Work
The previous section discussed various ways in which government institutions and actors influence scientific knowledge. However, it should not be presumed that scientists themselves do not also have political commitments that may influence their work. This said, writing about such influences is a challenging endeavor. The process of research usually is not observed by anyone beyond the researcher or research team, and, even if scientists are observed in action, the observer cannot peer into their minds to understand their thought processes. While it is certainly possible to shed some light on scientists’ likely motivations via empirical research (e.g., observation, personal interviews, textual analysis of notes and publications), conclusions normally must be somewhat tentative.
The field of the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) has contributed the most to collective understanding of various influences on scientists’ work, including the topics scientists pursue, the methods they employ, and the conclusions they draw. As one learns in classic works in the field, such as Latour’s Science in Action (1986), creating knowledge bears little resemblance to the overly concise and stylized way scholarly publications portray research. Scientists make critical decisions based on competition with other scientists, power dynamics, and miscellaneous epistemic values,2 such as a preference for novelty, theoretical simplicity, or particular methodologies (also see Douglas, 2009). For the most part, these influences are not political, at least according to the relatively formal definition used herewith.
Yet, politically relevant values and interests do sometimes play a role in coloring scientific research. The influences can intersect research at the agenda-setting stage as well as in the “internal stages of scientific reasoning” (Douglas, 2015, p. 122)—planning and carrying out a study and interpreting its evidence.
To begin, political influences on research agendas are not only produced indirectly through funding. While some scientists pursue subjects out of intrinsic intellectual appeal, scientists’ values often also influence their research agendas to some degree. P. B. Medawar, in Advice to a Young Scientist, insists that scientists must study problems in which “it matters what the answer is—whether to science generally or to mankind” (Medawar, 1979, p. 13). Knowledge that matters to mankind is certainly bound up with values. Some of these values are widely shared and pursued via a range of projects, such as improving humans’ health and happiness via medical or consumer safety research. In other cases, value priorities may differ considerably between individuals, or people may share societal goals but disagree over how best to get there (Rokeach, 1973). Such contested values are apparent in—and divide—the social sciences. For example, it is fairly well known that American sociologists are, on average, considerably more liberal than economists. It is likely that students who are relatively left-leaning are drawn to a field (sociology) explicitly concerned with social ills, such as racial discrimination, whereas students who are relatively right-leaning are drawn to a field (economics) which, at least until fairly recently, held that economic markets are most efficient when they are free of government regulation.
When performing and interpreting a research study, scientific norms dictate the importance of avoiding any direct influence of social or ethical values (beyond those values that outline ethical scientific procedures, such as the treatment of human or animal subjects). This means that scientists should not design studies in a way that guarantees a desired conclusion will be reached. It especially means that, when interpreting evidence, scientists should not allow themselves to be influenced by what they wish the result to be. One’s personal values simply are not appropriate evidence (see Douglas, 2009). Most professional observers of the scientific process would argue that scientists generally strive to adhere to this ethos.
This said, scientists—particularly government scientists working in a regulatory capacity—consistently do (and should) take values into account indirectly in their work (Douglas, 2009). Based on concern over real-world risks, scientists must consider whether the weight of the evidence they have before them justifies an affirmative scientific claim, which may include a recommendation for some type of collective action, or whether more evidence should first be gathered to increase certainty. Given that no scientific study ever claims to have 100% settled an empirical question, scientific uncertainty is a focal point of much political disagreement related to science-backed government policy. For example, some may see a risk, such as children’s ill health due to low-level exposure to lead, as unacceptable and recommend efforts to remove all lead from children’s environments even if the evidence of ill health effects remains uncertain. Others may be more tolerant of such a risk and demand further study to demonstrate more conclusively that the ill health effects of low-level lead exposure are consistent and substantial prior to additional regulation (see Douglas, 2009). The climate change debate offers a different type of example. Most climate scientists argue that there is enough persuasive evidence for the catastrophic effects of climate change that steps must be taken immediately to counteract climate change. A handful of climate scientists, in many cases connected to industries that stand to lose a great deal if their productivity is curbed by government regulation, have argued that the science is as of yet too uncertain to impose the costs of regulation on American industries and consumers (Oreskes & Conway, 2010).
Thus far, only explicit (or conscious) political influences on scientists have been described. Such influences play a role not only in scientists’ decisions regarding their field (and topics) of study but also in their assessments of whether the strength of evidence justifies a public conclusion and perhaps a recommendation for societal action. This said, borrowing from research in psychology and the sociology of scientific knowledge, politically relevant values and interests likely also influence the doing of science—designing, conducting, and interpreting studies—to some extent subconsciously, via motivated cognition as well as background assumptions. Motivated cognition involves, in essence, wishing for a particular scientific conclusion (or fearing a conclusion) due to value or interests, and (unknowingly) allowing this desire to influence one’s interpretation of evidence. Motivated cognition consists of two key behaviors: increased skepticism of evidence that undermines one’s point of view, and searching the information environment, or one’s memory, for facts that bolster one’s perspective (Lodge & Taber, 2013). While it appears as though experts are less likely than others to engage in this style of thinking (Kahan et al., 2016), it likely exists in some form among scientists. Background assumptions operate differently. These are not values but, rather, factual beliefs about the world that are taken for granted. Such perceived facts unavoidably differ among people, leading Barker and Kitcher (2014) to avoid calling them a “bias.” Instead, all knowledge is “situated” in light of the unique perspectives of the observer. Background assumptions may have a political flavor when they take the form of stereotypes of social groups or other distinct perceptions of the world that stem from a person’s socioeconomic status or political alliances. Such assumptions can influence scientists’ work by making it easier to “see” evidence that fits an expected pattern (Barker & Kitcher, 2014).
Below, these influences—motivated cognition and background assumptions—are discussed within the context of scientific debates over biological influences on human characteristics and behaviors. The study of biological inheritance (i.e., genetics), in particular, has strong political implications (see Suhay & Jayaratne, 2013 for an overview), meaning that scientists’ own political commitments may influence their work more here than with respect to other topics. While this makes it easier to spot cases of bias, it is important to note that the examples described below are likely not representative of scientific research generally, including within the biosciences today.
Prior to World War II, the work of U.S. (as well as many British and European) geneticists appeared to be influenced both by motivated reasoning and problematic background assumptions. These scientists, most of whom were upper-class, Christian men of Western European descent, made a number of important discoveries related to genetic inheritance, but also a related set of additional claims that have since been discredited by biologists. The most notorious of those claims included the belief that a wide range of people—southern and eastern Europeans, Africans, Asians, Jews, women, the poor, those with addictions, and the mentally ill—were genetically inferior to people like themselves. It is not an exaggeration to say that many of these scientists advocated for eugenic practices—many of which were acted upon by the U.S. government—including forced sterilization of some individuals and greatly reduced immigration (Beckwith, 2002; Kevles, 1985; Paul, 1998). These early geneticists did not appear to be consciously skewing their conclusions for political reasons, however. In an era of rising inequality and immigration, “the raison d’etre of the eugenics movement was the perceived threat of swamping by a large class of mental defectives” (Paul, 1998, p. 125). Problematic background assumptions about people with whom they had little interaction—people from different social classes and nations and of different races and ethnicities—appeared to be influencing these scientists. Many geneticists of the era genuinely believed that large swaths of the masses were mentally disabled and, in having many children, threatened to diminish future Americans’ wellbeing. Barker and Kitcher (2014) also suggest motivated reasoning influenced the geneticists’ extreme conclusions: “Historically, research aimed at finding innate biological differences that underlie and explain existing social inequalities has enjoyed intense interest and often won acclaim … Bad or sloppy science may be tolerated if it leads to comfortable conclusions” (2014, pp. 107–108). Whatever the reasons for their conclusions, the American eugenics movement caused substantial human suffering in the United Sates and perhaps beyond. While historical counterfactuals are impossible to trace out with certainty, it is well established that Hitler drew heavily on the ideas of both American and British geneticists and eugenicists when formulating Nazi racial ideology (Black, 2003; Kühl, 1994).
After World War II, in the wake of the Holocaust, the ideological ground surrounding biological research shifted considerably. For example, Provine (1973) documents how geneticists “changed their minds about the biological effects of race crossing” (i.e., miscegenation) after the war even though the store of relevant scientific evidence on the subject (there was, in fact, very little) had not changed. Before the war, many geneticists had warned that the offspring of two parents of different “races” would likely exhibit physical defects; after the war, genetic scientists reversed this claim, arguing defects were highly unlikely. Segerstrale (2000) describes a general post-war taboo on using biology to explain human behavior because of concern such theories could be used to justify prejudice and discrimination against vulnerable groups in society. Those scholars who did make claims about biological influences on human characteristics and behaviors, such as famed sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, were often met with intellectual attacks whose ferocity suggested more than just academic motivation.
In more recent years, the ideological nature of debates over the origins of human differences has dissipated. But new scientific controversies continue to arise in this arena, and sometimes the political motivations behind the actors involved are quite apparent (e.g., see Dreger, 2016). Interestingly, in the contemporary era, the coalitions arguing in favor of nature vs. nurture have been reshuffled to a degree. While the academic disciplines most associated with egalitarian value orientations continue to be relatively pessimistic about research on human genetics (Hochschild & Sen, 2015), empirical findings in support of innate influences on sexual orientation specifically have been eagerly communicated by some socially progressive researchers (e.g., Bailey et al., 2016). As the belief that people are “born gay” has increasingly become associated with tolerance for diverse sexual orientations in the public (see, e.g., Garretson & Suhay, 2016), some academics may be motivated to present such evidence in a favorable light to further advance gay rights (Pitman, 2011; Walters, 2014). In sum, Provine’s conclusion several decades ago, in a very different context, continues to ring true today: “the science of genetics is often closely intertwined with social attitudes and political considerations” (1973, p. 796).
A discussion of scientists’ political biases would be incomplete without some discussion of the handful of scientists who knowingly distort scientific truths for political ends. By all accounts, the relative number of such individuals is exceedingly small. However, given that such scientists are likely to be highly outspoken, their small number belies their impact. A remarkable account of one such group of scientists is provided by Oreskes and Conway (2010). The authors document the activities of a small cadre of fervently anti-communist and libertarian scientists who would knowingly mislead the government, the media, and the public on the science behind a range of topics, from the risks of smoking, to Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, to various environmental concerns (including the ozone layer, acid rain, and climate change). For these individuals, their fierce opposition to communism and anything resembling it (i.e., government regulation) justifies lying. The strategy of these individuals is to attack any science they do not like as “junk science”—as science either driven by politics or full of mistakes (or both). In some cases, they trumpet dubious studies produced by themselves or their allies. Because these individuals are accomplished scientists (usually in fields other than those they are critiquing, however), they are trusted. These unscrupulous scientists play a key role not only in influencing government policy but also in fostering the undeserved public perception that much government-sponsored science is biased (Oreskes & Conway, 2010).
Public Engagement with Science
A broader view of scientific knowledge considers the communication of scientific knowledge to the public, public perceptions of what is (or is not) settled scientific knowledge, as well as ways in which the public itself can influence the production of scientific knowledge.
The (Political) Science of Science Communication
It is difficult to separate the public’s understanding of science from the communication of science. For nonscientists, science is a mediated reality. “Their exposure to science and scientists … is not a direct one, but indirect through mass or online media” (Scheufele, 2014, p. 13587). While many types of people engage in science communication via media (including scientists themselves), this section focuses on science communication by entities that politicize scientific communication with some frequency: journalists and interest groups.
Science journalism began in earnest in the United States between the world wars (Lewenstein, 1995; Weingold, 2001). The focus of this field has long been to simply translate scientific findings for the general public with an added dimension of clarifying how scientific findings may be—or may become—relevant to lay people’s lives (Lewenstein, 1995). With this latter point in mind, science reporting has long had a value dimension. This said, science reporting has recently become more explicitly politicized. The reasons are several.
First, the ranks of science journalists have been thinning due to shrinking news budgets and associated newsroom cuts. As a result, when scientific topics are covered, they are often covered by nonspecialists, including political reporters and columnists. These individuals are more likely to frame scientific issues in a political manner (Nisbet & Fahy, 2015).
Second, over the last several decades, controversy has become a craft norm of the news media (Weingold, 2001). As with other media stories, framing scientific findings as politically controversial increases audience interest. Examples stretch far beyond the well-known example of climate change reporting, including medical scientists’ health recommendations (Fowler & Gollust, 2015) and genetic discoveries (Garretson & Suhay, 2016), among others. Where scientific knowledge is contested among scientists, emphasizing controversy may be even more advantageous for journalists. In such cases, most journalists are unlikely to understand the scientific or technological issue well enough to understand which claims in a scientific debate are well founded and which are safely ignored (or debunked). Further, in covering the controversy, rather than adjudicating between competing claims, journalists often are trying to appear objective, in the sense of a balanced presentation of all sides of a debate (a long-held craft norm). Of course, when the view of a minority of scientists is presented in media reports as just as credible as that of an overwhelming majority of practicing scientists, this greatly distorts public perceptions of the current state of scientific knowledge (Oreskes & Conway, 2010, p. 243).
Yet a third way in which politics can influence science reporting is less well known to those outside the media. Scheufele (2014) describes behind-the-scenes strategic efforts by a variety of policy stakeholders—including interest groups, corporations, scientific associations, and others. These groups compete for access to the news agenda and, not surprisingly, work hard to ensure that their science or technology issue of interest is framed in the way they want (Nisbet & Huge, 2006). One method of gaining access to the news agenda under favorable terms is to provide information subsidies to news organizations (Weingold, 2001, p. 181). In a striking parallel to the influence of lobbyists on Capitol Hill (see Drutman, 2015), perpetually rushed journalists are sometimes relieved to be able to draw heavily on a press release provided by an interest group.
Fourth and finally, politics sometimes also enters science reporting simply due to the political goals of a particular reporter or news outlet. Partisan news outlets have flourished amidst the fragmentation of the media (Levendusky, 2013; Stroud, 2011). Such outlets are certainly less interested than others in neutral reporting. A content analysis of climate change coverage on several cable news channels (Fox News, CNN, MSNBC) between 2007 and 2008 demonstrated that Fox was more dismissive of climate change and interviewed more climate change doubters than the other cable channels (Feldman, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, & Leiserowitz, 2012). This said, note that political bias practiced by such outlets is not necessarily carried out by presenting falsehoods. Rather, politically motivated news outlets and journalists may cherry-pick the studies they discuss—only reporting ones with results that support their perspective—or express greater skepticism of studies that undermine their perspective.
All of these political influences on science journalism will influence public understanding of science in some way, of course. Even when reporters themselves have no political agenda, simply alerting media consumers to the fact that there are different sides to a debate (and clarifying which political values or identities are associated with which side) will tend to encourage motivated cognition in the public. Where scientific knowledge has identified a threat to the public and thereby justifies government intervention, politicized reporting also has a status quo bias. For example, Fowler and Gollust (2015) found that when media coverage of the HPV vaccine emphasized political conflict over its use, support for the vaccine and a state immunization program decreased. Covering the controversy also tends to erode public trust in scientists, as their motives are implicitly portrayed as political (Fowler & Gollust, 2015). As for more marked political biases, these influence public understanding of science in predictable ways. The previously mentioned study of cable news climate change reporting also found that Fox News viewers were less likely to believe in climate change than viewers of other channels, even after controlling for possible confounds (Feldman, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, & Leiserowitz, 2012). A follow-up study suggests that this media influence was mediated by changes in viewers’ trust in scientists (Hmielowski, Feldman, Myers, Leiserowitz, & Maibach, 2014).
Finally, those who wish to communicate about science do not need to rely on journalists. Oreskes and Conway describe a number of such efforts, including a pamphlet called “A Scientific Perspective on the Cigarette Controversy” sent to 176,800 American doctors in the 1950s. The intellectually dishonest pamphlet, funded by the tobacco industry, challenged existing evidence that smoking causes cancer so that doctors would not recommend that their patients quit smoking (Oreskes & Conway, 2010, p. 18). During the drafting of this article, the author saw an advertisement, broadcast during a widely viewed sporting event, sponsored by “Fuels America,” an industry group promoting biofuels. The ad urged President Obama to support the Renewable Fuel Standard, which, according to the ad, has been supported by government scientists and opposed by the oil industry. An almost too-good-to-be-true example for the present purposes, the biofuel industry-sponsored ad then associated government scientists with angels and oil executives with the devil, complete with fire and smoke (Fuels America, 2015). Here, industries with a substantial financial stake in an upcoming government decision sought to portray themselves simultaneously as having science on their side, and as being on the side of angels. Whatever the merits of biofuels and the Renewable Fuel Standard, a viewer would be right to be skeptical of such an advertisement.3
Political Influences on Public Understanding of Science
The intersection of scientific knowledge and the public is an increasingly popular topic among scholars, media, and the public itself, at least in the United States. This article is being written shortly after a period of national reflection on, and criticism of, the public’s understanding of scientific knowledge (e.g., see Achenbach, 2015; McIntyre, 2015; Pew Research Center, 2015). Concern has been spurred primarily by continued rejection of climate change among many (Brewer, 2012; Lewandowsky, Gignac, & Oberauer, 2013; Zajko, 2011), but also by a set of smaller controversies, such as some parents’ refusal to vaccinate their children (Nyhan, 2014). An irony in this is that the current conversation is playing out long after those who study the public’s understanding of science have turned away from criticizing the public for such knowledge deficits and bias.
The field of public understanding of science, which began in earnest in the 1980s, has changed considerably in just three decades (see Brossard & Lewenstein, 2010; Wynne, 1995 for overviews). Early work in the field focused on measuring the public’s awareness of well-established scientific facts via surveys, finding that such awareness was remarkably low (Miller, 1983). The field turned its attention to addressing this problem, assuming that greater exposure to higher quality scientific communication would not only improve scientific literacy but would also increase Americans’ appreciation of science. Some refer to this set of assumptions as the deficit model, because “it describes a deficit of knowledge that must be filled, with a presumption that after fixing the deficit, everything will be ‘better’” (Brossard & Lewenstein, 2010, p. 13).
This model has since been critiqued on a number of grounds. From an empirical perspective, scholars point out that greater exposure to scientific communication or interest in scientific topics often does not lead to better understanding of science, in the sense of holding beliefs that accurately reflect scientific consensus (Brewer, 2012; Kahan et al., 2012). Similarly, greater and more accurate understanding of scientific knowledge does not necessarily lead to more appreciation for science (Wynne, 1995; although see Sturgis & Allum, 2004). Other critiques of the deficit model have challenged the normative assumption that the public ought to improve its science literacy. Should we ask lay people to spend valuable time increasing their store of scientific knowledge, much of which has no obvious utility in their day-to-day lives? Is it even appropriate to assume that scientific knowledge is always superior to lay knowledge (Wynne, 1995)? We return to these questions in the final section below.
A frequent theme of more recent research on public understanding of science is that the uptake of scientific knowledge depends in part on a person’s trust in the scientific enterprise. Thus, rather than increasing scientific knowledge leading to greater approval of science, as in the deficit model, the causal relationship often works in the opposite direction. While public trust in science in the United States is high relative to other institutions (Shapin, 2008), trust in science varies considerably among groups in the population, and much of this variation has a political flavor. Perhaps most notably, Gauchat (2012) documents a marked decline in American conservatives’ trust in science from the 1970s to 2010. Conservatives began the period with the highest trust in science but ended the period with the lowest. In a recent survey, Blank and Shaw (2015) document higher levels of trust in scientists among liberals and Democrats than among conservatives and Republicans across nearly every scientific topic examined.
The above raises the question: why do levels of trust in science vary among political (and other) groups in the public? Some scholars have provided evidence for the import of social identity to trust and, therefore, the acquisition of scientific information (Wynne, 1992). Blank and Shaw (2015) point out that U.S. scientists are considerably more likely than the public at large to identify as both Democratic and liberal (Pew Research Center, 2009), which may be one reason for lower trust in scientists among Americans on the right. Highly outspoken atheistic scientists, such as Richard Dawkins, no doubt further distance scientists from religious conservatives in particular (Nisbet, 2010). As has been discussed in the section on government influences on science, the fact that much scientific research today is used to bolster arguments for government regulation is likely another reason why Americans on the right are more likely to distrust scientists than those on the left (Blank & Shaw, 2015; Douglas, 2015). Finally, lower trust in scientists among Americans on the right certainly is also driven by mistrust of scientists by Republican and conservative elites. It is well accepted in Political Science that the beliefs and attitudes of politically attentive and partisan (and/or ideological) citizens are influenced to a substantial degree by debate among elites (see Zaller, 1992). Thus, doubt in mainstream scientific research expressed by the George W. Bush administration and, continuing today, by outspoken Republican members of Congress (as previously discussed) likely trickles down to the public.
While trust in scientists varies throughout the population, individuals may find themselves skeptical of a specific scientific claim for reasons other than their overall trust in scientists. The reasons for skepticism about specific claims mirror those already discussed with respect to trust in scientists generally. First, the social identity (Wynne, 1992) and the perceived interests (Lupia, 2013) of the particular source of the information and the particular communicator matter. Second, the specific content of the information being communicated matters as well. In the United States, whether a person who is conservative or liberal will accept a scientific argument depends in part on whether that argument is value-congruent or value-incongruent (Kraft, Lodge, & Taber, 2015; Nisbet, Cooper, & Garrett, 2015). While it is conservatives who are more likely than others to resist climate change findings, it is liberals who are less likely than others to accept scientific findings related to the safety of fracking or nuclear waste disposal (Nisbet, Cooper, & Garrett, 2015).
Social scientists have summed up this tendency—overreliance on social identities, values, and interests in the acceptance of information—with the label “biased assimilation” (see, e.g., Kahan, 2011; Garretson & Suhay, 2016). Kahan and colleagues have developed a more specific version of this theory called cultural cognition, whereby individuals are motivated reasoners in order to protect values—particularly preferences for hierarchy vs. egalitarianism, and for individualism vs. communitarianism—that are tightly bound up with group identities (Kahan, 2011; Kahan et al., 2012).
Note, however, that to reject an unappealing scientific claim is not to reject science wholesale. Even among those on the right, trust in science outweighs distrust (Blank & Shaw, 2015). As Shapin argues, “the problem today is not antiscience but a contest for the proper winner of the designation ‘science’” (2008, p. 439). Thus, those who reject scientific knowledge on a particular topic tend to seek out alternate claims that appear scientific rather than retreat into mysticism or uncertainty. In parallel to biased assimilation, the act of searching for information to bolster preexisting views can be labeled as biased search (see Kahan, 2011).4 Biased search, in conjunction with an overall respect for scientific knowledge, explains the enormous public attention given to the handful of climate change doubters who are scientists (Oreskes & Conway, 2010). Biased search in this context also explains the growth of bodies of questionable knowledge that wear the mantle of science, such as “Intelligent Design” (see Nisbet, 2010). With this in mind, concern over a general lack of trust in science among the public seems largely misplaced. Rather, the relevant problem would seem to be that public trust in scientific claims is often overly contingent on a person’s social identities, values, and interests.
Finally, while the various forms of motivated cognition influence public understanding of science to a significant extent, it is important to recognize that most scientific beliefs among the public have been influenced little by such biases. Motivated cognition is most likely when a person finds him or herself in a highly partisan environment, or a specific topic has become politicized (Kahan, 2012; Lupia, 2013). Most scientific knowledge, such as how photosynthesis or radar works, carries few political implications and, thus, is not met with bias. It is also worth noting that politically motivated cognition tends to be greater among those who are most educated and attentive to media (Gauchat, 2012; Kahan et al., 2012; Lodge & Taber, 2013). Such individuals are simply exposed to more politicized information and are better able to recognize the political implications of that information.
Politics and Public Influence on Science
Criticisms of the previously described “deficit model” (again, which problematizes, and seeks to increase, low levels of scientific knowledge in the public) have led to an interest in reorienting scientific communication with an emphasis on interaction with the public. Two key themes have emerged under this umbrella: first, the influence of lay expertise on scientific knowledge; second, the influence of citizens’ interests on the scientific agenda. In both instances, many scholars argue that these influences are generally positive (Brossard & Lewenstein, 2010). This section focuses on public influences on the scientific agenda given its greater political aspects.5
To some, the fact that nonscientists can influence scientists’ work may seem far-fetched, but there are many clear examples of this phenomenon. Public involvement in science noticeably increased in the United States in the 1970s. Given a confluence of increased government involvement in science, growing awareness of public risks created by science and technology (e.g., environmental problems, drug side-effects) (Nelkin, 1995, p. 445), and a general social milieu that encouraged citizen action, this timing likely was not coincidental. In some cases, scientists themselves initiated and encouraged public involvement in science, as in the case of the “Science for the People” movement (Beckwith, 2002; Moore, 2008; Nelkin, 1995). Increasing citizen activism has been observed outside the United States as well. New social movements (NSMs) seeking to influence science and technology have sprung up in many countries in recent decades, and many national and international institutions now emphasize the importance of citizen involvement in science and technology (Bucchi & Neresini, 2008).
What do such citizens seek to accomplish? In many cases, nonscientists wish to influence the scientific agenda, directing the object of scientists’ inquiry to perceived pressing problems. Bucchi and Neresini (2008) describe the successful lobbying efforts of the French Muscular Dystrophy Association (AFM). Muscular dystrophy was largely ignored by scientists until the AFM took it upon themselves to collect clinical and genetic data on those suffering from the disease, both subsidizing the cost of research and establishing the disease as a legitimate subject of study (Bucchi & Neresini, 2008, p. 453). Similar levels of intense interaction between scientists and the public were observed in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, with many in the gay community in particular pressing for attention by government and scientists to help fight the disease (Bucchi & Neresini, 2008; Gould, 2009).
Not all such interest-group activity is oriented toward public health, however. Conservative and libertarian think tanks have particularly flourished in the wake of the growth of government regulation of industry. Their ranks include science-focused entities, such as the George C. Marshall Institute (Kevles, 2006; Oreskes & Conway, 2010). Much of the funding for such think tanks has come from industry, given its financial interest in reducing government regulation. Both think tanks and industry directly fund much research intended to influence public debate. Oreskes and Conway (2010) discuss in detail the political goals of investments in scientific research by the tobacco and the energy industries. In short, by only funding scientific research that was likely to counter arguments for regulation (research casting doubt on the smoking-cancer link in the former case and on anthropogenic climate change in the latter), these industries and their ideological allies successfully tilted the pool of knowledge in their favor.
In recent decades, normative theorists have become quite interested in the subject of public engagement with scientific topics. Many have argued that democratic governments such as the United States should increase—and better institutionalize—consideration of citizens’ perspectives when setting scientific agendas (Brown, 2006; Guston, 2013; Kitcher, 2001). Science—particularly that sponsored by government—is supposed to be carried out for the public benefit, after all, and who better to enunciate their interests than the public.
There appear to be, however, two key challenges to this goal. First, while the deficit model may have fallen out of favor, there remains the reality of relatively low levels of scientific literacy. How can a wide range of citizens help to set a scientific agenda when so many do not well understand the scientific process or even grasp what is scientifically feasible at a given moment in time? Second, as Schattsneider recognized decades ago, “[t]he flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent” (1960, p. 35). In other words, even putting aside industry-funded interest groups, those with high levels of wealth and education are considerably more likely than others to participate in the political arena. One possible way of answering both of these challenges is to borrow the method of deliberative polls, in which a random sample of citizens is brought together for several days of education and discussion on a topic (see Fishkin & Luskin, 2005). Increasing informed, representative participation in a scientific agenda setting in this manner would be a resource-intensive proposition; however, the goal is admirable enough that it may be worth the cost.
In discussing the ways in which political concerns among government officials, scientists, journalists, and the public influence scientific knowledge, this article has touched on a variety of topics. These include: the government’s current and historical role as a funder, manager, and consumer of scientific knowledge; how the personal interests and ideologies of scientists influence their research; the susceptibility of scientific communication to politicization and the concomitant political impact on audiences; the role of the public’s political values, identities, and interests in their understanding of science; and, finally, the role of the public, mainly through interest groups and think tanks, in shaping the production and public discussion of scientific knowledge.
Given that scientific findings heavily influence many types of decisions, including collective decision-making via government, we should not be surprised by this variety of influences. However, should we be concerned?
In response to this important normative question, it is worth reiterating a few key normative points. To begin, political influences on the production of scientific knowledge are not thought to be problematic—and, indeed, are often welcome—to the extent that they (a) reflect public concerns and (b) influence the scientific agenda. Societal values and interests may also safely influence the doing of science (i.e., the creation of scientific knowledge), so long as their role is indirect and related to evaluations of whether sufficient evidence has been obtained to communicate a conclusion or recommend societal action to combat a risk (Douglas, 2009). However, most other political influences are indeed detrimental, particularly where political preferences and identities directly influence scientific conclusions, their communication, or their acceptance by nonscientists. Collectively, we must do a better job separating our policy preferences and associated political and social identities from our factual beliefs. How we do this given present levels of political polarization and the politicization and fragmentation of the media is less than certain. But a shared, accurate understanding of the world is too important to allow the status quo to prevail.
My sincere thanks to Shawn Janzen, who provided helpful research assistance, as well as to participants in the 2015 “Understanding Science Denialism” workshop at Wake Forest University, especially Heather Douglas and organizer Adrian Bardon.
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1. Yet another way government influences scientific knowledge is through “boundary organizations,” established during the 1980s and 1990s, as a method of ensuring scientific integrity and encouraging scientific contributions to economic growth (Guston, 2000). Examples include the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Research Integrity and Office of Technology Transfer and the National Science Foundation’s Office of Inspector General. These organizations largely fall outside the purview of this essay, given their greater focus on epistemic and economic values rather than politically oriented ones.
2. For those unfamiliar with the term, “epistemic values” make up a special category of values accepted by a given scientific community as aiding scientists’ decision-making as they carry out their research. The term is admittedly somewhat vague, as pointed out by Douglas (2009).
3. This article does not take up the relatively new subject of science communication by lay people on social media. Early assessments paint a pessimistic portrait of such communication, suggesting it tends to misrepresent scientific findings and is highly politicized. See Groshek and Bronda (2016) for a brief overview.
4. “Biased assimilation” and “biased search” are both forms of “motivated cognition,” a concept introduced in the section “The Influence of Political Values on Scientists at Work.”
5. For an excellent example of how sometimes lay knowledge is superior to expert knowledge, see Wynne (1992). He describes the interactions between government scientists and farmers in northern England after the Chernobyl accident. Scientists repeatedly made mistaken recommendations to farmers based on false knowledge of local conditions and, unfortunately, resisted farmers’ efforts to correct them.