When science so readily attaches itself to politics, policies and candidates, it loses all claim to objectivity.
Earlier this month, Scientific American broke with what it claims is its 175-year history of political neutrality to endorse US presidential candidate, Joe Biden. According to the magazine’s editorial: ‘The evidence and the science show that Donald Trump has badly damaged the US and its people.’ Strong stuff. But what field of science produced this judgement? Physics, perhaps? Chemistry? Biology? None of them, of course. The truth is that institutional science has willingly politicised itself and prostituted itself to power to such an extent that it no longer understands the difference between politics and science.
SciAm’s editorial, though, is not as much an endorsement of Biden as it is a shrill moral litany of Trump’s crimes: his handling of the pandemic and of healthcare, and his battles with national and global bureaucracies. Biden, by contrast, argued the editorial, ‘is offering fact-based plans to protect our health, our economy and the environment’. Really? Are scientists so easily moved by such crass good-vs-evil political framing?
SciAm was not alone in nailing its political colours to the mast. In the journal Science, editor Herbert Holden Thorp wrote recently that ‘Trump lied about science’. But this view, too, requires rather more interpretation than science. Among Trump’s deadly crimes listed by Thorp was ‘the opening of colleges and schools’. The bastard!
The problem for the editorial teams of both publications is that assent to scientific facts and the drafting and execution of policy are different things. In no area is this confusion more clear than climate change. It was President Barack Obama who, in 2013, said:
Heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, floods all are now more frequent and more intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it’s too late.’
Obama’s speech epitomises the problem from the other side. It was not the ‘overwhelming judgement of science’ that extreme weather events on their own or together were more frequent and intense. At best, this remains a matter of controversy. Moreover, extreme events would have to become very many times more frequent and intense to register as greater problems than extreme weather has caused America in the past – let alone become America’s most urgent problems. Obama, who Biden served as vice president, departed from the facts here. But few scientists rushed to condemn him for this.
Put simply, Obama’s speech flattered institutional science and the global political institutions which President Trump has sought to withdraw the US from – namely, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the 2015 Paris Agreement. But neither assent to nor dissent from facts and science have anything to do with the president’s political choices.
After all, it’s not as if the WHO has covered itself in scientific glory during this pandemic. Why wouldn’t a president ask questions about his country’s support for it? And similarly, as I have pointed out many times on spiked, the Paris Agreement is fundamentally anti-democratic. That might lead some to conclude that the basis of such a claim is ‘science denial’, but this would be to repeat the mistake of confusing political and scientific arguments. Climate change can be understood (and dealt with) as a problem without yielding sovereignty to undemocratic global technocracies.
This confusion runs deep in today’s most high-pitched political claims. One reason for this is that science is increasingly expected to carry the moral, economic and political weight for increasingly worthless political campaigns. Scientific authority – institutional science – can easily produce estimates of a political leader’s policy failures in the crude terminology of body counts. But such estimates are not like the isolation of a gene that causes a disease, or the identification of a new particle.
The SciAm editorial, for example, claims that ‘In his ongoing denial of reality, Trump has hobbled US preparations for climate change’, and that the ‘changing climate is already causing a rise in heat-related deaths’. But ‘heat-related deaths’ turns out not to be a phenomenon that is as easily detected by science as it is explained by economics. Wealthier people do not drop dead in the heat. Global agreements to cut carbon emissions will arguably make many Americans significantly poorer – destroying industries and hiking up the cost of energy. Poverty increases people’s exposure to extreme weather (climate changing or not). Meanwhile, the curbs these international agreements place on democracy hobble the public’s ability to improve their conditions. Besides, it is a cascade of unsound assumptions – not science – which link extreme-weather events to their putative social consequences. An entirely ideological worldview is required to believe the promise that a global climate institution can make things better for anyone at all, least of all for the poor. […]
When institutional science attaches itself to politics, to support candidates, it loses any claim to objectivity, and any ability to speak truth to power. Science and SciAm will be unable to say anything about either president’s claims without bringing their own conflicted positions to the spotlight. If Biden wins, scientific institutions like important journals will become mere cronies. And if Trump wins, they will look like bitter losers. Scientists risk creating a situation in which society will no longer trust in the objectivity of institutional science. They have squandered scientific authority on a political gamble. Perhaps if scientists had been more questioning of both Obama and the Democrats they might have spared themselves the ordeal of Trump.