Scientists Shouldn’t Be Less Political. Politicians Should Be More Scientific.
When elected representatives express ideas that are free of any scientific consideration, we should call them out
In most modern liberal democracies there’s an unspoken agreement that science should keep its distance from politics. Science can inform debate but should defer from making political judgments, which are based on things like beliefs and values, and therefore best left to the politicians. Scientists are supposed to be neutral, non-partisan and somewhat removed from the daily rolling fights of what passes for good governance in the 21st century.
“Don’t get involved” say the politicians, “and in return we’ll take your recommendations seriously. By all means get excited about the solar system and wildlife on TV, wear your cute little white coats and teach our kids about covalent bonds, but keep your noses out of our business.”
Sounds like a nice idea right? A group of experts does the research, weighs it all up, makes some recommendations and then passes that over to a group of non-experts who use those recommendations to make good decisions.
Unfortunately, in an era of hyper-partisanship, objectivity is a false ideal. Everything is political these days, because our elected officials are unwilling to hear facts they don’t like. In the process of signaling ideological purity to make sure they’re accepted by their chosen political tribe, they’ve untethered themselves from reality and stopped making decisions based on the best available evidence. They’ve failed to uphold their side of the agreement. And that means scientists are playing by a set of rules that the other side no longer adheres to.
There is no credible evidence to suggest we should increase carbon emissions, that less diversity results in better decisions or that immigration is bad for the economy. And yet when scientists say our societies should use less fossil fuels, be more inclusive of gender or race, or promote policies to encourage immigration, they’re criticised for being political.
“Stay out of the fray, stick to what you know, and work on communicating your ideas more effectively.”
After all, that’s what politicians are good at right?
How about our politicians acted a little more like scientists for once? How about they admit they don’t always have an answer for everything? Wouldn’t it be nice if they’d change their minds when presented with better evidence, or if they’d use data to make a decision rather than going by their gut feel?
Most of us have given up on the idea that our political representatives might use their power to sponsor dialogue, invite different perspectives, facilitate public participation, reach consensus when appropriate, learn from disagreement and avoid communication mistakes that undermine these goals. And yet the scientific community does this every day (and on far less pay).
Science isn’t only about making informed decisions based on the best available evidence. It’s not just experiments and statistical tests and cold facts. It’s a deeply human endeavour that occurs within the context of human organisations, devoted to the rights of people to pursue happiness and live a healthy life. That means that when political leaders promote the views of anti-vaxxers in the United States, or insist that recreational drugs are too harmful to legalise in the United Kingdom, or wave around lumps of coal in parliament in Australia, scientists have a duty to speak up and protest. There is nothing ideological about fighting disease, promoting public health and preventing climate change.
Sure, science only accounts for only a small fraction of how people form opinions. And yes, policy decisions aren’t made in a vacuum; they can’t be separated from values, political context and trade-offs between costs, benefits, and risks. But when politicians express ideas that are free of any scientific consideration whatsoever, it’s not political to call them out on that. It’s common sense.