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22/12/2014

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Sounding off: Political affliation predicts scientific opinion

That’s how it is in the States, says John Durant

For much of the post-war period, American politicians were pretty much agreed on the importance of science and technology, and on the need for what was often termed science-based policy-making – that is, policy-making informed by the best available independent scientific advice.

Not any more. For some time now, science has been increasingly politicised in the US.

That’s how it is in the States, says John Durant

For much of the post-war period, American politicians were pretty much agreed on the importance of science and technology, and on the need for what was often termed science-based policy-making – that is, policy-making informed by the best available independent scientific advice.

Not any more. For some time now, science has been increasingly politicised in the US.

Under pressure

The roots of this process can be traced in several apparently unrelated developments in the 20th century – from the religiously-inspired opposition of many evangelical Protestants to the scientific consensus on organic evolution, to the commercially-inspired opposition of some corporations and business leaders to the scientific consensus on the harmful effects of smoking on health.

Things took a sharp turn for the worse after 2000, when it became clear that the administration of George W. Bush was unwilling to respect the independence of the science advisory process in key areas of policy-making, refusing (for a time) even to use the term climate change. Key advisers found themselves under pressure to adjust their public statements in line with administration preferences and prejudices.

US science writer and commentator Chris Mooney articulated the fears of many at this time in his 2006 book, The Republican War on Science. While Mooney went further than most in his criticism of a Republican party-political bias against science in the US, there is some independent evidence to suggest that he was right to be worried. One of the most depressing social statistics I know is a survey result (replicated over several years) that there are now wide partisan differences in views about global warming in the US.

Thus, in a 2010 study, the Pew Research Center asked a random sample of adult Americans to say whether they thought global warming was a very serious, a somewhat serious or not too serious a problem. Fully 79 per cent of registered Democrats but only 38 per cent of registered Republicans agreed that there was solid evidence that the earth is warming; and 50 per cent of registered Democrats but only 14 per cent of registered Republicans agreed that this is a very serious problem.

Denialism and truth

Just think about that for a moment: today, in the world’s leading scientific nation, main political party affiliation is one of the best and strongest predictors of what a person is likely to think about the essentially scientific question of whether (and if so, why) global climate is changing! How can it be that a major scientific question can somehow become a matter of party political preference?

Historian of science Naomi Oreskes has traced how just a few leading US scientists, who had been paid by the tobacco industry to undermine the scientific consensus on smoking and health in the 1970s and ‘80s, later turned their attention to advising right-wing politicians on how to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change in the 1990s. The efforts of these men may have contributed substantially to creating the phenomenon of ‘denialism’ - organised, systematic scepticism about the consensus of scientific opinion on a subject.

All of this is deeply depressing to anyone who cares about the place of science in wider culture. At a time when ideology divides people on any number of different issues in any number of different places, those of us who work in science communication should hold out defiantly for scientific inquiry as one of the last, best hopes for open, honest, sceptical truth seeking. If we lose the ideal of science-based policy-making, we shall find that we’ve lost a great deal more than the best available advice on a particular subject. We shall also have lost respect for the truth.

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John Durant
Professor John Durant is Founding Professor and Director of the MIT Museum
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