21 September 2011

Understanding the Politicization of Science by Scientists

Many scientists spend a lot of time criticizing the public and policy makers for their flawed understanding of science. Such criticized invariably implicates the media for not properly educating the public and giving voice to certain undesired voices. But what if such views that scientists hold about the public, policy makers and the media are themselves flawed? And even more importantly, what if the actions that scientists take justified by these views actually exacerbate the politicization of science and diminish its role in decision making?

John Besley and Matt Nisbet have a new paper out (PDF) and a lengthy blog post summary in which they synthesize literature on how scientists in the US and UK view the public, the media and the political process.  They end their review with a number of provocative hypotheses.  On the skewed political self-identification of the US scientific community (skewed in relation to the broader public and as represented by the membership of the AAAS):

In the US data, for example, given the strong left-leaning political identity of scientists in
the AAAS sample, moderates and conservatives among their ranks may feel reluctant to express political views, policy proposals or preferred public engagement approaches that are perceived as different from the preferences of their liberal counterparts. 
My personal experience over the past decade or so in the climate debate provides much first-hand evidence in support of this hypothesis. I provide a few examples in The Climate Fix of the strong professional pressure to not challenge certain views or institutions, based on political views or perceptions of political reception. (And a few juicy stories didn't make the cut;-)

Such pressure exhibits itself in less direct ways as well.
With an ever-increasing reliance on  blogs, Facebook and personalized news, the tendency among scientists to consume, discuss and  refer to self-confirming information sources is only likely to intensify, as will in turn the criticism directed at those who dissent from conventional views on policy or public engagement strategy.  Moreover, if perceptions of bias and political identity do indeed strongly influence the participation of scientists in communication outreach via blogs, the media or public forums, there is the  likelihood that the most visible scientists across these contexts are also likely to be among the most partisan and ideological.
There is ample anecdotal evidence for such assertions, but it would be great to see some systematic studies. In particular, certainly worthy of further study is the way in which scientists and members of the public establish informal collaborations via social media such as blogs to intimidate or make uncomfortable those who would express challenging views. As is the case with respect to the public, the media and the political process most attention has been paid on how these groups affect the work of scientists (e.g., the entire issue of "scientific integrity" is about outside interference in the work of government scientists), which is certainly a very important topic. By contrast, very little scholarly attention (that I am aware of) has been focused on how scientists engage with the public, the media and the political process in an effort to enforce within the scientific community a particular political agenda (or a view of science perceived to be consistent with that agenda).

Besley and Nisbet summarize empirical analyses which provide for the arguments that I made in The Honest Broker, specifically, that as the scientific community has become more deeply engaged in policy issues that are debated among the public, there has been a tendency to see this engagement as a means of advocating for the special political interests of scientists. They write:
When it comes to policy debates, scientists recognize that they have a role to play in supporting public debate but emphasize a need to educate the public so that non-experts will make  policy choices in line with the preferences of scientists.
The scientific community thus has expressed some mixed and even conflicting views about their role in democratic systems (emphasis added):
Scientists seem to walk a difficult line both in recognizing the right of citizens to play a role in
decision-making while having reservations about the public’s capacity to do so. One study spoke  of a scientist’s need to have the public provide “legitimacy and validation” (Young and Matthews,  2007: 140). This position appeared to be operationalized as a duty to empower citizens to make good decisions. However, a good decision was understood as one that was consistent with scientists’ point of view, and empowerment was understood as education (Davies, 2008). In the end, scientists report feeling frustrated when they believe their views receive inadequate attention  (Gamble and Kassardjian, 2008; Stilgoe, 2007).
As I have long argued, the best way for the scientific community to deal with the tide of politicization that it has been caught up in is not to try to remove itself from political debates, but rather to become more closely engaged -- but to do so intelligently.  Understanding options for such intelligent engagement is the central challenge discussed in The Honest Broker.


  1. I would be interested to hear the views here about how one can manage the dual role of scientist and citizen. This post talks about the problem of politicisation of scientists, and it's an important issue.

    However, scientists are also human beings and citizens who rightly expect to be able to express themselves politically. In theory, anyway. It is perfectly possible to be a scientist of great integrity and competence and to campaign for a particular respones on climate change. But to other members of the public a combination of these two roles might be unacceptable.

    Perhaps in practice becoming a scientist in such a politically contentious field means giving up some freedom of political expression. That's a high price to pay.

  2. -1-aferraro

    Thanks for your comment ... being an expert (in anything, not just science) carries with it a range of responsibilities.

    In THB I outline four idealized roles for the expert in decision making. As individuals we each have to decide what role to play in specific contexts (and I do argue that such decisions are best made explicitly and well-informed). As a society we are well served by having experts play all four roles, and should be alert when certain roles are being neglected.

    It is far more productive I think to discuss such issues in particular contexts rather than in the abstract, so i'd be happy to discuss certain instances if you'd like.


  3. reality, it seems, has a liberal bias. on a more serious note, Roger do have a sense of how the ideological make-up of scientific organizations has changed over time (rather than the snapshot provided above)? Would it be fair to say that the #'s would have been more evenly distributed 20 years ago?

  4. -3-Marlowe Johnson

    Thanks ...

    I am not aware of any such studies, but my working hypothesis would be that not much has changed in the ideological composition of the scientific community (i.e., that represented by the AAAS) based on the snippets of data that I am aware of, such as scientists views in the 1980s on nuclear winter, views on Vietnam, the atom bomb, communism -- i.e., the Bernal-Polanyi debates, the role of government in science funding dating to the 19th century. Just as the military tends to cluster on the right of the political spectrum, government supported scientists have tended to cluster on the left. This would not seem surprising.

    I don't think that the character of scientists overall has changed, rather, the context has changed -- science is today far more at the center of a wide range of very political debates. Scientists thus have to confront political issues more in the open (internet, social media) and more systemically than they did in the past, when issues flared up (atom bomb) but were not so pervasive.

  5. Why is it that it seems to me that Climate Science continues to plead a special case for their Science. Scientific Consensus and, very much more important, engineering consensus relative to development of practical implementation methods and procedures, exists for the following.

    1. Nuclear irradiation of all organic food would save lives and at the same time reduce the resources needed to produce foodstuffs through a significant reduction in food wastes.

    2. Nuclear power is at the present time the best alternative fuel source to fossil-fueled base-loaded electricity production.

    3. Genetically modified food crops have the same benefits as listed in 1 above.

    4. The proper use of DDT can very significantly reduce unnecessary deaths in less-developed countries.

    5. Development of lesser-developed countries through easy access to abundant electricity will very significantly reduce unnecessary deaths while at the same time reduce unnecessary use and destruction of natural resources.

    Plus, we have on the other hand this on-going complete debacle from a Climate Science, top-down-based-on-positions-of-authority-and-not-supported-by-the-science 'solution':

    Use of biomass crops to reduce consumption of oil for transportation has very significant adverse impacts on the environment and more importantly on human populations through higher costs for food necessary for health and safety.

    When science gets mixed up with politics, science many times is the loser. Why does Climate Science continue to insist that it must win in the political arena. Empirical data clearly show that that is frequently not the case.

    In some cases those that proclaim that the Climate Science is not being treated with its proper respect are among those that have ensured that the consensus settled science and engineering behind items 1 through 5 above has been forgotten or mis-communicated.

  6. I'm not convinced the ideological slant of scientists is really reflected by AAAS membership. Most scientists are pretty apolitical; the small subset that chooses to join AAAS not so much. Scientists in industry in particular tend to have an overall conservative slant.

    There are two predominant character traits among scientists that I think are more worrisome than their ideology. One is the tendency to think there is a right and a wrong answer to everything, and which is which can be determined by some rational process. Physicists are particularly vulnerable to this mode of thinking. If reasonable scientists disagree about a scientific question, it usually means we haven't collected enough data yet. It obviously doesn't work that way outside the lab.

    The second is that scientists are unduly and insufficiently selectively deferential to expert intellectual authority. If one of my colleagues who happens to be an expert on chromatography happens to give me an opinion about a chromatographic question, I will generally assign it a very high credibility value. Unfortunately, many scientists will see Paul Krugman has a Nobel Prize in Economics, and give him the intellectual deference on economic matters they would accord to, say, Richard Zare talking about spectroscopy. Or they see Trenberth is an expert on climate, and defer to him on climate policy.

  7. -6-Gerard Harbison

    Thanks, I agree ... it is important to qualify what is meant by "scientists" or else risk painting with too broad a brush. Besley and Nisbet do a very good job explaining who their data refers to.

  8. I don't believe scientists as a whole have an ideological slant.

    Scientists employed by government, as with government employees as a whole may well have a different slant as to the effectiveness of government in solving problems.

    But that is true with most organizations. They all tend to believe they can do a better job then the 'other guy'.

    Unfortunately, in the 'Climate Science' field there is very little in the way of 'Private Sector' employment opportunity.

  9. Scientists are certainly free to be active politically but like it or not it will affect how their objectivity is interpreted. As stated in comment #5: "When science gets mixed up with politics, science many times is the loser."

    Most people have ingrained moral predispositions that they then attempt to rationalize and "prove" as opposed to being objective interpreters of information that subsequently make moral conclusions based on what they find. While moral beliefs are particularly influential, preferred beliefs of any kind are hard to back away from in light of contrary data. Yes, scientists do it too: http://people.stern.nyu.edu/wstarbuc/Writing/Prejud.htm

    Of course, transcending this and other biases has been the aim of science since Francis Bacon and the results should speak for themselves; science and humanity have flourished.

    What I find lamentable are those who use scientific credentials to add the veneer of objectivity to ostensibly political positions. This is particularly bad in the social "sciences" where "scientists" transparently pathologize opposing political viewpoints or present their own particular worldview as "science". The university in my home town offers a degree in "Social Justice" for cripes sake!

    I can only speak for myself, but I am deeply skeptical of any scientist who is vocal about their political beliefs. In my eyes they have placed themselves in a position that is very difficult for the human brain to back down from in the event of disconfirming data. It also makes me question whether their politics precede the science.

    Interesting post as always Roger.

  10. Roger - interesting post. Referring to your framing of the 4 positions scientists can take in the HB, I wonder if you could discuss how this might play out in relation to advising on a controversial issue like the Keystone XL pipeline. Scientists like Jim Hansen have advocated that building this pipeline "means essentially game over for the climate." In trying to act as an honest broker, one could obviously provide facts about the environmental impacts of the pipeline (e.g., likelihood of spills, GHG impact of tar sands, etc.), but presumably one would steer clear of advocating for a specific position because that ultimately that decision is an example of what you term abortion politics - that is, one in which science cannot really provide a clear cut judgment as to the best course of action because of the tangled web of issues attendant to energy delivery. Have I got that right?

  11. -10-climateprof

    Thanks ... in reply to your question, you are close, but not quite.

    1. Hansen is obvious acting as an "Issue Advocate". He wants to reduce the scope of choice to a preferred outcome -- no pipeline.

    2. A "Honest Broker" (which I have argued is best thought of as a diverse committee of experts, rather than an individual) would provide decision makers with an analysis of the scope of choice and likely outcomes, recognizing uncertainties and contestations.

    In this case the decision appears to be simply yes or no, but this simplicity leads to a wide range of possible outcomes (e.g., saying no to XL would not preclude exploitation of the sand nor their importation of resulting oil to the US). Understanding these issues ("tangled web" as you say) is a critical function of this role.

    3. The "Science Arbiter" would take on more of the role that you describe, to answer questions posed by policy makers (as you say, e.g., likelihood of spills, GHG impact of tar sands, etc.). The SA does not engage in an analysis of decision options.

    The difference between #1 and #2 is profound, in #1 the scientist tries to close off certain options, and in #2 the scientist seeks to clarify what the options are to aid decision makers.

    All of these roles are important in a democracy.

  12. After reading the Nisbet blog post, an Honest Broker did not come to mind. Rather, I was reminded by Plato, Alexander Hamilton, Lenin and Walter Lippman, all of whom regarded "people" or "the public" as a herd that must be guided by those who are better informed or wiser.

  13. Roger - perfect, thanks for that clarification. One follow up - in your opinion, is an issue advocate performing a less valuable function in the sense that, in general, policy makers want their options broadened rather than narrowed? My experience in working with policy makers is that, when faced with a difficult decision like Keystone, they often pose the question: "what do you think we should do?" This would suggest that, at least in some cases, policy makers prefer that an advisor advocates a clear position and argues for it rather than offering a range of outcomes. After all, the policy maker can always listen to advocates for different positions and then make an ultimate decision based on how he/she perceives the merits of the various arguments.

  14. -13-climateprof

    Good questions ... my experience is similar in that policy makers often prefer to hear from overt advocates because they know exactly where they are coming from.

    In a well-functioning policy context (ie., perfect Madisonian democracy) the scope of possible options would indeed be replicated by the distribution of advocates.

    But there are often cases where that doesn't happen (for various reasons), so policy making (sometimes) would benefit from an explicit effort to expand options. This is another reason why a committee approach to honest brokering makes sense, as none of use are well positioned to play the role of an Honest Broker, or to be perceived as such.

    Of course, there are often situations where decision makers carefully select only those views that buttress a pre-established position, e.g., many/most congressional hearings are organized this way.

    But what happens if the set of pre-established positions neglects a better option? An Honest broker function can't guarantee a better decision, but it can reduce the chances that a particular option is left out of the discussion.


  15. -14- let me add ...

    ... that the Hoest broker function also provides a degree of protection of the advisor, as it clearly distinguishes advice from decision making.

    This would obviously not be preferable for the policy maker who wants to lay responsibility for a decision on his/her expert advisor, or for an expert who wants to compel a particular decision.

  16. If I might add to the discussion on Keystone XL: the role of 'Honest Broker' seems to be filled by the authors of the Environmental Impact Statement and the Second Draft EIS. These are lengthy and the authors seem to have done a pretty through job of assessing both costs and environmental impacts of the proposed pipeline and alternatives.

    The response of many of the issue advocates seems to be to ignore the SDEIS. In fact, one general problem with issue advocacy seems to be that it seldom leaves the science unadulterated. Some of the brokerage, if you will, gets a premium, and some gets a discount. Advocacy is seldom content with 55-45 choices.

  17. Roger,

    From my perspective, the far more interesting question is why science is so resistant to basic matters such as simple quality control and correction of obvious mistakes.

    We have seen what happens when e.g. Steve Mc demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that Mann's work is garbage. Or Rahmstorf's worse than we thought, or Jones' faked Chinese data, etc. Science, as an instituion, fails miserably and almost totally to make simple corrections. Obviously, this sends out huge blaring warning sirens to the public that the institutions of science are untrustworthy and possibly fatally corrupt.

    If scientists refuse to be accountable to the public, why do they think the public should listen to them? If basic integrity, transparency and quality control have been abandoned by scientists, why shouldn't the public disregard their opinions?

  18. I think it is no more interesting to hear what scientists think of the great unwashed than it is to hear endless shows by the press on the press, that always come to predictable rationalizations.
    Big science is much less open to actual audits than big business.
    The references I read above regarding Keystone sounds like the posters believe the bs about corrosive oil and the other myths the enviro industry is fabricating to shut that down, like they are working so hard on regarding frakking and deep offshore.
    The only workable strategy in science is the apparently the first one set aside: honesty and transparency.

  19. In most industries if someone makes a series of claims that fail, they lose their job or get sued by their financial backers.
    In science, academics rally around and claim that Joe McCarthy has returned from hell to persecute the innocent academic.
    As Stan points out, the decision by scientists to not govern themselves better than spoiled children is what is hurting science. The arrogance that threads through much of the AGW promotion sites run by scientists is only one example of this. The world as a whole has bent over backwards to fund scientists of all stripes in an amazing array of fields of study. Scientists have been held in high esteem for much of the past 100 years. It appears scientists, from their inability to call out bad players in their ranks, have been given to much esteem and not enough accountability.
    That status quo is not sustainable.

  20. Roger,

    before joining the industry at the end of the 70ties, I was a post-doc researcher (the term "scientist" sounds arrogant and is worn-out, I don't use it anymore). I did some basic photochemical research applied to degradation of synthetic organic molecules. Our Department enjoyed more funding than most of our peer Institutions simply because we managed to establish a link to environmental issues that were of public interest at that time (i.e. Dioxin, Acid Rain, Troposheric Ozone, Chlorinated Pesticides in the Environment) and that could be compatibilized with our basic academic interest: to find out details in (photo) chemical mechanisms (which by itself were completely apolitical). Money and equipment came from Government (they expected additional "scientific" arguments to boost their political agenda of fear) and from Industry (expecting help to speed-up the killing process for their own patent-expiry-approaching products). For most research projects and papers we said:

    "Now we need an ecological hanger".

    We always found one (e.g. by selecting a molecule of commercial and environmental relevance like chlorinated pesticides).

    Needless to say, that PhD students and post docs are more attracted by professors and departments that offer them sufficient research funds/grants and a good job outlook.
    (I guess that several now famous professors, especially among the Climate "Scientists" owe their prestige more to the public/political interest of their papers than to their actual academic achievement).

    Just wanted to illustrate why, when discussing "Politicizaction of Science", we need to include 'corruption of science' by direct or indirect money.

  21. I wonder if there are some parallels in other fields... perhaps, but perhaps not.

    Not too long ago, the CERN scientists detected neutrinos that traveled faster than the speed of light. It's leading to a little brouhaha...


    One of the quotes (by Brian Greene) is particularly notable:

    “We’d be thrilled if it’s right because we love something that shakes the foundation of what we believe,” said famed Columbia University physicist Brian Greene. “That’s what we live for.”

    but there's always the:

    “The feeling that most people have is this can’t be right, this can’t be real.”

    Perhaps what we 'live for' is only the refutation of work done by 'dead' scientists.

  22. Salamano,

    Considering that the neutrino burst from a supernova arrives after the light burst, it seems unlikely that neutrinos can actually travel faster than light. There probably is some new physics, though, as one wouldn't expect a simple mistake in calculation from physicists at that level.

  23. I think part of the issue lies in the fact that scientists are still people, I know it sounds trite, but stick with me. They still do things for emotionally salient reasons, including choosing a field of study. Scientist don't go into their field because they think it doesn't matter, they often go into that field because they think it REALLY matters.

    So in part, there is a natural tendency to lift the significance of their own findings, because, well, it's important TO THEM. The logical thought that follows is, it should be important to you too. Acting as if we are emotionally disinterested, or emotionally un-invested in our own findings and general field brings us to a place where we have decided scientists shouldn't be people, or at least shouldn't act like it.

    Granted we should be held to a higher standard as professionals, but when does this reach its breaking point? How can we embody science in a way that is both human, and is firmly connected to data and observation? Sometimes it appears to me as the position of "honest broker" is carried out through stuffing your humanity down deep, or through acting like it doesn't exist. To expect scientist to be a-positional on their own findings just seems precarious at times. For me the question then becomes, how can we best embody our science in a empirically robust and emotionally honest way? I do think THB account is reasonable and instructive, but some of the premises just could use some more sound footing, and those shifts may push the conclusions into different places.

    maybe the method accounts for these human errors, and already corrects for them, and I'm making a problem where there is none. In the long run I think that's probably the case. But in the short term I think we do see scientist so deeply attached to a (emotionally salient) ideology and that it not only colors their work, but it moves them to get political about it (which I think we both can agree is fine in some cases). But it also may be a big part of the reason the they do their work. Guess it's a two edged sword. I mean, who want's to do pointless work anyways?

    anywho, just wanted to add a few cents to the pile, and say thanks for being a calm and rational voice in the dialog RP. Our priority should stay with keeping the science fundamentally sound, and I do believe that is your main objective.