Why Science Should Be Political

As we prepare for the March for Science, many are concerned that it will politicize what they see as an objective and neutral way of understanding the world. Famed cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, for instance, critiqued the March’s focus on discrimination and identity politics, and preferred that people focus on what’s under the microscope instead of who’s behind it. Others are concerned that lining up to oppose Trump polarizes public perceptions of science by setting it against the Republican Party.

A chorus of scientists and publications have responded that, regardless of what happens on the 22nd, science is political. Climate science has been the center of decades of political assault, while science education has been threatened and undermined for even longer. Government-funded research grants are by definition subject to politics, as are regulations concerning scientific practices. As scientists from Nicolaus Copernicus to Rachel Carson well knew, if your work threatens someone’s ideology, they will suppress it regardless of your public stance.

And we lose more than just an inspirational figure when research is suppressed. Human lives can be saved, and livelihoods enriched, by the implementation of scientific research into emissions reduction and ecological protection. The consequences of a heating planet only make the need for such action even stronger. It should thus be no surprise that Nature Magazine, among over 100 other organizations, supports the march.

Yet all of these arguments retain the instinct for an apolitical science. Science is portrayed as a saint’s relic, repelling dirt even when submerged in it. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson put it, “The science is not political. That’s like repealing gravity because you gained 10 pounds last week.” Meanwhile, neurologist Steven Novella concedes that “science has to be political… but should strive to remain non-partisan.” In other words, we must accept that politics has been mixed with science, but still hope that it can be driven out. The result is a sort of lab-coated Gnosticism, which holds that the spirit of discovery flies freely even as the vulgarity of modern politics weighs down the scientist’s corporeal form.

We imagine that once scientists have reversed this political climate change, they might return quietly to their labs. The problem isn’t just that scientists have been trying, and failing, to do so for centuries. The problem is that even the desire to separate science and politics will harm both.

Nothing is intrinsically political. Rather, as political theorist Hanna Pitkin has shown, what is political is itself decided by politics. And the process of politics is itself determined by its most powerful participants. Established interests have obvious reasons to suppress threats to their power, and it is no accident that disciplines with the most potential to determine our planet’s future are precisely those which are denied a fair public hearing. Exxon funded research into climate science in the 1970s, but declined to change anything except for its PR strategy. The science wasn’t political – it was made political.

The only way to avoid this trap is to avoid findings that are politically uncomfortable. Inoffensive discoveries that reinforce the status quo are much less likely to be targeted by partisan attacks, and studies that don’t ask important questions won’t be opposed by those who’d rather not answer them. Of course, this would just be another form of politicization – now inside the lab, instead of outside it.

After all, politicization is usually based on two things. Firstly, issues that pose fundamental choices about our planet’s future or are vitally important to people’s livelihoods become political. Secondly, issues that threaten to overturn established hierarchies will be made political by those at the top. “Political” issues therefore became that way due to a combination of their vital importance and their revolutionary potential. That’s why science should want to be political – because the alternative is to be irrelevant and static.

So it’s not true to say that science is hopelessly entangled in politics and our best bet is to loosen the strings. Instead, politics is as much a part of science as discovery is, and the antipathy of the comfortable should be one of its highest honors. Scientists shouldn’t tread lightly, afraid of ruffling feathers, but boldly, undaunted by unfounded critique. That’s not just good politics – it’s good science.