Science on the ballot

Artwork by Mark Palfreyman. (Note that all statements shown are actual quotations.)

Scientists are fond of saying that science isn’t political, but when they say “political” what they really mean is “partisan”.

If you’re talking about how public money (i.e. tax money) is spent, or how society should be organised, you’re talking about politics. And because the vast majority of science funding comes from the public purse, that makes science inherently political: the extent of investment in science, the means by which money allocated for science is distributed, and the way in which scientific knowledge is used are all political questions that each society must answer for itself.

This inherently political status also means that scientists themselves have to justify getting financial support from the public purse – not just at the grant level, but also at the societal level. Most scientists would presumably argue that societies should heavily invest in science, but that should never be taken as a given, and particularly in today’s febrile political climate.

The current fragility of this tacit assumption is because science itself is increasingly threatened in countries that are veering towards less democratic forms of government. From Russia in the 1920s, to China in the 1960s, to Hungary and yes, even the UK and the USA in the present day, authoritarian-leaning governments have always vilified and denigrated academics and experts as part of populist political programmes.

The reason for this hostility is largely due to science’s inherent adherence to anti-authoritarianism. Science is anti-authoritarian because it provides a worldview that is based on data instead of appeals to authority. Ultimately all claims in science could be personally affirmed by going back and doing the analysis yourself (if you had the time). Scientific conclusions are not rhetorical, they are factual – and while there is no small degree of rhetoric in science communication, the essence remains: science is grounded in fact and observation, not assumption and assertion.

In the USA, this innate anti-authoritarianism has come to be personified in the person of Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci has accrued immense admiration during the coronavirus pandemic by scrupulously sticking to the facts, responding to new data, and being truthful. In doing so, he has run up against the the most authoritarian Administration in recent history. The White House under George W. Bush was rightly characterised as being at best lukewarm in its support of science, but even it pales by comparison with the elected gang to whom volume matters more than accuracy, obfuscation and emotion more than clarity and facts, and whose unbridled cynicism in their approach to government is not just a mockery of the great ideals on which America was founded, but a genuine existential threat to them.

As such, the 2020 American presidential election offered voters not just a choice between two starkly different candidates, but to two wholly apposed philosophies. And perhaps nowhere was this better exemplified than the attitudes of the two campaigns towards science: one was pro-science, and the other was anti-science. Simple as that.

Trump and his Administration are not just anti-science in their handicapping of regulatory watchdogs who rely on scientific data, and in the rollbacks of environmental protections that were established on the basis of scientific data, and their denials of natural catastrophes such as climate change and the coronavirus pandemic whose extent is documented by scientific data, but they are also profoundly anti-science in the way that they choose to ignore data, manipulate it, or use it selectively to justify a pre-determined conclusion. It is thuggish demagoguery of the worst kind, delivered to the American public with a patina of sophistry and hypocrisy by their enablers in the Senate.

America, for now, still leads the world, but Trump’s election in 2016 marked the culmination of several troubling strands of recent American history. The slow dismantling of the postwar agenda that established America’s global pre-eminence in both economic and political leadership. The slow hollowing out of healthcare provision and worrying health indicators in the general population, not least the obesity epidemic. The assault on the education system, exemplified in recent years by disputes over the teaching of evolution and climate change. The rising hostility towards the brilliant immigrants who sustained America’s dominance and took advantage of the still-unparalleled opportunities it offers to those with drive and ambition. Politics became about winning rather than governing, and elections became focused on demographics who would reliably vote in bellweather states,

Trump was elected because he claimed that he would represent people who had been forgotten and left behind, but what has primarily been forgotten is America’s idea of itself. Trump’s legacy has been to exacerbate the divisions that have festered over decades; a better human being would have brought those divisions to light in order to address them, but Trump’s strategy has been to needle and inflame them, impoverishing the very people he claimed to champion while crowing about the performance of a stock market whose dividends were not shared by many. American carnage was a vision that he realised rather than remedied.

The legacy that he, his family, and his Administration will leave is that of a country now riven by factions, at war with itself over race, policing, abortion, guns, minority rights, and immigration; obsessed with celebrity culture and the cheap ephemeral entertainment of the internet, and less socially mobile and indeed less democratic than most countries in western Europe. A dismaying insight for American patriots and lovers of liberty the world over is that the values the USA claims to represent are currently better represented in the EU than within America’s own borders.The jaw-dropping spectacle of people queuing to vote, for hours, in the middle of a pandemic that has regularly killed over 1,000 people a day, and in what is supposedly one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, should move American citizens of all affiliations to tears.

Following last week’s electoral outcome, science – and that means scientists – must help with the rebuilding process. Regardless of who won the election, November 4th 2020 was always going to be a Day 1, because science in America is genuinely under attack. It is not enough to simply luxuriate in the outcome of the vote, because the underlying schism that brought Trump and his anti-science faction to office still exists and will need addressing.

It’s important that scientists take this step because while science is usually justified as being the engine that results in new technology, it actually offers more than that.

Technology can be used to oppress people – with perhaps no better recent example than the way the democratising utopian dream of the internet and social media has ended up being weaponised for misinformation, surveillance, and control – but science, because of its adherence to facts, and its search for objective truth, offers something in addition.

It’s often forgotten that the philosophical justification for the permanence of tenure is that it frees its holders to speak their minds – but as such, it also carries a responsibility that they do speak their minds, and act as advocates and defenders of the same freedoms that they enjoy.

Scientists need to advocate not just for science, but for the kind of society in which they belong. They have to get engaged. The old tropes of withdrawal from public life, disengagement from politics, a blithe assumption of government funding, and a masturbatory preoccupation with pumping out research data to the exclusion of all else have to go. The era of the ivory tower is over.

Science is political, and scientists need to not just acknowledge that, but embrace the responsibility that comes with being beneficiaries of the public purse.

The election may be over (regardless of what the White House may contend), but science itself very much remains on the ballot. Let’s win those votes.

This posting paraphrases many of the thoughts and arguments made by Shawn Otto in “Fool me twice”.

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