Science and politics don’t mix
It is that time of year again, lawn signs are everywhere. Driving around my town each day, I see them on half of the lawns, but interestingly enough, most of those signs are not for political candidates.
One of the signs that have noticed dotting certain areas of town, is a reasonably large black sign that has a lot of colorful text on it, stating “we believe: black lives matter, women’s rights are human rights, no human is illegal, science is real, love is love, kindness is everything.” Setting aside that I find the sanctimonious, arrogant pretentiousness and self adulation inherent in such a sign to be a bit distasteful, one of those clauses gets my blood pressure up significantly.
Consider the statement, “we believe that science is real,” for a moment. Really think about it.
Any person saying something like that sees a twisted, perverted world where they comprehend that science is an objective truth that they, and only they understand, while those in the opposite tribe believe the ideal gas law is fake news.
Is that truly what one of these sign bearers thinks is happening around them? I suspect the answer to that is yes.
This week, I’ve heard an awful lot of this kind of “I’m smarter than you” attitude out of people in the wake of President Donald Trump’s trip to the California wildfires. Responding to Trump’s belief that the wildfires are catastrophic due to poor forest management rather than global warming, Wade Crowfoot, California’s secretary for natural resources, confronted him directly, saying that it was not “vegetation management” but climate change that created this problem.
To some, this showed that certain people believe “science is real” while Trump and his supporters “deny science.”
Why? Because Trump doesn’t believe climate science is accurately representing what is happening? I disagree with him on that too, but what so many fail to understand is that the “believers in science” are just as guilty of twisting and manipulating science to meet their political ends as the supposed deniers.
For instance, according to a report in Pro Publica at the end of August, “Academics believe that between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California. Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres. […] We live with a deathly backlog. In February 2020, Nature Sustainability published this terrifying conclusion: California would need to burn 20 million acres — an area about the size of Maine — to restabilize in terms of fire.”
In choosing to ignore that fact and get on a pedestal about climate change instead, they are using and ignoring science for their own purposes.
And indeed, deniers aren’t deniers at all. Rather, they believe that the conclusions being drawn by scientists are polluted and corrupted by political agendas that have infected the scientific community on certain issues.
Consider this: On Monday, a stunning announcement was made in a pair of papers by astronomers that a chemical — phosphine — had been discovered in the upper atmosphere of Venus, suggesting that microbial life is very likely to be present. It is a remarkable discovery and a triumph of science, and, if confirmed, should go down in history as one of the most important moments in human history.
Did you hear any right-wing troglodytes piping up to suggest the findings were fraudulent, or that there were reasons to doubt the findings? I most certainly didn’t. The only doubt or skepticism I heard was the same skepticism we heard from the scientists themselves, speculating that the chemical might be present for reasons we do not currently understand.
The point, though, is that this discovery and this branch of science have nothing to do with politics. You don’t hear politicians and special interest groups using astrophysics for their own political benefit. You don’t hear Carl Sagan quoted in political ads. No campaign website talks about dark matter and superstring theory.
Politics changes everything. When policy is tied into scientific conclusions, particularly when it is funded by self-interested politicians, it is able to be — and often is — manipulated and corrupted by that self-interest. That is the space where doubt and skepticism grows from.
The moment politics and science mix, we all — right and left alike — pick and choose what to believe, and what to distrust given our own tribal memberships. Thus, we all believe “science is real,” and it is politics we don’t believe in.
Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.