Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Politicization of Science – and what that means for climate change.

Science is frequently used as a pawn, manipulated for political gain, using pressure to influence scientific findings, their dissemination, and use.  This is referred to as the politicization of science, which has become increasingly common in industrialized nations.  In Canada, for example, this has been accomplished through changes in the allocation of funding, the muzzling of scientists, and the blatant disregard of scientific evidence in policy-making.  (For a really great book on this subject, click here) 
Science has always been political: specifically, it has historically been used to inform policies and to direct tax-payer money into the funding of scientific research.  During the cold war, the U.S. government held science in high esteem, because it was used to stay ahead of the Soviet Union.  Environmental science and climate change policies were seen as an issue of national security, since it was believed that melting polar ice would benefit Russia with a longer agricultural season.[1]  Only recently has science become a dirty word in politics, and political orientations have shaped a public distrust of science, thus influencing how science is funded and organized.
(Gauchet, 2012)
The modern politicization of science involves the treatment of scientific claims – for example, those related to anthropogenic climate change – as political arguments to be debated.  This phenomenon traces back to the 1970s, with the emergence of the New Right (NR) social movement in the U.S.  This group, which included Ronald Reagan, Phyllis Schlafly, and Terry Dolan, among others, believed in the protection of traditional values against the increasingly permissive and chaotic modern society, and were thus skeptical of scientific advancements and intellectual establishment.[2]  The fast-paced nature of scientific findings and technological innovations is often at odds with traditional viewpoints, and is often associated with a push-back from social conservatives.  Corporations that are subject to governmental regulations often challenge science to undermine the evidence-based policies and regulations placed on them, and to protect their profit margins.  Political conservatives tend to dislike the idea of governmental regulation, and so this shift in science toward risk assessment and regulation has made the right distrustful of science.  Further, religious groups, who tend to be socially conservative, clash with science over moral, ontological, and epistemological issues, such as evolution and medical research, particularly stem cell and AIDS research.[3] 

The last decade has seen a shift in the presentation of politicians as well.Increasingly, people running for public office (particularly with Leftist platforms) are accused of being “elites”: out-of-touch with the public, and therefore unfit to represent them in public office.  These tactics were recently used by Rob Ford in the 2010 Toronto mayoral election, Stephen Harper to undermine Michael Ignatieff’s 2011 bid for Prime Minister, and Sarah Palin in the 2008 U.S. presidential election.  In the latter case, anyone opposing Ms. Palin became a member of this elusive “elite”, and this polarized people against intellectuals, including scientists.  The Harper government has admitted to having steered away from expert-approved policy making, and boasted in the 2008 federal election campaign that the party’s platform was not grounded in evidence-based policy.[4]  Further, modifying policies based on new evidence is attacked as inconsistency in political platforms, and so politicians are encouraged and conditioned by voters to entrench themselves in their original views.  

What is particularly interesting is that it is primarily life sciences that have been politicized.  Generally, physics, chemistry, and mathematics are not debated to the same extent as environmentalism, evolution, and medicine.[5]  Politicians, as guardians of tax-payer money, are bound by public perceptions; the more the public believes there is doubt or debate on a given issue, the more difficult it becomes for a government to take a strong position.  On a topic like climate change, there is a consensus among the scientific community that climate change is a real problem, but there is doubt over the details.[6]  These include the extent to which human activities cause climate change, when and by how much sea levels will rise, and the rate of desertification, for example.  With no clear consensus over these details, or with dispute over the rates of change, the public is less likely to believe the issue or support policy response.[7]  This type of ambiguity has been associated with fearful, emotional, and illogical responses in the brain, decreasing an individual’s ability to make informed, rational decisions.[8]
Psychologically, uncertainty and evidence that opposes our own viewpoints makes us uncomfortable.  The subconscious brain negatively responds to the information, and attempts to find arguments that allow us to maintain our current views.  In other words, our subconscious brains act like lawyers, attempting to win our “case”, either by placing higher emphasis on evidence that agrees with our beliefs (confirmation bias), or by spending large amounts of energy working to disprove opposing evidence (disconfirmation bias).[9]  Ultimately, if we do not want to believe something, we can go to great lengths to explain it away.

So what does that mean for climate change policies?  Well, in countries like Canada and the U.S., business interests, backed by petrochemical companies with deep pockets, are very powerful lobby groups.  Between 2002-2010, anonymous conservative billionaires donated almost $120 million (USD) to over 100 groups aimed at casting doubt about climate change science.[10]  So while it may be in the global best interest to create sound, evidence-based environmental conservation policies, the economics of climate change policies are still the largest barrier to any real change.  And many will use anything at their disposal, including the denial of evidence and distrust of scientists, to protect their interests. 

Note: please forgive the formatting, I transferred this from a word document, and apparently Blogger CANNOT handle this.

[1] Baker B. Politicization of Science. BioScience, 2014; 63(3): 171-7. 
[2] Gauchet G. Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: a study of public trust in the United States, 1974-2010. American Sociological Review, 2012; 77(2): 167-87. 
[3] Ibid. 
[4] Geddes J. Why Stephen Harper thinks he’s smarter than the experts. MacLean’s 2010, Aug 9. 
[5] Baker B. Politicization of Science. BioScience, 2014; 63(3): 171-7. 
[6] Ibid. 
[7] Aklin M., Urpelainen J. Perceptions of scientific dissent undermine public support for environmental policy. Environmental Science and Policy, 2014; 38: 173-7. 
[8] Hsu M., Bhatt M., Adolphs R., Tranel D., Carmerer CF. Neural systems responding to degrees of uncertainty in human decision-making. Science, 2005; 310(5754): 1680-3. 
[9] Mooney C. The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science. Mother Jones. 2011 May/June. 
[10] Goldenburg, S. Secret Funding Helped Build Vast Network of Climate Change Denial Thinktanks. The Guardian. 2013, Feb. 14.

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