Science in Black and White: Politics

Preparing a cell culture in the lab.

Preparing a cell culture in the lab.

Politicizing Science

The second blog in the Science in Black and White series talks about how science is portrayed through the lens of politics. Have a look at Science and Public Perception, too.

Some politicians would have people believe that science topics are black and white, inherently bad or good, and decided or not worthy of listening to.

Certain oversimplified political speak, designed to draw attention, attempts to convince us that something untrue is fact. It can be on a similar level as saying a tomato is a vegetable (despite that it’s a fruit by definition) because accuracy is overrated and I’d rather punt, i.e. dismiss, this one. Also popular are messages shaped by ideologies that depend on maintaining the status quo. Here it’s possible to condemn the use of donated fetal tissue for life-saving research that has helped millions since the 1930s.

In the latter case, it’s clear that the public knowledge gap could potentially cause us physical harm. Seeking out current information from data-backed sources improves our chances of unclouded decision-making.

We need to become comfortable with the shades of gray in the answers that science provides, and with what we do not yet fully understand.

This type of fact manufacturing has played a starring role in many debates over science of late and is reflected in the commentary of candidates of the U.S. presidential election. For example, climate change is not a serious concern because…We aren’t 100% agreed that humanity is contributing to it, or let’s go with anecdotal evidence: my own backyard still gets heaps of snow and the weather is always changing anyway. Conclusion: better to do nothing. Here we enter the realm of nonsensical.

One might consider it an insult to the intelligence of the voting public that a highly-educated elected government official would expect people to accept that atmospheric science is so simplistic and derived from opinion. Yet, that is exactly what is expected.

Such politicians count on a certain measure of gullibility, time crunch or apathy from the public, and enough to dissuade them from seeking multiple sources of information. There’s an underlying hope that people can only apply one-dimensional thinking to the issues, that they don’t connect the dots or think a few steps ahead in a chain of events. Verifying information, rather than just letting it be fed to us, would help us realize how shallow a certain presentation of twisted ‘facts’ actually is.

Or maybe I’m exaggerating. Maybe it’s just our impartial media sorting out the few messy facts we don’t need to know. How kind of them. If it’s truly working, surely science—like the rest of what happens in our daily lives—is rarely complicated, never challenging, and solutions are paper-thin obvious at the time we need them most. We are truly roving gurus, always in possession of the perfect insight to deal with problems as they hit us squarely between the eyes or even by surprise. Yes, sarcasm. Science is no different than life. Like life it’s complex and sometimes ambiguous but still should be embraced like anything else requiring evaluation.

Going a step further, why not share more stories that highlight the benefits of our scientific discoveries and ingenuity?

Feeding public confusion about science are certain forces with an agenda to create inertia and curb progress. Perhaps they wistfully lament the certainties of bygone days? To stop the spread and evolution of knowledge is just one tool to maintain the class power structure in society.

We may think we know which vested interests use paid-for experts and teams of advisors to obscure the multilayered—but not necessarily concurring—viewpoints of the sincere scientific professionals out there. And yet, there are hidden tripwires. Distraction is one such classic way of keeping people in the dark.

Stay tuned for next when I discuss how distraction is insidiously applied to science topics online.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of her clients, partners, collaborators or any third parties.