Politics & Policy

Scientists Should Stop Mixing Their Work with Politics

(Dreamstime image: Chakrapong Worathat)
The election and its aftermath has brought out the worst of their arrogance.

The tweet was so egregious that I had to read through the author’s timeline to make sure he wasn’t being ironic: “To all the beautiful, tolerant, progressive people: your food comes from an ugly, hateful, backwards place. This is a problem to be solved.”

That nasty condemnation came from a St. Louis–based plant scientist I met earlier this year who studies how fruits and vegetables grow, and how that research can help agriculture. Knowing how passionate he is about his work, I was stunned he’d make such a harsh, unsubstantiated accusation. After a heated Twitter exchange between us, he said he was referring to anti-LGBT laws in red states. Several farmers slammed him — one reminded him that Iowa was the third state to allow gay marriage — and suggested these beautiful progressives grow their own food.

But he didn’t back down. Here’s a follow-up: “The seat of intelligentsia is blue, except for agriculture: that is red. This is unfortunate for both plant science and intellectuals.” Poor genius trapped in Missouri.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a one-off, a sore loser venting after the election. Sadly, it represented the level of contempt, arrogance, and prejudice I saw on social media from many in the scientific community after the election. (I’m not naming this person or linking to his tweet here because my intent isn’t to single him out for abuse but simply to point to a striking example of the phenomenon.)

As someone who has written about agricultural biotechnology for the past two years, I’m well aware of the shaky marriage between science and agriculture, between blue scientists and red farmers. As a Republican, I often felt like an outlier myself within the scientific community; I discovered I’m a “climate denier” and how my position on global warming can undermine my credibility on any other scientific issue.

Leading up to the election, and particularly after Election Day, this tension was exposed in an ugly way, and not one that reflects favorably on the scientific community. It isn’t their political opinions that are objectionable, it is how they abandon the very evidentiary principles that should guide not only their professional conduct but also their political commentary, particularly if they are taxpayer-funded scientists opining on social media for the world to see. They make accusations without proof, sweeping conclusions they cannot support, and predictions for a dystopian future that do not reflect reality. Many saw Nazis under the bed, open season on women, legal citizens being deported, gay marriage being overturned, the KKK in the cabinet. Godwin’s Law prevailed. It’s groupthink at its worst (remember that the next time you see a study or paper that has been peer-reviewed). Science writers and reporters were no better.

And while they could profess they were referring only to Trump or the alt-right or Steve Bannon, the signaling was clear: They were smearing everyone who voted for Trump. Farmers and rural America were particularly pilloried because they largely represented Trump’s winning margin.

There is clear evidence that the scientific community is having a collective temper tantrum over the incoming Trump administration. The doomsday scenarios for not just our country but for the planet (it’s always about the planet) would be hilarious if not peddled by folks we expect to be measured, thoughtful, somewhat sane professionals. Last week, thousands of women scientists sent a letter to President-elect Trump and said this:

Many of us feel personally threatened by this divisive and destructive rhetoric and have turned to each other for understanding, strength, and a path forward. We are members of racial, ethnic, and religious minority groups. We are immigrants. We are people with disabilities. We are LBGTQIA. We are scientists. We are women.

Yes, I am hearing Helen Reddy’s voice now, too.

On November 30, another letter, sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), was sent to Trump and the incoming Republican Congress. “Many of us are deeply troubled that some transition team members, senior administration officials and people nominated to head up federal agencies have a history of attacking scientists and misrepresenting science,” writes Peter Frumhoff, the letter’s author and the UCS director of science and policy.

The public is increasingly wary of trusting scientists to be objective. They would be wise to proceed cautiously with their political statements and activism.

He and those who have joined him in signing the letter outline a series of requests, including one for the funding of scientific agencies to protect Americans from the “impacts of increasing extreme weather and rising seas.” Also worth noting is that, while the letter claims that “diversity makes science stronger,” 75 of the 88 prominent signatories on the letter are men.

The public is increasingly wary of trusting scientists to be objective. They would be wise to proceed cautiously with their political statements and activism. In October, a Pew Research Center poll on climate change showed that only 39 percent of the public “trust scientists a lot for full and accurate information.” Sixty-three percent said that scientists’ research is influenced by either their political leanings or their desire to advance their careers. On December 1, a Pew poll about scientists and GMOs showed that only 35 percent trusted scientists “a great deal” to give full and accurate information.

#related#The science community is getting pushback even from some in the media. In a blistering article a few weeks after the election, John Tierney, a science writer and former New York Times columnist, criticized “two huge threats to science that are peculiar to the Left — and getting worse”: confirmation bias and the mixing of science and politics. (His piece is worth a read.) Tierney said bluntly that “to preserve their integrity, scientists should avoid politics and embrace the skeptical rigor that their profession requires. They need to start welcoming conservatives and others who will spot their biases and violate their taboos.”

It’s unlikely scientists will do so willingly. But given a skeptical public and Republicans in charge in Washington and in control of most state budgets, scientists may not have a choice. Setting aside political differences to advance important scientific policies and research is in everyone’s best interest.

UpdateAfter this article was posted, the unnamed scientist tweeted indicating that he’d like to be identified:

https://twitter.com/DanChitwood/status/805843242851778560

So in the interest of full disclosure, here’s his original tweet:

https://twitter.com/DanChitwood/status/797503827842859008

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