Human Exceptionalism

Politicized Science Sowing Distrust of Real Science

There is an interesting column in today’s San Francisco Chronicle about how many parents still resist inoculating their children for fear of autism–even though there are apparently no scientific bases for the purported connection. From the column:

On April 7, hearings began to decide whether Andrew Wakefield, the British physician whose speculative theories triggered a global vaccine scare, is guilty of serious professional misconduct. Wakefield’s research practices were recently denounced by Britain’s General Medical Council, prompting The Lancet – which published his 1998 study linking the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine with autism – to issue a full retraction. Overwhelming scientific evidence refutes a connection between autism and the MMR vaccine or mercury-based preservatives or anything else in vaccines – leading the federal court charged with hearing thousands of claims pinning autism on vaccines to reject test cases proposing two different causal theories. Scientists and doctors think any one of these rebukes should have reassured parents. Yet, even now, 1 in 4 parents thinks vaccines cause autism.

I think the next point is apt, as well. We often want benefits of policies, but want others to assume the potential burdens:

Unvaccinated children face a higher risk of contracting measles, flu and other preventable diseases – and can infect others. Where pockets of vaccine refusal occur, clusters of outbreaks follow. Restoring skeptical parents’ trust in vaccines won’t be easy…Most parents of young children don’t remember how deadly measles can be – or how fast it can spread. But they see kids with autism nearly every day. Health experts know all too well what it’s like to watch a child die from a vaccine-preventable disease. They need to make the prospect of a measles infection as real as that of living with autism. Parents who refuse vaccination do so thinking the risk of infection is low. Some bet that vaccinated kids will protect their own. But as more people make that choice, chances are they’ll lose that bet.

Vaccines aside, there is a bigger picture here: Why is science losing its credibility? As we have discussed at SHS often, I think people have noticed that some of what passes for “science”  and “scientific studies” today are really politics in drag.  The IPCC’s disredited report is a classic example: Claiming to be rigorously based on peer reviewed studies, it was purportedly the “gold standard” of climate science.  Instead, the report was substantially political, containing blatantly false information that was knowingly promoted by IPCC leaders anyway in order to panic delegates into pursuing the UN’s desired policy course.

But global warming isn’t the only area where science is politicized–both coming and going. Indeed, some respected science journals have sounded the alarm about the cost of politicized science generally. From my 2004 book Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World:

As Roger Pielke, Jr., Director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, warned in the prestigious science journal Nature, “Many scientists [now] willingly adopt tactics of demagoguery and character assassination as well as, or even instead of, reasoned argument,” in promoting their views.  This politicization of science, he worried, has led some scientists, “not to mention lawyers and those with commercial interests,” to “manipulate ‘facts’ to support” their advocacy, “ undermining the scientific community’s ability to advise policy makers.”  As a consequence, he warned, science “is becoming yet another playing field for power politics, complete with the trappings of political spin and a win-at-all-costs attitude.” [i]…

What could explain such developments?  Pielke believes that some advocates do not understand the difference between “scientific results” and “the policy significance of those results.”  That may be true, but I think that short shrifts the matter.  These issues have become potent symbols of the ongoing cultural struggles in society over the meaning of human life, materialism versus religion, liberal versus conservative, abortion rights versus pro life, who decides right from wrong, relativism versus traditional values, and so on.  In other words, science has become a political battlefield precisely because some view it as being about far more than the reportable outcomes of experiments:  Indeed, for many, where one “stands” on these issues reflects which side he or she can be expected to take in the bitter contests being waged between “traditionalist” and “rational” world views.

We certainly see that conflict in the comments and posts here.  Somehow we have to find a way to restore faith in science.  But if that is to happen, the scientists themselves will have to pull back from pushing so hard for certain political outcomes and stick to the facts.  Otherwise, the sector will one day be as respected as politicians, journalists–and lawyers.


[i] Roger Pielke, Jr., “Science Policy: Policy, Politics and Perspective,” Nature, Vol. 416, pp. 367-368, March 28, 2002.

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