Daniel Sarewitz: Stop Treating Science Denial Like A Disease

  • Date: 01/06/18
  • Daniel Sarewitz, The Guardian

Turning the rejection of scientific expertise into a pathology mistakenly presents individual ignorance as the bottleneck in political disagreements

The elevation of science to a central theme in American politics is an extraordinary development in the co-evolution of science and society. Three months after Donald Trump’s inauguration, 40,000 or so people turned out in the rain in Washington, DC for the March for Science, with similar numbers in other cities. Given Trump’s all-out attack on the role and size of government—his proposed 2018 budget slashes almost all programs other than national defence—there could just as easily have been a March for Education or a March for Affordable Housing.

But the high profile of science in national politics has been building since the turn of the millennium, fuelled by controversies around embryonic stem cell research, and of course climate change. Starting with the year 2000 presidential campaign between George W. Bush and Al Gore, Democrats explicitly began positioning themselves as the party of science. During the 2004 campaign, Democratic candidate John Kerry pledged that “I will listen to the advice of our scientists, so I can make the best decisions. . . . This is your future, and I will let science guide us, not ideology.”

A year later, journalist Chris Mooney published a book whose catchy title, The Republican War on Science, later got picked up by the Democratic party, with a statement on its 2008 campaign website that “We will end the Bush administration’s war on science, restore scientific integrity, and return to evidence-based decision-making.” Indeed, Barak Obama’s 2008 inauguration speech included the memorable promise that he would “restore science to its rightful place.

So by the time of Trump’s election, science was already a strong issue for Democrats. But everyone wants science on their side, and even Donald Trump insisted, on the day of the science march, that “Rigorous science is critical to my administration’s efforts to achieve the twin goals of economic growth and environmental protection.”

Having science on your side, however, requires a strong voice for expertise in political discussions. And as we all know, one of the more common diagnoses of political pathologies leading to Trump, as well as to the Brexit vote in the UK, is that the voice of experts has been rejected by the citizenry.

So the rhetorical stakes around science and politics are pushed even further. […]

Maybe a little science denial is actually in order these days? The emergence of science denial as a pathology designed to explain why science is not leading to improved political decision-making seems, if nothing else, completely overwhelmed by the precisely opposite condition.

The vast scale of the knowledge-production enterprise, combined with the likelihood that much of what’s produced is not much good, makes it possible for anyone to get whatever science they need to support whatever beliefs they might have about how best to address any problem they are concerned about – with little, if any, capacity to assess the quality of the science being deployed.

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