partisans, not scientists, decide if science is partisan

Last month, Audra Wolfe wrote a fantastic post about how science is and always has been political. In the post, she analyzes statements from Nature and Scientific American, both of which endorsed Joe Biden in the 2020 Presidential Election, but which take different approaches. Nature argues that Biden will restore the centrality of science to governance and trust in science, while Scientific American focuses on how rejecting scientific guidance has hurt the public. Wolfe summarizes:

“Trust science” and “being guided by” scientific data are different things. One implies restoring scientists’ ability to work as autonomous professionals; the other implies that a Biden administration will take scientists’ advice into consideration along with other factors, including our obligations to one another and to the planet.

Wolfe’s analysis is great and I recommend you go read it and then come back. Good? Ok! I have two related thoughts that I want to try to clarify in this post: the relationship between something being “political” and something being “partisan” and the question of how something becomes partisan. Thinking through these distinctions has been useful for me as I try to parse my frustration around contemporary discourse about whether science should be political (in some sense) and what scientists should do in light of different answers to that question.

Politics is one of those essentially contested, messy, thick concepts that social scientists love but also have a lot of trouble with. Like many other such concepts, it’s also a “folk” term, that is, something that people who are not social scientists use all the time, and which in some sense derives its analytical importance from the fact that it’s already resonant with so many. Given that, I think it’s worth identifying at least four things we can mean when we say “science is political” (though this list is not exhaustive).

The first is that science itself has internal politics. Think here of how hiring works, how the journal review process plays out, grant decisions, and all that. Science is political in the sense that the internal dynamics of science are governed by local kinds of politics. This is important but not really what most people mean when they say “science is political!”, at least right now, I think.

A second meaning is that science has implications for the allocation of resources and power in society. That is, science is political because it can determined who gets what and how. This is the sense in which Latour talks about Pasteur exercising power, or how Hecht talks about the technopolitics of reactor design, or Mitchell talks about the technopolitics of national income accounts and macroeconomics. This is closer to what folks have in mind, but I think it’s still not the typical meaning.

A third meaning of “science is political” is that science is the subject of big P politics, that it’s something that is relevant to decisionmaking in those institutions we classify as political. That is, if we think of politics here as a particular kind of space or class of institutions – Congress, the Presidency, the Courts, administrative agency, “the State” in sum, but also those organizations like political parties and social movements explicitly fighting for control of the state. Science is political here because the state funds research, and because people invoke research to make claims on the state, from calls to ban particular pesticides or to shut down coal power plants.

This meaning is related to, but distinct from, the fourth meaning which is that science is political because it is partisan. Or you could say that this fourth meaning is a kind of subset of the third. In this current moment of extreme partisan polarization in the United States, popular discourse frequently conflates “political” and “partisan.” So here, we might say that climatology is political because climatology supports the claims of Democrats and opposes the claims of Republicans. Note that this is not the same thing as saying that climatologists are all Democrats, or that climatologists support Democrats (though these things get muddled together). But it’s a question of the partisan implications of scientific work.

And here we get to the second point I wanted to make: scientists don’t get to decide if science is political. In the first sense, it clearly always has been. In the second and third, it pretty much always has been as well, though here it becomes more important to recognize the “disunity of science” and that it’s not just a question of Science(!) being political but of particular bits of science (whether it’s AIDS research or nuclear physics or the economics of climate change). And here, it’s possible that some bits of science were not political (or less political) in some sense at some point in time. That is, there may have periods of time where certain kinds of science had very little impact on the allocation of resources and power in society, and/or were not front and center in the debates of explicitly political institutions and actors.

Finally, it’s certainly the case that science has not always been partisan (and that even now, different bits of science are more or less partisan). And that’s for a simple reason: partisans, not scientists, decide what’s partisan. Take the claim “wearing a mask reduces the risk of COVID transmission.” This statement is political in the first two senses at a minimum – it’s a claim about how the world works with implications for the exercise of power, and it results from a political process of adjudicating truth claims, etc. It’s also clearly political in the third sense right now as governors and mayors and legislatures issue, retract, debate, and contest mask mandates and their efficacy and legality. It’s also, it turns out, partisan. But it’s not inherently partisan, it’s partisan because one party lined up on one side of an issue, and the other party lined up on the opposite side.

Look at climate change. If you go back to the early 1980s, climate change beliefs were not especially partisan. And you can imagine a right-wing response to climate change that involves embracing the science and drawing very different conclusions (with eco-fascism as the extreme endpoint of this approach). But climate change has become an incredibly partisan issue as a result of the actions of the political parties.

So what does this mean for scientists? One implication, I think, is that calls for science to be “not political” are basically impossible for any of the four definitions, but for different reasons. Specifically, calls for science to be non-partisan are futile because scientists don’t get to decide what counts as partisan. Distrust in science writ large, and in particular areas like climatology, has become part of the Republican ethos. Scientists in a particular field might yearn for a moment when their field was not “politicized” (meaning here partisan, not usually meaning irrelevant to political decision-making) but there’s not much that scientists can do to change that except, perhaps, to go and engage in partisan politics to change the parties themselves. Scientists can try to do science differently to try to avoid becoming “political” (meaning partisan) – abandoning politically contentious research projects, for example – but that’s no guarantee of avoiding a partisan label.

Tl;dr: If the GOP declares war on science, and the Democrats say they’re going to listen to science then science is going to be partisan. If the two parties agree on some aspect of science – or both ignore it entirely – it won’t. Scientists have limited influence, at best, over this process.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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