The death knell of science is being sounded, not by politicians but by partisan scientists themselves
A campaign to elect scientists to political office in the US might have won early victories, but it’s dangerously deluded because it depoliticizes politics while politicizing science – which utterly undermines its authority.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the roles of scientists and politicians have become enmeshed like never before. The elevation of epidemiologists to the level of presidents and prime ministers in the media has focused enormous attention on the role of experts and their relationship to political decision-making.
Following ‘the science’ and being led by experts have become mantras, a new 21st-century truth that few dare question or criticise. And, when they do, like President Trump has done, not only on Covid-19 and the wearing of masks, for example, but especially on climate change, the wrath and fury of the political and media elite has been Vesuvian.
This was what motivated a former researcher and chemist, Shaughnessy Naughton, to set up a campaign group called 314 Action in 2016. Naughton pushed 314 Action forward as part of a broad wave of resistance by scientists and their supporters after Donald Trump’s victory in 2016.
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Named for the first three digits of pi, 314 Action describes itself as the vanguard of “the pro-science resistance,” almost like a new ‘Blues Brothers’ mission, this one not from God but on behalf of scientists. Their aim is to elect more scientists to Congress, state legislatures, and local offices.
With an engaged grassroots network of over two million supporters in every part of the country, 314 is recruiting and training scientists and other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) leaders to run for public office. In the 2018 election cycle, 314 helped elect eight scientists to the House, one to the US Senate, and more than 30 others to state legislatures across the country. With plans to distribute more than $10 million (£8 million) among candidates nationwide this year, they are mobilising for more success.
The Covid-19 pandemic further ignited 314’s missionary zeal. They note that in a recent survey voters not only trusted STEM professionals to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, but that they were more trusted than any other profession to handle “the greatest issues facing the U.S. right now”. Two-thirds of voters, they argue, say it is very important for elected officials to have an understanding of science as the nation confronts this pandemic.
There is undoubtedly a real need for politicians to have a greater understanding of science, not just to deal with Covid-19, but some of the more intractable problems facing 21st century society. We can all agree on that. We can also agree that there is nothing wrong with scientists wanting to get into politics, stand for election and then form part of a government. All power to their elbows.
But, and it is a critical but, when a scientist stands for political office, he or she stops being a scientist and becomes a politician, which is a very different thing. 314 Action blurs this distinction because it has predetermined what ‘science’ needs fixing and therefore enters the political battleground with a fixed perspective which represents the very opposite of the open-ended methodology that underpins science itself.
Politics is not science. By its nature, it deals with competing ideas and visions. It embraces the minefield of social and cultural meaning, values, morals and contested economic interests, and truths that are not reducible to replicable laboratory experiments or tests.
Science, on the other hand, is based upon the gloriously ironic premise that everything is contingent, that ‘truth’ is only fleeting because whatever is being upheld today may be torn down tomorrow. Science is knowledge that is forever growing, not ossifying.
While politics necessarily has to ossify contested truths in order to inform policy-making, science, if it is to remain true to itself, accepts exigency as a default. There is no such thing as ‘the science,’ truths that are beyond question for all time.
The campaign, despite claiming it is ‘open’ to supporting scientists running on a Republican ticket, is fervently partisan, with all of its candidates being Democrats (sometimes to the annoyance of Democrat incumbents who are not scientists). The 314 Action’s website states: “Flipping the Senate from red to blue in 2020 is critical. Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans are determined to destroy health care, end essential environmental protections, deny the impact of climate change, and appoint Supreme Court justices and judges who share their extreme views. Meet our endorsed STEM leaders who will help take back the Senate.”
The strap line on the website also gives their game away. It reads: “Electing scientists who will use evidence and facts to fight climate change and fix our broken healthcare system.’
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The inference of all this is that evidence and facts are not being used by those skeptical of climate change. The attack on Trump’s climate science skepticism assumes that all that is needed is more evidence and facts, which presumably 314 Action scientists standing for office know. Not only will they bring this to bear upon government, they will also use this to educate Trump supporters who are obviously lacking in the truth, too.
What we have here is a technocratic elitist view that regards the source of the politics they don’t like as being the ignorance of those who promulgate and support such ‘wrong’ views. By trying to turn politics into a set of truths based on evidence and facts, 314 Action is attempting to depoliticize politics by transforming it into a set of truths beyond political question.
The real danger is that the authority of science is being mobilised to undermine democracy. If politics can be reduced to evidence-based facts, then those who possess this wisdom ought to run society for the rest of us. Indeed, we, the little people, who by default are not scientists, should have less, or indeed, no say whatsoever, over what is right or wrong. What society needs, according to this perspective, is more deference to experts and less democratic contestation.
What 314 Action inevitably ends up doing is strengthening the depoliticising of politics while politicising science to the point where it no longer is science, but dogma, a new form of elitist prejudice used to maintain the status quo. This will not elevate science. It will not save science. If anything, it will undermine the authority of science and knowledge.
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