In a recent piece for PolicyMic, Cameron English argues that science education, while critical, won’t be improved by merely increasing science standards in our schools. I don’t disagree, though this isn’t his main point.
“Americans, especially young Americans, need to be more scientifically literate,” he writes, “[b]ut getting them there won't happen in the classroom. Rather, the answer is to get politics out of science and restore the public's trust in scientists and the work they do" (emphasis added). A further look at the issues with this view may provide some insight into the broader concerns that arise at the intersection of politics and science.
First and foremost we must recognize that the truth is partisan. This does not mean that politicians get to choose what qualifies as truth. Rather, it suggests that, if two political parties hold opposing views on a particular issue, then any relevant scientific facts will necessarily discredit one view or the other (or both). While scientific discovery should occur outside of the political realm, we cannot maintain that scientific facts exist in a political vacuum while we are considering the political implications of those facts.
Much of public policy should be based on the lessons and methodologies of science. And success in effectively addressing many of the concerns of public policy is often tied to how closely policy actions hew to available scientific research. This mechanism is particularly acute concerning positions or claims made in areas directly related to science, such as in energy, health, or environmental policy (or science education). As such, scientific facts are, by their very nature, political. This is why we should discuss the implications of science within public discourse, including the degrees to which party platforms confirm or deny scientific findings. Perhaps this begins to explain why some scientists feel the need to publicly articulate their support for one party or another.
Cameron goes on to argue that, if only politicians and scientists would stop using science as a weapon against religious communities, then it would reduce the image of science as a threat to people of faith, which would improve the public’s trust in science. He writes that those who don’t currently believe in science “wrongly see science as a threat to their political and religious beliefs.” However, this isn’t accurate. While disproving theological claims is not an explicit mission of science, the history of science since the Copernican Revolution has largely been characterized by the upending of many theological claims about the nature of our world.
Science is indeed a threat to political and religious beliefs to the degree to which scientific facts discredit some of their worldviews. Interestingly, while Cameron is concerned about the lack of public trust in the scientific community, one study suggests that it is only conservatives and church-goers who have lost faith in science: “[T]his study shows that public trust in science has not declined since the 1970s except among conservatives and those who frequently attend church." This undermines the argument that those opposed to a particular scientific understanding will be suddenly convinced by a ‘depoliticized’ science. It turns out distrusting science is, itself, politicized.
If we do subscribe to Cameron’s politicization argument, then it is probably based on the efforts of political and religious conservatives. Cameron focuses his ire on mostly left-of-center individuals in his argument. However, the political right has taken a far more aggressive stand in skewing or denying scientific teaching. Educators are concerned that the watering down of science that contradicts theology is negatively affecting students’ understanding of science. Indeed, it is the weakening of science standards through language changes in curricula that provoked educators to undertake the very reform efforts that Cameron decries in his article. (It is rather fascinating that Cameron chose to introduce his argument by discrediting the efforts of educators aimed at reducing the effects of politicization on science education.)
Science plays a critical role in public policy and its findings have serious political implications. It is precisely the critical nature of science’s role in politics that causes both parties to want to bend its findings to support their cause. However, we cannot improve science literacy by merely downplaying its importance in politics or its frictions with opposing worldviews. Rather, we should strive to teach science not simply based on its findings, but also on underlying principles that seek to improve judgment, including critical thinking, logic, and the scientific method. Perhaps the goal shouldn’t be to convince everyone of the wisdom of science, but rather to give them the tools to discover it for themselves.