Thinking Aloud: Science and Politics

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As the election drew closer, several scientific journals took the unprecedented step of endorsing a Presidential candidate. The cries of "politics polluting science" are met by equally vociferous shouts of "It's about time. Make the madness stop." As with many beliefs, the Age of COVID requires the relationship between science and politics to be rediscovered and refashioned.

People confuse science the noun with science the verb

Science is a compound word, both a verb and a noun. While this may not be true formally, it is how the word is used. "Follow the science." Here it is a noun. But in fact, science is a process of discovery, its verb usage captured in "the scientific method." We can often keep these distinctions separate until applying the noun, facts, and findings to the verb, policy, and decision making.

Science the noun is the dogma, the oldest verified bits or "laws" found in textbooks. Of course, the use of the word laws makes them seem immutable, passed down from the Creator or nature. The newer nouns, the latest facts open to interpretation, the Talmudic portion, are found in journals. The newest nuggets of informational nouns are found at meetings. Science as a verb describes the aging transition from meeting to journal to a textbook.

Science the verb is not one "thing."

Science contains a spectrum of knowledge. At one end are the "basic" sciences, physics, chemistry; at the other end, the "softer" sciences, like sociology, epidemiology, anthropology. Each of these disciplines has its own methodology and, more importantly, differing entanglement with culture. Phrenology and eugenics were sciences until a cultural shift exposed them, demonstrating that their science nouns, their facts, resulted from a particular point of view - a cultural way of looking, science as a verb.

Consider physics, perhaps the most basic of all sciences, outside of mathematics. Here both the noun and verb stand on stable ground. No one is arguing that the atom, electron, or quark are culturally or politically motivated. No one claims that the planetary orbits have been politicized. (Of course, that wasn't always true, ask Galileo or Copernicus.) It wasn't the planetary motion that was problematic; it was the application in changing our world view that got them in trouble. Not the facts, just the application. Physics provides another, more contemporary example. There are no politics or culture involved in the details of nuclear fission and fusion. Still, there are a host of political/cultural considerations in applying those facts to Hiroshima and Chernobyl, let alone to the use of nuclear power as an alternative energy source.

Inherent uncertainty

Another lesson from physics has broad application for all of the sciences, hard and soft. Heisenberg's principle that the position and velocity of a particle cannot be measured simultaneously rests on the idea that the observation affects the observed. The purest example of science the noun are the hard sciences, chemistry, physics, biology. But despite the appearance of being laws or free of cognitive bias Heisenberg's principle says that we alter them when we observe them.

Any consideration of the softer sciences will prove the truth of that concept. Consider the famous marshmallow experiment – placing a marshmallow in front of a child and telling them if they wait a little while before eating the treat, and they will get a second one. Initially, the experiment was all about the will-power of delayed gratification and its prediction of later success. When repeated several years later, the identical behavior was correlated with other factors. "…that the capacity to hold out for a second marshmallow is shaped in large part by a child's social and economic background—and, in turn, that that background, not the ability to delay gratification, is what's behind kids' long-term success." Same facts, different observers, different observations.

"If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it." – Lord Kelvin

Language limits our descriptions; they are by their nature imprecise and culturally grounded. When we describe our findings, we invariably mix apples and oranges.

Quantification is a keystone to modern science. Numbers provide a halo of exactness; numbers are nouns; they do not imply change like verbs. Even if the science does not occur in the laboratory where quantification was born, statistics provide quantitative measures. The difficulty is that some of our measures of quantity are themselves culturally based. Two come readily to mind, age, and gender. One hundred years ago, increasing age correlated well with increasing debility. That was a time before antibiotics, vaccines, and healthcare created a generation of spry and frail 80-year-olds. Chronologic age is no longer as useful a metric; frailty or resilience have taken its place. Gender, one hundred years ago, was pretty binary, male or female. But that was before we understood sex hormones or appreciated that other species could be male or female as their mood and environment dictated. The advances in science the verb, result in changing science the noun.

Cultural assumptions in viewing our world become more significant when observing our own behavior, in the behavioral sciences. Don't take my word; take Heisenberg's. Ethics are a reflection of our cultural assumptions and beliefs. Ethics, when applied to science the noun is most often the "moral imperative not to lie or falsify." It becomes more entangled in policy and guidelines when science jumps in its quantum way to being a verb.

We see ethical interactions in our choice of categories. Skin color is a cultural distinction, ethnicity or ancestry or genetics, is not. There are moral choices in our selection of subjects and participants. We don't fund and study orphan diseases – not enough bang for the buck unless you are one of the orphans. We don't use women too frail or vulnerable – unless you are designing seat belts, in which case women's size difference matters.

Most importantly, ethics plays a role in what we seek to optimize in making trade-offs, the soul of policy decisions. We need to look no further than the current discussion of who is first in line for vaccines or the correct social behavior in the face of a pandemic – do we optimize to save lives or save the economy? As my colleague Dr. Billauer points out, the agendas that we so vociferously support or condemn are "utilitarian goals each with various reliance and weighting of the ethical pillars."

Science has always been driven by politics, whether you describe them as culture, ethics, interest groups, or just curiosity. Science is a cultural artifact, no different from any other tools our cultures have created, including religion.

Not recognizing the entwined nature of our culture and our science is a failure to communicate.