The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political & Social Science
The Politics of Science: Political Values and the Production, Communication, & Reception of Scientific Knowledge
- Elizabeth Suhay - American University, USA
- James N. Druckman
As science advances toward a greater degree of explanatory credibility and as associated technological know-how accumulates, the ability of the public and private sectors to intervene in citizens’ lives in increasingly sophisticated ways also increases. At the same time, we are living through a moment when the political sphere is incredibly polarized. When these two phenomena intermingle, the result can be intense political controversy as well as important opportunities lost. Furthermore, as the politicization of science increases, there is a spill-over effect whereby citizens lose faith in science generally. At risk is not just the helpful application of science through technology but the funding of basic scientific research itself. In short, value-based assessments of science and related technologies—while often understandable and in some cases even reasonable—nevertheless can, if not tempered, drive political gridlock and stall scientific advancement toward greater understanding of ourselves and the world around us. A critical first step to solving problems where they exist is often simply shining a bright light on those problems, which is primarily what the authors in this volume do.
The twelve original research articles and three commentaries contained within this volume provide a wealth of information. Among the more novel and important findings and arguments are the following:
- The conventional wisdom seems to suggest that, where science is political, it is partisan: that is, important differences in scientific beliefs arise from the public’s allegiance to the Democratic or Republican Party. However, if we look closely at correlated phenomena, oftentimes other factors—such as liberal-conservative ideology, political or economic values, or religion—matter as much as, if not more than, partisanship per se (see especially Blank and Shaw).
- “Motivated reasoning” about scientific findings is not the province of any one partisan or ideological group. While conservatives and Republicans may be especially resistant to scientific claims related to climate change, liberals and Democrats also tend to be skeptical of scientific claims that undermine their policy preferences or value commitments (e.g., see Nisbet, Cooper, and Garrett).
- Increased education or knowledge is not always a panacea. Among members of the general public, the most aware are the most likely to allow their values to color their scientific understanding (e.g., Bolsen, Druckman, and Cook).
- Although the articles raise concerns regarding the politics that surround science, we do not see reason to panic across the board. Despite the findings in this volume, there is evidence that most members of the public trust scientists more than they distrust them (Blank and Shaw). There is evidence that, among some important groups (teachers, scientists), more knowledge does in fact lead to less political bias (Berkman and Plutzer; Bolsen, Druckman, and Cook). And there is some optimism that new types of science communication may more successfully convey knowledge to the public (Nisbet and Fahy).
- Of course, it is worth noting that not all evidence for a “political take” on scientific communication or understanding is evidence that something has gone wrong; values can play an important role in some aspects of the scientific process (Douglas).