The Politicization of Science

Published January 1, 2003

Science and politics make strange bedfellows.

In science, facts are reality. A noted TV commentator observed, “The measure of good science … is the immersion of hypotheses into the acid of truth.”

In politics, perceptions are reality and facts are negotiable. This is the case because politics involves competing interests, conflicting objectives, trade-offs, and personal values. In a world where there is more gray than black, it is all too easy to “bend the truth” and “selectively interpret” facts to shape outcomes.

In a forthcoming book prepared by the George Marshall Institute, leading scientists from a variety of disciplines involved in environmental issues share experiences and observations about the manipulation of science for political ends. The essays describe politicization: misapplication or outright manipulation of the scientific record to advance policy agendas. These actions have consequences, which are borne by everyday citizens, not those who politicize at the expense of objectivity.

Politicization: Obvious, and Less So

Politicization is most clearly on display when government officials directly interfere in the collection, interpretation, and presentation of data. The book details examples from highly publicized environmental issues: spotted owls, lynxes, the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park, and resolution of conflicting water claims in the Klamath Basin. In all of them, there is evidence that government officials intentionally selected results, misinterpreted observations, and interfered with experiments to advance their goals.

Less obvious is the burnishing and promoting of risks undertaken by some government agencies and interest groups to increase their power and importance. That kind of politicization is more common.

Politicization efforts depend on political techniques–press conferences, legislative hearings, and splashy news releases–to attract public and media attention. The media, with its interest in attracting readers or viewers, feeds the public’s apparently insatiable appetite for news about risks and amplifies the politicization efforts.

For example, in the early 1990s, a small group of scientist-activists asserted that plastics and industrial chemicals acted as “endocrine disrupters” or “environmental estrogens” that disrupt the normal functioning of hormones, affecting almost every aspect of human and animal development. The media seized the issue and trumpeted mostly unverified observations, speculations, and a scientific paper that was not reproducible and eventually found to be fraudulent. Still, Congress rushed legislation requiring billions be spent testing chemicals otherwise considered safe except for their alleged estrogenic effects. When the facts became public, it made no difference to government policy. The chemical testing continues and the costs are passed on to consumers every day.

The media, along with government agencies and interest groups, play prominent roles in hyping the alleged human health risks of environmental chemicals and of nuclear power. Authors of a number of the book’s chapters analyze those risks objectively and demonstrate how they are often exaggerated and, in some cases, may be non-existent.

When a risk is politically important and the science uncertain, policymakers want to appear to be doing something rather than waiting on more certain results. They often turn to scientific committees. The outcome from most such committees is a consensus report, which in the words of one noted analyst “… can provide only an illusion of certainty.” A committee’s recommendations are often based on far-from-certain science and driven by social dynamics that can substitute the value of group-think for independent, critical thinking.

Better policy decisions and better use of society’s resources will come from the examination of all available science that is carried out in ways that encourage critical thinking by scientists and policymakers. This can be accomplished by demanding transparency concerning the use of scientific information in policymaking; encouraging conflicting opinions, rather than consensus, in the scientific advisory process; and basing policy on accurate assessments of risk.

Sound public policy cannot be developed by skipping over the fact that we live in a world of trade-offs and actions have consequences.

Michael Gough is editor of The Alchemy of Policy Making: Political Manipulation of Science. Jeff Kueter is executive director of the George Marshall Institute.