Scientists are organizing to march on Washington, but why? The short answer is outrage over the minimal role scientific evidence plays in informing policy. A longer answer would also have to account for the fact that voters drive policy and there is a clear disconnect between scientists and the general public.
But perhaps the more interesting question is why NOW? Any scientist who has been deeply engaged in science communication and outreach probably feels like their colleagues are a little late to the party. Science denialism is not new. Legislation that directly conflicts with scientific evidence is certainly not new either. But many scientists now feel that the blatant disregard for evidence, which has ushered in an age of “alternative facts,” has simply gone too far. I agree. In fact I’d sat it’s about time. But it’s important to remember what got us into this position in the first place.
Science denialism is not new
It’s not enough to march on Washington, cause a big stir, and try to get a few current policies changed. If we want to see a real shift in the weight that is given to scientific evidence, we’ve got to reach not only politicians but also their constituents. All of them. That means we can’t just march, we’ve got to communicate. And effective communication requires listening, empathizing, and examining our own biases.
Let’s face it; the vast majority of scientists are liberal. A discussion of why merits a post all its own. But it is a bias scientists should be aware of if the rift between evidence and policy is to be closed effectively. Gaining ground for science in political spheres will require a more scientifically literate public and policy-makers on both sides of the isle.
we’ve got to reach not only politicians
but also their constituents
At a recent science communication conference, I realized this is not the goal of many science communicators. There instead seemed to be a nearly unanimous feeling of, “we need to unite against republicans.” One conference-goer even implied that contacting legislators in his state would be pointless because all of his representatives are democrats. Does science denialism really fall so strictly along party lines? I don’t think so, and I’ll explain why using some of the most contentious issues in science and science policy: evolution, climate change, vaccines, and GMOs.
Evolution is likely the first modern issue that divided scientists from the general public. Scientists originally made the fatal mistake of communicating findings supporting evolution to the public in the same way they would try to convince their colleagues. But while scientists are trained to consider data in a vacuum, people naturally contextualize new information using pre-existing beliefs and values.
For scientists who are also believers, religion and science belong in different categories. Science attempts to explain the explainable via carefully controlled studies. Religion fills entirely different roles such as spirituality, morality, community, and a sense of purpose. But science is often taught as if it is a collection of facts instead of a process for understanding the natural world. Had the public come to understand the scientific method first, and learned about what evolution actually means as a process, they might not have perceived evolution as a threat to their religious beliefs.
As it is, denial of evolution, mainly measured through votes on whether or not evolution should be taught in schools, remains associated with the Republican Party. However, there are two issues at play here. Republicans, or at least traditional conservatives before the rise of the Neo-Cons, fundamentally don’t support federal mandates. State or federal legislation dictating what can and cannot be taught in local schools feels a lot to a republican like an infringement on religious freedoms.
Climate change is an unquestionably partisan issue. Republican candidates have questioned the validity of climate change time and time again from whether or not the climate is even changing, to whether or not human activities are responsible. However, when we talk about legislation relating to climate change, there are again two issues at play. Many republicans do not implicitly deny climate change, but oppose regulations related to climate change that decrease our ability to globally compete in fossil fuel production or in industries that contribute to high emissions.
This is again not necessarily a case of science denialism, but more a question of mandates, regulations, and economics. Republicans, whether those who deny climate change or those who don’t, are resistant to federal regulations because they support the idea of a free market and small government. To a republican, the desire to decrease our dependence on foreign oil, decrease burdensome regulation, and create domestic jobs outweighs their concerns for the environment or the sustainability of these practices. While scientists disagree with this logic, that does not automatically make any politician seeking to decrease regulations on emissions a climate change denier.
While a few Republican candidates have said some not-so-well-informed things about vaccines (cough cough president Trump), is this really a partisan issue? Consider whether vaccination rates across the country correlate with voting habits. While there are not clear connections either way, some of the most highly vaccinated states are staunchly republican in their voting records (think Mississippi).
On the other hand, many of the cities and counties with the lowest vaccination rates are known for being more liberal than their neighbors (think Boulder). This cannot be accounted for by a lack of access to health care, as these demographics tend to be primarily white, wealthy, and highly educated. Reasons cited for abstaining from vaccinations primarily revolve around distrust of the medical community or fear that vaccines will cause harm. The places with low vaccination rates that are also Republican tend to have high numbers of Jehovah’s Witnesses who do not vaccinate (and refuse blood transfusions) for religious purposes.
This is where the science denying republicans stereotype really falls apart. By far democrats have been more outspoken against agricultural biotechnology. Obama promised before taking office that he would label GMOs despite the fact that mandated food labels are reserved for information conveying health and nutrition, and abundant evidence suggests that GMO foods are as healthy, safe, and nutritious as their conventionally bred counterparts. Bernie Sanders made it one of his major talking points to oppose GMOs as many other democrats and green party representatives have done on state and local levels. Even Hilary Clinton, who has been generally accurate in her stances on GMOs, tweeted her support when legislation designed to circumvent Vermont’s inconsistent disaster of a mandatory GMO-labeling law failed.
The few US counties in which farmers are prohibited from planting GMOs are exceptionally liberal, and I really doubt you’ll find many Whole Foods or Alfalfas with their array of anti-GMO propaganda in the reddest regions of the nation. Why is this? Well for one, most of the legislation discussed regarding GMOs has had to do with mandated labels or banning of production, which are regulations inherently opposed by Republicans. Additionally, regions with a lot of farming tend to be conservative, and farmers themselves are typically Republican. Finally the naturalistic/green movement, which has been used as a weapon to oppose GMOs by many NGO’s and special interest groups, is more closely associated with Democrats. The issue of GMO’s is often overlooked by individuals and organizations devoted to combating misunderstandings in science. Yet it is this issue where the biggest gap in understanding between scientists and the general public exists.
Meanwhile, both parties duly support many science-related issues. The Republican congress has expressed a desire to expand the NIH budget and president Trump has made very clear his commitment to supporting space exploration. Increasing the competitiveness of American students in STEM fields is of value to both parties, and we can all pretty much agree cancer sucks and we should keep churning out research about how to “cure cancer” (queue eye role).
So is science denialism really a Republican problem? Republicans value religion, minimal regulations, and national sovereignty. Democrats value protection for the environment, government oversight of business practices, and funding for large infrastructures. These values affect readiness to accept scientific findings in both groups. As scientists, it is our job to put aside our own political biases, and communicate scientific findings to voters, policy-makers, and stake-holders in a way that is understanding of those value systems not antagonistic. So let’s drop the “republicans are science deniers” mantra and face the music. Science denialism isn’t caused by republican politicians, it’s caused by a lack of effective communication between scientists and the general public. Science denialism is a bipartisan issue. Science communication can be a bipartisan solution.