A common complaint, heard mostly from the political left, is that facts have been maligned in the Trump era. Evidence has been rejected as the proper basis for decision-making. Science, in short, has been politicized, with the unhappy consequence of continued inaction on climate change, gun violence, and other social ills. The expressed desire to depoliticize science and restore evidence to a central place in the policymaking process has catalyzed a movement to elect more scientists as lawmakers. That movement, spearheaded largely by the advocacy organization 314 Action, helped carry nearly a dozen individuals with backgrounds in science and related fields into the 116th Congress’s freshman class.
But the turn from science is unlikely to be reversed by the election of more scientists to Congress, because the movement rests on a misdiagnosis of the reasons that progressive legislative agendas have been unable to move forward. The politicization of science is not the problem. On the contrary, the denial of evidence and denigration of facts are merely symptoms of a more fundamental problem, in which the left is implicated: the scientization of politics.
“Politics” has come to be used as a slur, a synonym for bickering and narrow self-interest. But for philosophers from Aristotle to Arendt, politics was a necessary, even noble, cornerstone of democratic governance. As they saw it, politics was a process of coming to collective judgment about shared values, norms for living together in a society, and the nature of the common good. It called not only for reasoning with evidence and lived experience, but for an assessment of the evidence’s relevance to the matter at hand. In political deliberation, participants were neither to limit themselves to information provided by a single institution, such as the scientific community, nor to assume that knowledge of the facts alone were sufficient to determine how people should function together as a society.
This idealized conception of politics was, admittedly, articulated by philosophers who wrote in different political contexts and who disagreed on details. Yet these fundamental ideas deeply inform contemporary American politics: We hold town hall meetings; we expect Congress to function as a deliberative body; we criticize elected representatives for prioritizing special interests at the expense of the larger society.
Problems arise, however, when values clash. The theories of politics described above tend to assume that, if we all reason together, in good faith and under equitable circumstances, we can come to agreement on what ought to be valued and how it may be pursued. They offer little guidance for dealing with the instances in our diverse, pluralistic society where the values of one group contradict or exclude the values of another, forcing lawmakers to choose between incompatible visions of the common good. Value conflicts are obvious in cases like same-sex marriage, but they are just as salient for science-laden issues like climate change, where society must decide whether the wealth of humans is more important than the health of ecosystems, and whether preserving quality of life for existing people matters more than ensuring livable circumstances for future generations.
One prominent response to the problem of intractable value conflicts has been the scientization of politics, or the transformation of political issues into scientific ones. Scientization rests on the belief that science can act as a neutral arbiter — that if one can just determine the facts of a matter, the appropriate course of action will become clear, and we’ll be spared from having to engage in difficult conversations about values.
The problem, of course, is that science is neither neutral nor capable of answering political questions. The answers that science gives necessarily depend on what questions are asked, and the choice and framing of questions inevitably involves value judgments. At its best, science represents how the world is, and predicts how it will be if present knowledge remains applicable to future conditions. It is not designed to answer questions about how the world ought to be — about what is precious, what is humane, what is just. Answering those questions is the work of politics.
This is not to say that science should not inform policy. On the contrary, asking empirical questions can help clarify problems and predict consequences of different courses of action. But making science a proxy for politics carries with it the danger of devaluing science’s potential contributions by cutting off genuine, necessary political deliberation. Nowhere is this clearer than in debates over climate policy. Proponents for mitigating carbon emissions frame the issue as a scientific one: All evidence points to the fact that climate change is happening as a result of anthropogenic carbon emissions, therefore urgent action is necessary. This formulation, however, cloaks in the mantle of science a particular set of value judgments about humans’ relationship with nature. Nothing about the fact that climate change is happening actually necessitates that humans should attempt to mitigate or reverse its effects. If the health of ecosystems or the condition of future humans is valued, then there is a compelling case for action. If we limit our ethical responsibilities to current humans only, social resources might be better directed elsewhere.
This is properly a political debate, hinging on multiple possible visions of the good and the just. Framing it as a scientific debate — as proponents of stronger climate policy have so successfully done — leaves little room to express value judgements on the appropriate tradeoffs between present and future, humans and non-humans. Instead, the debate becomes one of whether or not the science is “real,” and no progress is made on the underlying political issue. Any insights that scientific knowledge might bring to bear on appropriately scientific questions like “how much?” and “how fast?” are lost.
The movement to elect more scientists to office rests on and reinforces the logic of scientization. Organizations like 314 Action present individuals with credentials in science, engineering, and medicine as being more capable and dedicated to evidence-based policy making than their non-scientist peers — playing into the fallacy that adherence to the facts can somehow lead to policies that represent the values of the country. In fact, the candidates endorsed by 314 Action ran on platforms that linked their scientific credentials and experience to particular values: promoting renewable energy, strengthening internet privacy, and guaranteeing affordable health care, to name a few. In taking these value-based positions, the “scientists” — many of whom are also lawyers, veterans, and entrepreneurs — are appropriately doing the work of politics. But singling them out as uniquely qualified because of their science training only obscures the nature and stakes of that work.
For those who value the environment for its own sake, who fear the consequences of a 3- or 4-degree global average temperature rise, who want to ensure that society’s best knowledge is not excluded from the policy process, the answer should not be to seek more politicians with science credentials, nor to crusade in support of science itself. The better, more robust approach would be to insist that deliberations on political questions happen in terms that are transparent about underlying values; to demand that politicians who oppose climate policy acknowledge that they value present wealth over future livelihoods; to demand, even, that politicians who support climate policy acknowledge that they think something is owed to the planet and the future, even at the expense of our immediate comfort. Only by subverting scientization and restoring these fundamental value debates to their rightful place in political discourse can we expect progress on the issues, and a healthy relationship between policy and science.
Gwen Ottinger, Ph.D., is an associate professor of politics at Drexel University and author of “Refining Expertise: How Responsible Engineers Subvert Environmental Justice Challenges.” Her research group, the Fair Tech Collective, uses social science theory and methods to advance environmental justice in science and engineering.