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The Weaponizing of Science: Taking Sides

A friend of mine recently quipped that the heavy rainfall we’ve been experiencing in the mid-Atlantic is going to be the new normal, “but Trump voters in the Midwest don’t believe in climate change, so they’ll be fine.” This type of derision is echoed in articles and signs from the March for Science painting the Republican party as “anti-science,” and voting against their interests. During passionate debates on climate and other issues, science has become a rallying cry for both sides, but science does not always point to clear “winners” and “losers” as shown in the examples below.

There is evidence that opinions about climate change split along partisan lines in the U.S., with Democrats more likely to believe that climate change is a very serious problem and to support policies like limiting greenhouse gas emissions. But using science as a tool to highlight partisan differences is disingenuous, and this becomes apparent when examining climate change beliefs by geography. For instance, since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the belief among registered Republican voters that climate change is caused by humans has declined. Only about two in ten conservative Republicans believe that global warming is caused mostly by human activities. But a higher proportion of Republicans in states like Florida, Alaska and Hawaii agree that climate change is happening, likely due to their own observation and experience of extreme weather. When asked about specific policies, like funding renewable energy research, Republicans are even more split. Of course, polls don’t capture all the nuance of policy decisions. Still, assuming that every conservative voter is a climate skeptic is dangerous, and takes away opportunities to find common ground and bipartisan support for policies that support everyone’s interests.

Opinions vary depending on the question we are asked, and in response to a 2018 Gallup poll, 66 percent of people who identified as very liberal/liberal said abortion is morally acceptable, while just 19 percent of those who identified as very conservative/conservative said that abortion is morally acceptable. Abortion is one of the most divisive issues in the United States, even as Americans have become more liberal across other social issues such as premarital sex and drinking alcohol. And on the issue of abortion, both sides look to science to support their moral beliefs. Pro-lifers can now point to scientific developments like technology that allows parents to track fetal development at earlier stages, and new research that shows a shorter threshold for fetal viability than was cited in Roe v. Wade in 1973 — 22 weeks vs 28 weeks. In our current science-obsessed culture, why wouldn’t any advocate use science to support his or her beliefs? As Emma Green writes in The Atlantic, the real danger in supporting beliefs with science comes when politics trump scientific fact.

In 2016, Robert De Niro triggered controversy when he planned to show Vaxxed, a film by disgraced former physician Andrew Wakefield, which attempted to illustrate that vaccinations cause autism. On the issue of vaccinations, people choose which facts support their own personal beliefs and actions, and the pro- and anti-vax camps do not necessarily line up with either political party. Vaccines are the result of scientific advancements that have led to eradication of some diseases, and can prevent common contagious diseases like the seasonal flu. Protests against vaccination are not new, but they have gained strength as celebrities like De Niro and Jenny McCarthy take up the anti-vax cause. More troubling is that the President himself has tweeted about the link, mentioned it during a Presidential debate, and met with anti-vax advocates like Wakefield and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. In addition to the influence of the bully pulpit, Trump has the power to cut funding for public health agencies that provide vaccines. As liberals and conservatives both eschew vaccination due to the debunked link to autism, trends in vaccine refusal have increased as measured by exemptions for school vaccination requirements that are based on religion or personal beliefs, and surveys of pediatricians.

On other issues, the science is too new to have developed a consensus, and it’s not as straightforward for one side to say that the other is not “thinking” or relying on “facts.” A March 2018 article in the Atlantic makes the argument that those who believe in using technology – science – to increase food yields are opposed by those who believe that we should use “ecological knowledge” (also science!) to eat lower in the food chain. The Green Revolution, which increased grain harvests in the 1960s, was made possible by scientific and technological development, and genetically modified crops just might lead to the next revolution in food production. However, of Americans age 18 to 29, 39 percent believe its safe to eat genetically modified foods, while 61 percent say that scientists do not have a clear understanding of genetically modified crops. What does this mean for the future of food production? In this instance, pointing to “science” does not explain or distinguish either approach. Both potential approaches to ensuring that humans have enough food are based on science, and are fundamentally opposed to one another.

Disagreement about facts happens all the time, whether or not there is scientific consensus on an issue. Our culture’s current obsession with science is not a bad thing, as long as facts are not used as weapons to support pre-existing potentially harmful beliefs. We all have a responsibility to share information and sources during reasoned discussions, and to refine our arguments based on emerging research. A better future depends on engaging others in scientific knowledge and understanding, rather than enhancing the divide between those who have access to information, and those who do not.

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