Politics and science

In the idealized version of science, the enterprise of scientific knowledge discovery follows its own logic without extraneous non-cognitive or non-rational influences. But this is unrealistic. Science is a social activity, conditioned by institutions, governments, and other social forces. So it is worth considering how politics influences the course of science and how these influences affect the rationality or veridicality of the enterprise. Does the fact of political influence on science make science either less rational or less true?

There are at least two ways in which science can be affected by social or political factors: in terms of the formulation of research questions and priorities, and in terms of the content of the findings of scientific research. Pernicious examples of the second kind of influence are easy to find in the history of science. For example, Stalin’s insistence on the correctness of Lysenko’s adaptationist theory of species led Soviet biology into a biological science that was profoundly untrue: organisms do not evolve according to the processes or mechanisms attributed to them by Lysenkoism. So the political imperative from Stalin to the adoption of a particular scientific hypothesis led to erroneous science. It was also irrational science (because it depended on criteria of acceptance that were political rather than empirical).

This form of influence of politics on science is clearly anti-scientific and anti-rational. And, regrettably, we appear to have clear instances of this kind of substitution of political expediency for rational scientific judgment in the behavior of the current US administration, in the form of its efforts to control the content of scientific judgments about climate change (article).

So one form of political influence on science is clearly anti-scientific. When politicians substitute their wishes for the judgment of capable scientific researchers, it is inevitable that the result will be bad science. And, of course, bad science is a bad basis for future problem-solving.

But consider the other form of influence mentioned here: the setting of priorities for scientific research, especially through funding strategies. Is this kind of influence inherently inconsistent with the empirical and rational claims of science?

It is obvious that science is subject to this kind of influence. When the National Institutes of Health decides to give higher priority to one kind of cancer rather than another, or to diabetes research over Alzheimer’s research, this national institution is setting the agenda for university researchers throughout the country. When the US government gave priority to space exploration research over atmospheric or oceanic research in the 1960s, it likewise gave encouragement to certain scientific disciplines and inhibition to others. And, predictably, there was more progress in the scope and depth of scientific knowledge in some disciplines than others, following the spending priorities. Science requires resources, and one of the duties of a democratic government is to decide about priorities in the expenditure of public moneys.

What this kind of influence does not do, is to dictate the content of the findings. Once the resources are committed, it is essential that the normal processes of science — empirical study, peer review, experimentation, theory development — should take place without interference from political or social pressure.

So we might say that the “priority-setting” influence of politics on science is benign from the point of view of scientific rationality. The political decision-makers decide what scientific problems are most important from the public’s point of view; and the scientists, following the funding sources, then do their best to understand and solve those problems. But this means that one of our crucial political goals ought to be to create and defend institutions that assure the political independence of scientists, so their research findings are the result of empirical investigation and theory formation rather than pressured conformance to the state’s expectations.

Now let’s bring these ideas back to the social sciences. Social science research has been subject to both kinds of political influence in American history. There have sometimes been intense pressures on social scientists and historians about the content of their research — for example, the field of China studies during the period of McCarthyism. When social scientists arrive at unpalatable truths, they are sometimes subjected to shameful political pressures. But second, the social sciences have certainly been shaped in the past forty years by the spending priorities of federal and non-profit funding agencies. This influence isn’t necessarily bad, or anti-scientific. In fact, it is unavoidable. But, in the social sciences especially, it may have the insidious effect of pushing social science research away from some difficult or controversial topics; and this may be so, even when those topics turn out to be particularly important for arriving at a better understanding of where our society is going.

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