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Opinion: Treating science like politics is a recipe for disaster

Scientific community should invest in better public communication
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The politicization of science can be dangerous. COURTESY OF NATIONAL CANCER INSTITUTE/UNSPLASH
The politicization of science can be dangerous. COURTESY OF NATIONAL CANCER INSTITUTE/UNSPLASH

Science with a dab of politics is a deadly cocktail. If you ever wondered what it tastes like, look no further than the response to COVID-19. Looking back at the pandemic response in the past 18 months in Canada and the US, I wonder how things would be different if science wasn’t politicized and people listened to scientists. Could we prevent the pandemic if we had listened to the scientists who have been warning us for decades about the emergence of pandemic-causing pathogens? 

The politicization of science happens when scientific data is intentionally ignored, suppressed, misinterpreted, or cherry-picked because of political considerations and agendas, leading to a situation where support for science is divided along political lines.

When science gets politicized in a situation like the current pandemic, it causes unnecessary harm because it impairs our ability to take the best course of action. However, there is an even bigger social consequence to the constant politicization of science. In the long run, it erodes public trust in science and scientific institutions. Loss of public trust will be detrimental to our society because we need science now more than ever to tackle the challenges of the current pandemic and the imminent climate crisis.

Politicization of climate science 

The partisan divide on climate science between Republicans and Democrats in the US is one of the most prominent examples of the politicization of science. Despite an abundance of scientific data regarding human-made global warming, Republican politicians have repeatedly cast doubt on the existence of scientific consensus, using talking points such as “the science of climate change is not settled,” as Business Insider reports

Among common tactics used by politicians to cast doubt on climate science is cherry-picking data and misrepresenting them to prove that climate models are unreliable. In fact, this is what the Republican representative Lamar Smith did in 2016. Ironically, he was the chairman of the Science, Space & Technology committee at the time.

The politicization of science is not just an American phenomenon. Stephen Harper’s term as prime minister saw multiple accounts of the government suppressing scientific data and restricting environmental scientists from talking to the press and journalists. For instance, according to the CBC, scientists from Environment Canada published a paper in 2011 concluding that a rise of two degrees Celsius in global temperature would be unavoidable by the year 2100. However, Environment Canada’s media office never granted interviews with the researchers. There were other similar cases of government interference in science.

Politicizing COVID-19 

Playing politics with science is always a bad idea. It is especially dangerous in times of global disasters when we need science more than ever to inform policies. One reason the US became an epicenter for the virus with hundreds of thousands of deaths was that, in the early days of the pandemic, the government largely ignored and downplayed scientists’ warning about the virus. This decision was motivated more by politics rather than science.

Politicians tend to ignore scientific data in Canada too. For example, in February 2021, just after the end of the second wave of COVID-19 in Ontario, the Ontario government started reopening businesses and public spaces. This decision was taken despite strong warnings by public health experts that this policy would lead to a third wave. As expected, cases began to skyrocket and, by early April, an emergency shutdown was issued. It is likely that many lives could have been saved if the Ontario government had prioritized science over public opinion and politics.

Treating science like politics creates mistrust

Looking at the US is the best way to understand how constant politicization of science can erode public trust. During the pandemic, many scientific aspects of public health wrongfully became the subject of political debate. This included debate about the wearing of masks, the origin of SARS-CoV-2, and proper treatments for COVID-19. 

Because of the constant politicization of science, for many Americans, the line between science and politics disappeared along with public trust in science. Signs of this mistrust in science and scientific institutes can be seen in the high rates of vaccine hesitancy. Although the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has fully approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, millions of Americans have not gotten vaccinated because they do not trust the FDA and are concerned about the safety of the vaccine. 

Scientific literacy and effective science communication could make society more immune to the negative consequences of mistrust in science. A scientifically literate public is more likely to look at scientific data and make decisions based on evidence instead of adopting beliefs and behaviours based on politics. 

Science communication needs to change. Simply providing numbers and facts is not sufficient. There is an ample amount of data showing the effects of global warming caused by humans; however, this topic is still a subject of debate, and many individuals are hesitant about the urgency of the climate crisis. Similarly, many people still believe that not only is COVID-19 not a serious pandemic, but that it is a hoax altogether. There should be radical change in the way that science is communicated to the public because the current model is not working.