Issues in the relationship between science and politics

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What political controversies such as the ones involving climate change, vaccination or nitrogen deposition show is that knowledge issues within a political context are not about what valid knowledge is, but what someone believes to be true. At the same time, these issues about belief are often treated as scientific conflicts – leading to frustrations of just about everyone involved in such a controversy. This does not mean that these types of issues must be depoliticized, that would be undemocratic and counterproductive. Instead, it should be considered what scope of policy measures can be formulated, based on the best possible knowledge. This could lead to a debate about which measures are desirable instead of a debate about the credibility of scientific knowledge.

It seems unimaginable that there are still climate skeptics. That there are parents who do not have their children vaccinated. That Dutch farmers have come to dispute the nitrogen measurements of a renowned expert institute. All these controversies revolve around science that is doubted by the general public. There are more examples, but I will limit myself here to these three salient cases, in which amateurs and lays think they know better than experts who have studied these topics for years. Or, conversely, is it inconceivable that a democracy does not respond to the wishes of citizens? That politics does not obey the feeling that prevails in society, but is completely guided by science?

The relationship between science and politics seems to be a difficult kind of marriage between partners who sometimes have to do things together, but who prefer to go their own way. This marriage would only become more difficult if all possible knowledge was just a mouse click away. Not only politics, but also knowledge is democratized. At the same time, not all experts and authorities find it desirable that everyone can speak out about the validity of expert knowledge.

Psychological research underlines how difficult the marriage between science and politics is. The human brain works differently depending on whether it is dealing a scientific or political issue. People seem to lose their ability to think clearly when it comes to a political subject. Our tribal primate brain takes over: instead of arguing for a conclusion from a number of recognized premises, we seek arguments to support the conclusion that we consider desirable and that demonstrate our moral superiority.

This pertains to cases such as nuclear energy, economic measures, drug policy, immigration, and so on. With these types of politicized themes, your preference is determined by your political position and you use all your brainpower to legitimize this preference. In short, your confirmation bias takes over.

To overcome this impasse and to remove distrust of expertise, would it not be best to depoliticize these types of issues? Because then you would be able to make a balanced judgment. No protests against wind farms and nuclear power plants that will provide clean energy, no nationalist sentiments that cause countries to withdraw from international treaties and covenants, no anti-vaxxers that make their children a threat to the health of other children, no condoning talk of Islamic fundamentalism, and so on.

Steven Pinker also advocates such depoliticization in his book Enlightenment now. The political person is an unreasonable person and according to Pinker, only reason can bring us forward. But how reasonable Pinker’s argument itself is, is doubtful. Let us look at the way in which discussions about knowledge on political issues take place with a cool head – instead of having anger and frustration about the ignorance of the layman speaking out in scientific issues take the best of us.

A first striking feature of these types of discussions is that they are often conducted in terms of opposing knowledge claims. But this is weird. Because why would anti-vaxxers, protesting farmers or climate skeptics be bothered about the scientific state of affairs? They don’t worry about black holes or higgs particles, do they? These parties have their reasons for disagreeing with climate measures, vaccination programs, or nitrogen policies, and they must also have the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with those measures. But these protests pertain to politics, and doesn’t the underlying expertise not only play an indirect role, even if it is not trusted? Such knowledge does not have to be the center of the debate, it should not be a matter of secondary importance.

A second point that stands out is that emotions are distrusted and seen as the enemy of reasonableness. They make it impossible to maintain the overview that you need to make good decisions. At the same time, it is clear that throughout the political spectrum people are angry, scared, or frustrated.

In a sense, getting rid of overview is exactly what emotions do. But that does have a purpose, because it enables you to make a decision at all. Without emotions you wouldn’t do anything at all.

Emotions summon you to act, and they do not tolerate delay. An emotion shouts: do something and do it now! Emotions are the way in which consciousness shows that there is something wrong with the world that needs to be restored.

You get angry when someone disgraces you, that anger shows that person that you take it seriously. You are ashamed if you violate a social norm, so that next time you will adhere to the applicable rules and norms. You are envious when you see someone deserve something you want – a prize, a promotion, a lot of money – so that you can do even better to achieve that. You will be sad if you lose something, so that you will not forget what is really important to you. And sometimes you’re just happy, then you don’t have to do anything.

Political emotions also summon for action because there is a something wrong that needs to be corrected. A condition for this is of course that you identify with a group, that you have the same emotions as everyone in a group. But even you may feel one with a group, such a group has no consciousness and perception. The group never simply sees what’s wrong with the world. John Dewey introduces ‘issues’ such that affect the public as concerns they care about, that they are worried about.

But not everything can just become an issue. Some issues are culture-related, so in one country unemployment will be seen as a collective problem, while in another country it is only a problem for an unemployed individual. Issues are often made, for example when someone successfully manages to convince a larger group that something is important, or they emerge contingently. But if something has become an issue, then it is a subject that mobilizes people, then it is something they care about, a subject about which they have a political emotion, a subject that needs to be addressed.

I spoke above about emotions that are shared within a collective. This perhaps suggests an image that is too homogeneous, namely that everyone in a country has the same feeling. Like everyone is cheering at a sports game.

But that is not how it works within a democracy. This system is based on a multitude of opinions, values, beliefs, etc., and people are free to choose what they believe in and what they consider important. The aim of a democratic system is to balance all those different values ​​and visions in such a way that decisions are made that concern the collective.

Every measure will have opponents, and it is essential to democracy that those opponents have the right to peacefully oppose such a measure. This is most easily achieved by voting for another party at the next election, but it is also possible by actively demonstrating against that measure. It can also be achieved by mobilizing opposition, for example by undermining its legitimacy or support for such a measure. As people come to commit themselves to a certain goal, they will come to identify themselves with a party or movement. They feel related to its direction and purpose: political emotions are created.

Politics is the area in which emotions prevail. It is the institutional domain that is set up to identify and deal with wrong-doings in society. This is usually done very reasonably, but ultimately politics revolves around shared emotions that give rise to collective action.

Science, on the other hand, does not give rise to action. Science leads to knowledge and understanding. Science is about what is, not about what should be. In short, science cannot, in principle, tell you what needs to be done. As such, all political measures that seem to follow directly from scientific knowledge are intrinsically political measures.

But is it really true that if the climate changes, it does not have to lead to something like an energy transition? Is it true that you have to vaccinate young children if you can thereby significantly reduce the number of deaths? Doesn’t it mean that farmers have to be give up their farms, if their cattle emits too much nitrogen near nature reserves? No, it is not all necessary, but of course it is very obvious.

Knowledge is often not only knowledge, but it also can be a call to action. More than that, it calls for actions with drastic consequences. In addition to large-scale investments, the energy transition requires far-reaching changes to our daily practices. Vaccination programs require parents to have their children injected with something that they must believe is good. Moreover, the children become part of a large utilitarian program, which is not about the individual health of the child – the alpha and omega of each parent – but about the health of an abstract collective. Farmers not only lose their farm, but are actually told that they have been living the wrong kind of lives.

In short, in these types of issues, issues are created by scientific knowledge. In these cases, knowledge touches people and it touches people directly. And not only that, the way in which these issues are taken into consideration and the way in which they are discussed, the frameworks of policy measures that become standard, all these things follow from the way in which science presents its insights.

This makes it much easier to explain why protests against these types of measures quickly end up as attempts to undermine the validity of the underlying knowledge. This may well be so, but it this creates a debate that does not make anyone happy: there are the  experts who believe that their science is being challenged on faulty grounds and there are the opponents who do not feel taken seriously.

Opponents feel urged to go against the scientific state of affairs by disputing that knowledge or by proposing alternative knowledge. This may work for an ever-smaller group of believers, but in the end it makes no use. What it leads to is that science will have an even more fine-grained understanding about the problem, so that the suggested knowledge is better corroborated.

For example, in response to criticism from climate skeptics, science have progressed immensely, and at this moment there are no things about which we have more certainty than about climate change. The opponents seem to have bought time with their criticism, but in the end this delay only means that even more drastic measures will be have to be taken now in tackle climate change. You see comparable developments in vaccination programs, where obligations and prohibitions are increasingly being introduced.

What remains for opponents are conspiracy and conspiracy theories. If science cannot be undermined, the disapproval becomes aimed at the scientists and other authorities. These are accused of having succumbed to the big money, of striving for world dominance or the desire to keep the people stupid. Some will suspect that people are being fooled. But no matter how loud these critics may proclaim their vision, it is above all a final straw that shows the untenability of their position.

That knowledge itself is neutral and does not call for action is a somewhat artificial claim, as shown above. After all, you act on the basis of what you think is true. Your emotions encourage you to act, but those actions take place based on the worldview in which you believe.

It is therefore not surprising that there are plenty of examples of conflicts that involved the combination of power and truth, just about every religious war of the present and past. The bloody misery that resulted from such wars has precisely been the reason to disconnect the question of truth from the question of power. Emotions were no longer allowed in the world of science. The knowledge that science considers valid is not based on faith, but on epistemological principles and calibrated methods.

As such, it seems not entirely justified to speak of a difficult marriage between science and politics, but it may be better to speak of a divorce that has not been entirely successful. The partners have agreed to go their own way, but every now and then they come together again. It feels uncomfortable, yet familiar.

What are the lessons that we can learn? How should we deal with political controversies whose core is formed by disagreement over knowledge claims?

Firstly, depoliticization of this type of controversy is a wrong solution. First, it is fundamentally undemocratic: people have the right to protest against measures that affect them. Second, it is awkward. If people are not given the opportunity to mobilize around issues, political decision makers will not be able to know what is seen as important within a society. The process of issue formation is perhaps the most important way in which a society organizes itself politically. Decision-makers can (and should) learn from this: in order to be able to implement measures that are responsive to the wishes and preferences of society, they must address the issues of the public.

Secondly, we need to think about how we can do justice to the separation between knowledge and faith as it has been implemented institutionally. If measures are based on scientific knowledge, it seems wise not to use that knowledge to prepare a singular package of policy  measures. After all, this gives rise to discussions about the validity of knowledge that are rather unproductive in themselves, in the sense that they lead to the postponement of effective policy and to numerous frustrations among citizens, politicians and scientists.

A solution could be to look at the scope of possible political measures based on the best available knowledge and then to enter into a debate on those different options instead of a debate on the validity of that knowledge.

In short, debates should be about what is important and what is possible and to a much lesser extent about what is true.

Further reading:

Dewey, John (1927), ‘The public and its problems’, New York.

Latour, Bruno (1993), we have never been modern (Cambridge Harvard University Press).

Nussbaum, Martha C (2013), Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press).

Pesch, Udo, Huitema, Dave, and Hisschemöller, Matthijs (2012), ‘A Boundary Organization and its Changing Environment: The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency MNP’, Environment and Planning C, 30, 487-503.

Pinker, Steven (2018), ‘Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason’, Science, Humanism, and Progress, 47.

Solomon, Robert C (1993), The passions: Emotions and the meaning of life (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing).


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