Politics Aside: Upholding Integrity in Science

A month into the new administration, President Trump hasn’t done much to relieve the fears of many in the scientific world. He has cut federal funding and issued a gag order preventing the Environmental Protection Agency from speaking with journalists. He has repeatedly questioned not just the causes of climate change, but whether it even exists. Several of his appointees, including budget nominee Mick Mulvaney and EPA nominee Scott Pruitt, profess to accept the existence of global warming but claim it’s impossible to determine whether it is manmade despite overwhelming scientific evidence.

Creating such an environment of uncertainty around science poses serious dangers to our well-being. Arctic animals are already dying quickly because of melting ice, and scientists predict that sea levels will rise up to 38 inches this century, endangering hundreds of millions in coastal areas. Yet 30 percent of Americans still deny the existence of climate change, and only 27 percent believe scientists have reached a consensus on the impact of human activity. We can’t begin to discuss solutions if Americans don’t even agree on the issue itself.

The problem is that people are treating science like just another political issue, where personal convictions and gut feelings are equally valid. Politics, though, is inherently subjective. When it comes to abortion or euthanasia or universal healthcare, neither side is necessarily right — we develop our positions depending on intangible factors like personal/religious values, family upbringing, and perceived self-interest.

Science is not so forgiving.

Take climate change, for example. Two hundred scientific organizations worldwide maintain that the planet is warming and that human activity is the primary factor. NASA has an entire website dedicated to the facts, evidence, and scientific consensus on human-induced climate change.

Trump’s contention that global warming is a Chinese hoax, or that hairspray used in a sealed apartment can’t possibly spread to the atmosphere, does not somehow call into question decades of carefully-interpreted scientific evidence just because it offers an alternate viewpoint. The climate change denier debating Bill Nye on television does not have an equally valid point just because he takes up half of the screen.

When science mixes with politics, we need to be careful not to fall into the trap of seeing both sides as reasonable — in the face of overwhelming evidence, we need to set aside our political convictions and uphold the integrity of the scientific process.

That’s not to say that politicians can’t express their own opinions on controversial policy issues involving science. Republicans are free to disagree on the extent to which government should impose regulations or taxes to combat climate change — and they certainly have understandable reasons for doing so.

The problem is when they attempt to justify their position by claiming that climate change is a hoax entirely, or that we “don’t know enough” to make a decision. Doing so sets a dangerous precedent that we can conveniently reject scientific evidence when it conflicts with our personal beliefs. Let’s have a conversation about what kind of role the government should play when it comes to climate change, not about whether climate change even exists.

Neither does it mean that scientific findings must be treated as absolute truths. The very process of scientific inquiry involves using models to describe what we see, subjecting those models to rigorous scrutiny, and attempting to modify our understanding upon receiving contradictory evidence. But if politicians want to use science to justify an ideological position, then they deserve the same rigor and high expectations of objectivity afforded to scientists. Every source they provide, every emotional appeal they make, must be scrutinized relentlessly; only then can we accept what they say as credible.

Dr. James Dyke, a sustainability science lecturer at the University of Southampton, put it best: “Science does not produce immutable facts or eternal truths. It acknowledges that facts can change. But it is how they change that is absolutely central to the scientific method.”