A Modern Scientists’ Dilemma

As much as scientists hate to admit it, not every debate can be solved in the lab. This is especially true of politics. Before I scare you off, we’re not going to delve into discussion of red and blue (and purple), but rather the involvement of scientists in politics.

United States Capitol Building

Earlier this year, discussion around the March for Science and scientists’ political involvement brought polarized opinions back into the public eye. Though both sides raise valid points, it appears unlikely that either side will convincingly triumph over the other.

One side of the discussion reminds us that scientists are people and, further, citizens. As such, scientists should be able to be civically involved without negative consequence on their career, just as those in other professions are able to do. Indeed, all citizens have the right and duty to be publicly engaged in a functioning democratic republic.

However, by engaging in political advocacy, scientists risk damaging their credibility as impartial sources and seekers of knowledge. Herein lies the catch-22. If a particular scientist is known to promote a particular scientific agenda then their scientific results begin to be viewed with skepticism. The worst charges accuse scientists of falsifying data to promote their own agendas. Though only about 2% of scientists self-reported scientific misconduct according to a 2009 study by Daniele Fanelli, it does happen, and these few cases are enough to cast doubt on an entire profession’s ability to compartmentalize.

Since every active scientific debate involves opinions from both sides of an issue, scientists and their conclusions are being increasingly weaponized to promote a particular ideological agenda. This only further enhances the damage which can be done if a particular scientist is perceived as behaving in a partisan manner (regardless of the merits of the research being performed). In spite of all of this, public confidence in scientists in the United States has remained consistently high, with around 90% of Americans having a “great deal” or “some” confidence in scientists.

To summarize:  being involved in political discourse as a scientist leaves one open to credibility losses. On the other hand, not being involved means that one’s opinion as a private citizen is not equally represented on the local, state, and national scales. So where does this leave us today?

Surprisingly, unified. Don’t forget that above all else, a scientist stands for truth and the pursuit of knowledge.

Pursuing knowledge.

While working to establish and document a set of unwritten social rules which guide science, Robert Merton (1973), an American sociologist, stated that one of the underlying scientific norms is that of disinterestedness. Disinterestedness is described by Merton as a way to enforce objectivity whereby scientists are demanded to separate their personal interests from their scientific actions. This is intended to both discourage fraud and promote a science which acts in the interest of the greater public. Though Merton’s set of norms are not without their detractors, scientists today still subscribe to this set of beliefs (Anderson, 2010).

If we revisit our debate, we can frame it around whether political involvement violates disinterestedness. In other words, does political involvement lead to biased scientific results?

Much of the recent uptick in political involvement by scientists, including events such as the March for Science, simply encourages the use of facts by decision-makers. The March for Science’s official mission statement read “we unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest.”

While participation in events and advocacy of evidence-based decision-making seems political and may come across as biased, ignoring facts produced by objective science most certainly is biased. Don’t forget, the point of disinterestedness is to encourage scientific integrity and the creation of trustworthy and impartial facts for the benefit of society. Thus, while it’s possible that scientists may self-inflict damage by engaging in political demonstrations, so long as the involvement of scientists remains with events like the March for Science, their actions truly promote the spirit of disinterestedness.

Scientists may stand conflicted on how involved to be in partisan politics, but they should be able to safely come together to push for evidence-based decision-making. There are many ways to govern, but none of those ways involves ignoring the facts in pursuit of a political agenda, and ignoring facts in this manner undermines the purpose of science as a knowledge-seeking enterprise.

This is something that all scientists can agree on.

By Ryan Harp

Anderson, M. S., Ronning, E. A., Vries, R. D., & Martinson, B. C. (2010). Extending the Mertonian norms: Scientists’ subscription to norms of research. The Journal of higher education81(3), 366-393.

Merton, R. K. (1973). The sociology of science: Theoretical and empirical investigations. University of Chicago press.


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