As science advocates seek to build on the March for Science rallies held around the world on April 22, a simple but often overlooked point becomes more important than ever: science is political, but not the same as politics.
That claim was a key part of my talk at the March for Science in Sacramento, California, where I made a seemingly pedantic distinction between the adjective political and the noun politics. A recent article of mine, “Politicizing Science,” published in Social Studies of Science, explores this distinction in detail, but it is not merely academic. It can help clarify disputes over the relation of science and politics, and it was implicit in debates about the march.
A couple months before the event, Jonathan Berman, one of the organizers, was quoted as saying, “Yes, this is a protest, but it’s not a political protest.” That statement didn’t make much sense, especially when critics pointed to the lack of diversity in plans for the march. Organizers rightly responded with increased emphasis on historically marginalized groups in science. They also took to calling both science and the march political but not partisan. On the day of the march, anti-Trump signs and slogans undermined claims of nonpartisanship. But honorary march co-chair Bill Nye stayed on message, telling MSNBC, “I just want to remind the administration that science is political. It is inherently political, just like everything else.”
The problem is that the word political has at least two meanings. First, it can simply mean that something is relevant to politics — or more precisely, that it has political origins, implications, or effects. To politicize something in this sense means to make it a topic of politics and public concern. President Obama’s former science advisor John P. Holdren used the term this way when he noted recently that “science is already politicized (even if many scientists themselves resist admitting it),” because decisions about public funding for science are “made through a political process.” More generally, science writer Elizabeth Lopatto argued, “Yes, science is political,” because it is shaped by government funding, ethical constraints, and an ideology of empiricism, and because it is used in public decision-making. Put simply, science is political because it shapes politics and is shaped by politics. In this broad sense, as Nye said, nearly everything is political in one way or another.
But the word political also has a second meaning that links it directly to political activity. People use the word this way when talking about “political competition” or “political protest,” or when saying a previously routine matter “has become very political.” This meaning is also implied in the quip that political science, my primary academic field, must be called that because it involves more politics than science. If something is political in this sense, it is a site or mode of politics, usually with politics understood as the pursuit of power. To politicize something in this sense thus often has a pejorative meaning, suggesting unsavory methods and a lack of principle. In debates over climate change, vaccines, and similar issues, critics of mainstream science often claim it has been politicized in this sense. Bob Walker, for example, a former congressman and campaign adviser to Donald Trump, recently said that “climate research is necessary but it has been heavily politicized, which has undermined a lot of the work that researchers have been doing.”
Some critics of the March for Science worried it would encourage a view of science as political in this second sense of the word. Geologist Robert Young thought the march would reinforce suspicions that scientists “politicize their data, research, and findings for their own ends.” Postdoctoral researcher Arthur Lambert said the march could give politicians “a justification for the idea that science is in some way biased” and thereby undermine the notion that “scientific knowledge is apolitical.” Since this second meaning of political basically equates everything political with partisanship, march organizers were fighting an uphill battle by insisting that both science and the march were political but not partisan.
Given these two meanings of political and politicization, it’s no surprise that prior to the march Buzzfeed reported that “many scientists have voiced concern, arguing either that the organizers aren’t doing enough to politicize the march — or that it is potentially fatal to science to politicize it at all.” This disagreement is not primarily about whether science is political, but what it means to say science is political. Some hear the relatively innocuous claim that science shapes politics and is shaped by politics, while others hear an accusation that science is becoming a form of politics.
We might resolve the disagreement by saying that science is political in the first sense of having political origins, implications, and effects, but that does not necessarily make it political in the second sense of being a site or mode of politics. Science can and should affect politics and be affected by politics without becoming politics. Not everything political is politics.
Of course, there are countless conceptions of politics, and what counts as politics often becomes a political question itself, so any definition should be taken as part of an ongoing debate. In studying the politics of science, I’ve found it helpful to think of politics as purposeful activity that aims, sometimes very indirectly, for collectively binding decisions in a context of power and conflict. This definition is broad enough to include many kinds of political activity in many different venues, but it is narrow enough to distinguish politics from science. Among other things, this definition highlights the different temporal rhythms of science and politics. The norms of science require that inquiry be allowed to continue indefinitely, or at least as long as needed to acquire whatever knowledge scientists are seeking. In contrast, politics requires time limits that enable collective decision-making. The time limit may be election day, or the scheduled end of a committee meeting, or the window of opportunity for building a coalition — but without some kind of time constraint people will rightly say they’re not “doing politics” but “just talking.” This definition of politics also allows one to view politicization in a non-pejorative sense as the introduction of conflict into previously uncontested power relations. Power is pervasive, but without conflict there is no politics. When people challenge existing procedures for science funding or expert advice, for example, they change those procedures from matters of routine administration into questions of politics.
Defining science, meanwhile, is no less controversial. Differences abound in methods and standards, and what counts as science varies with language and culture. The English word science often means only the natural sciences, and sometimes the social sciences, while German Wissenschaft also includes the humanities. Indeed, philosophers of science have been unable to agree on general criteria that clearly distinguish science from non-science and pseudoscience. Sociologists of science, for their part, tend to focus on showing how the boundaries of science are defined by everyday actors in particular contexts. One way to bridge philosophical and sociological approaches is to view science as a “form of life” guided by certain typical values and aspirations. In light of those values and aspirations one can adopt a broad and provisional definition — science is systematic inquiry that aims to produce reliable knowledge — and then critically examine the norms, practices, and institutions of those who claim to be doing science.
These incomplete and provisional definitions cannot settle disputes over what should count as science or politics, but they can help clarify the relation between them. For example, these definitions suggest that when scientists participate on expert advisory bodies or otherwise communicate their knowledge to the public, they are engaged in politics, insofar as their activity aims to inform collectively binding decisions. Similarly, when scientists make collectively binding decisions among themselves, within a scientific institution, they’re doing politics. Faculty committees that allocate scarce resources involve power, conflict, and collectively binding decisions — that is, politics. Scientific inquiry itself can also become a topic of politics, such as when people challenge the subtle influence of race and gender on question formulation, peer review, and other aspects of scientific practice. Such challenges may lead to collectively binding decisions that bring research practices more in line with the values and aspirations of science — or they may lead to changes in what it means to do science in a particular field. Within the context of established scientific practice, in contrast, the resolution of a conflict of opinion is generally not collectively binding. Scientists who disagree with how a research group resolves a conflict of opinion are, in principle at least, free to reject the decision and pursue their own ideas elsewhere. In politics, in contrast, when conflicts are resolved through majority vote or executive authority, the winners acquire a right to compel the losers to obey.
Seen in this light, the norms and practices of science and politics partially overlap but also differ in important ways. Both science and politics rely in part on reasonable discussion, but most would say marching and protesting are legitimate means of doing politics but not science. Scientific norms require the resolution of conflicts primarily through argument and evidence, not with reference to public opinion or legal authority.
Viewing politics as a distinctive activity also helps make clear that lecturing politicians about scientific facts is not an effective way of doing politics. Science communication research shows that people interpret factual claims in light of their existing beliefs. Simply repeating the facts tends to reinforce rather than transform those beliefs. Similarly, as historian Andrew Jewett pointed out, many supporters of the March for Science portrayed it as a “pro-science” campaign against “anti-science” forces, when actually politics involves a wide range of competing values and interests. Even if politicians accept established science on issues like climate change, they will still have many conflicts to resolve on the way to more just and sustainable policies. Scientists need not worry, according to a recent study, that engaging in political advocacy will undermine their credibility by politicizing science. But they also should not try to scientize politics.
The March for Science showed that many scientists want to engage in politics, and we can draw on social science to develop effective strategies for improving the role of science in public life. Among other things, politics by scientists should go beyond science advocacy to include genuine dialogue with non-scientists in schools, community centers, and other local venues, as march organizer Caroline Weinberg suggested. And when we return to our labs, libraries, and classrooms, we can get back to doing science — including social science — with the awareness that even if our science is political that doesn’t mean it’s no longer science.
Mark B. Brown is a professor in the Department of Political Science at California State University, Sacramento. He is the author of Science in Democracy: Expertise, Institutions, and Representation (MIT Press, 2009), as well as various publications on the politics of expertise, political representation, and climate change.