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Science Turns Authoritarian

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Science is losing its credibility because it has adopted an authoritarian tone, and has let itself be co-opted by politics.

In a Wired article published at the end of May, writer Erin Biba bemoans the fact that “science” is losing its credibility with the public. The plunge in the public’s belief in catastrophic climate change is her primary example. Biba wonders whether the loss of credibility might be due to the malfeasance unearthed by the leak of emails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, but comes to the conclusion that malfeasance isn’t the cause of the public’s disaffection. No, people have turned against science simply because it lacks a good public relations outfit. Biba quotes Kelly Bush, head of a major PR firm, on the point:

Bush says researchers need a campaign that inundates the public with the message of science: Assemble two groups of spokespeople, one made up of scientists and the other of celebrity ambassadors. Then deploy them to reach the public wherever they are, from online social networks to “The Today Show.” Researchers need to tell personal stories, tug at the heartstrings of people who don’t have PhD’s. And the celebrities can go on “Oprah” to describe how climate change is affecting them—and by extension, Oprah’s legions of viewers.

“They need to make people answer the questions, What’s in it for me? How does it affect my daily life? What can I do that will make a difference? Answering these questions is what’s going to start a conversation,” Bush says. “The messaging up to this point has been ‘Here are our findings. Read it and believe.’ The deniers are convincing people that the science is propaganda.”

While nobody would dispute the value of a good PR department, we doubted that bad or insufficient PR was the primary reason for the public’s declining trust in scientific pronouncements. Our theory is that science is not losing its credibility because people no longer like or believe in the idea of scientific discovery, but because science has taken on an authoritarian tone, and has let itself be co-opted by pressure groups who want the government to force people to change their behavior.

We decided to do a bit of informal research, checking Lexis Nexis for the growth in the use of what we characterize as ‘authoritarian’ phrasing when it comes to scientific findings.

In the past, scientists were generally neutral on questions of what to do. Instead, they just told people what they found, such as “we have discovered that smoking vastly increases your risk of lung cancer” or “we have discovered that some people will have adverse health effects from consuming high levels of salt.” Or “we have found that obesity increases your risk of coronary heart disease.” Those were simply neutral observations that people could find empowering, useful, interesting, etc., but did not place demands on them. In fact, this kind of objectivity was the entire basis for trusting scientific claims.

But along the way, an assortment of publicity-seeking, and often socially activist, scientists stopped saying, “Here are our findings. Read it and believe.” Instead, activist scientists such as NASA’s James Hansen, heads of quasi-scientific governmental organizations such as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, editors of major scientific journals, and heads of the various national scientific academies are more inclined to say, “Here are our findings, and those findings say that you must change your life in this way, that way, or the other way.”

So, objective statements about smoking risk morphed into statements like “science tells us we must end the use of tobacco products.” A finding of elevated risk of stroke from excess salt ingestion leads to: “The science tells us we must cut salt consumption in half by 2030.” Findings that obesity carries health risks lead to a “war on obesity.” And yes, a finding that we may be causing the climate to change morphed into “the science says we must radically restructure our economy and way of life to cut greenhouse gas emissions radically by 2050.”

‘Here are our findings, and those findings say that you must change your life in this way, that way, or the other way.’

To see if our suspicions were correct, we decided to do a bit of informal research, checking Lexis Nexis for growth in the use of what we would categorize as “authoritarian” phrasing when it comes to scientific findings. We searched Nexis for the following phrases to see how their use has changed over the last 30 years: "science says we must," "science says we should," "science tells us we must," "science tells us we should," "science commands," "science requires," "science dictates," and "science compels."

What we found surprised us. One phrase, in particular, has become dramatically more frequent in recent years: “Science tells us we should.” Increased usage of this phrase leads to a chart resembling a steep mountain climb (or, for those with a mischievous bent, a “hockey stick”). The use of the phrase “science requires” also increases sharply over time. The chart (below) vividly shows the increasing use of those particular phrases. Some of this may simply reflect the general growth of media output and the growth of new media, but if that were the case, we would expect all of the terms to have shown similar growth, which they do not.

Green 7.26.10

In other words, around the end of the 1980s, science (at least science reporting) took on a distinctly authoritarian tone. Whether because of funding availability or a desire by some senior academics for greater relevance, or just the spread of activism through the university, scientists stopped speaking objectively and started telling people what to do. And people don’t take well to that, particularly when they’re unable to evaluate the information that supposedly requires them to give up their SUV, their celebratory cigar, or their chicken nuggets.

The public’s trust is further undermined by scientific scandals, such as the recent ClimateGate affair, when it became apparent that climate scientists, if not overtly cooking their books, were behaving as partisans out to create a unified perception of the climate in order to advance a policy agenda. The climate community is probably the biggest user of the authoritarian voice, with frequent pronouncements that “the science says we must limit atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to 350 parts per million,” or some dire outcome will eventuate. Friends of the Earth writes, “For example, science tells us we must reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions to prevent dangerous climate change.” America’s climate change negotiator in Copenhagen is quoted by World Wildlife Fund as saying, “China must do significantly more if we are to have a chance to solve the problem and to arrive at an international agreement that achieves what science tells us we must.” Science as dictator—not a pretty sight.

If science wants to redeem itself and regain its place with the public’s affection, scientists need to come out every time some politician says, “The science says we must…” and reply, “Science only tells us what is. It does not, and can never tell us what we should or must do.” If they say that often enough, and loudly enough, they might be able to reclaim the mantle of objectivity that they’ve given up over the last 40 years by letting themselves become the regulatory state’s ultimate appeal to authority. Hey, you know, perhaps Biba has something there—maybe science does need better PR!

Kenneth P. Green is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where Hiwa Alaghebandian is an energy and environment research assistant.

FURTHER READING: Green recently spoke out against “The National Academy of Blacklists” in science and against creationists who are “Creating a Problem for Climate Skeptics.” He also discussed “The Dangers of Overreacting to the Deepwater Horizon Disaster” and “U.S. Climate Policy: Consensus or Crisis?”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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