We often idolize science as something that is apolitical or should be outside the political sphere. Yet, in the midst of the historic COVID-19 pandemic, science has become a political salvo in championing some causes while jeopardizing others.
We see this across the world as governments choose whether they should open or close schools, mandate masks, regulate the size of public gatherings and more.
Those of us who worry about science being biased or subjective, or about the nefarious motivations of some scientists, should look carefully at the bigger threat to society. This threat is not only represented by our leaders who ignore science but also by those who use science to legitimize unjust decisions.
Despite the overall heightened emphasis on science during the COVID-19 pandemic, we still live in an era of science deniers, alleged fake news, and alternative facts. Equally dangerous, nevertheless, is when leaders selectively pick some science to bolster their priorities, emphasize parts of science long debunked by the greater scientific community, and claim science backs their decision when it does not.
Yet, to be the valuable resource for government decision-making, science should come with a warning to be used only as intended and not to mix with undemocratic processes.
To begin with, science does not tell us what decisions to make but it can inform those decisions. While medical sciences offer different projections of COVID-19 across a population for various mitigation and suppression strategies, they cannot tell us whether we should act now, in which order our political actions should be taken, and how they should be communicated to the public.
Our judgments and choices of how to respond to science come instead from societal values and morals. While the conduct of science and government decisions can entwine, whether and how we respond is a choice made by our government leaders and therein lies the accountability.
We are also better off thinking of science not in the singular but in the plural. While epidemiologists might focus on public health and deaths from COVID-19, economists might focus on unemployment inducing long-term societal crisis, which could also result in deaths.
Sometimes these different sciences can present contrasting tradeoffs and other times they might complement each other. The mistake is to assume that one is right and one is wrong; more often they offer different but equally valid portrayals of the same problem.
While our governments might want the sciences to send unambiguous signals of what to do, this is rarely the case. Sciences send multiple, ambiguous signals of which our leaders can pay attention and interpret some and ignore others.
The question, then, becomes one of what scientific knowledge enters the public discourse and what scientific knowledge does not. The answer will likely reflect certain powers and proclivities, which potentially reinforce enduring societal patterns of winners and losers.
Science should also not be the only input into government decisions. We do not need science to feel the trauma of death from COVID-19, the challenges of a working parent educating their child, and the helplessness of losing a job.
Although we might need science to capture the size and scale of this emotional distress, it is not only about science. Indeed, science can get in the way of our morality and ethics, learning from history, grappling with the meaning of our humanity and community.
Finally, recognizing science as political salvo does not mean that we should disregard science altogether. It means we need to understand the duality of science: science unquestionably can inform government decisions and contribute to a better society, and it can silence voices, marginalize the less powerful, and obscure what is really happening in society.
This duality of science is, of course, impossible to overcome, but there are ways to mitigate it. We can incorporate as many sciences as reasonably possible in decision-making. We can ensure broad and diverse societal representation in interpreting and responding to science. We can consider other forms of knowledge and strive to make decision processes as transparent as possible to check abuses of power or excessive influence of the advantaged over the disadvantaged.
To put it another way, the benefits of the sciences depend on the quality of our democracy.
Christopher M. Weible is a professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver, specializing in political conflict and concord in relation to public policy issues. Anna P. Durnová is a senior researcher at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna and the author of “Understanding Emotions in Post-Factual Politics.”
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