Politics and the Changing Norms of Science

Written by Lucas Bergkamp

“The politician is sometimes tempted to encroach on the normal territory of the scientific estate. In such issues the problem is less often whether politics will presume to dictate to science than it is how much politics is to be influenced by the new findings of science.”[1]

The climate change debate has exposed a deeper problem with our science and scientific knowledge. The problem is not that science is unable to answer all of our questions. Rather, the problem is that the body politic has come to see science as an instrument to pass on ‘hot potatoes,’ i.e. complex issues raising a large range of empirical questions and implicating important value judgments. Scientists have failed to point out the limits of science and to bounce the ball back to the politicians.


In the market for ‘evidence’ for policy making, politicians demand arguments for their desired policies, which scientists supply in the form of research and reports. Their research, however, does little to resolve the policy issues faced by the body politic, and does not advance social progress. Climate science is the poster child of these developments.

Science has been able to respond to the political call, because the culture of science has changed. Under the influence of post-modern social science and the precautionary principle, the old proven social norms have faded away. They have been replaced by a new set of moldable beliefs, which accommodate scientific advocacy and activism for the social good. These new beliefs facilitated the rise of ‘victimhood’ culture and the social justice movement, which influence the nature of research and scientists. As a result, a body of new activist science has developed in entrenched environments shielded from criticism. In the field of climate change, scientists are assisted by a large group of ‘spin doctors.’ There are enormous vested interests in this body of new science. To dismantle these bastions of politicized science, a return to the traditional social norms of science is needed.

To avoid confusion, this essay does not discuss the content or substance of climate science.[2] Rather, the focus is on the political economy,[3] sociology,[4]and culture of science,[5] which provides insights relevant to understanding the external influences on the production of science: what are the imperatives driving research and scientists, and in what kind of environment does science come about.[6] I also look at how science assists policy makers. Incentives (social, moral, financial, etc.) and norms play a substantial role in this kind of analysis. The main issue here is how politics and culture have affected the norms of science; my explanation is multi-factorial and involves several inter-related, and each other reinforcing factors: the science-technology link, the rise of social sciences, science’s social norms, victimhood culture, and, importantly, the political use of science. A related question I attempt to answer is what climate science does for society and social progress (not what society can do for climate science). While the analysis is positive (descriptive-analytical), the conclusions set forth some recommendations on a way forward.

The Science-Technology Link

Science and technology have enabled societal progress and brought us the steam engine, antibiotics and computers.[7] The heydays of technological innovation, however, may be behind us; the rate of technological innovation has decreased and thus weakened economic growth. We may have reaped the “low hanging fruit” so any further progress might be increasingly difficult. As a result, major scientific and technological breakthroughs have become rare. At least, this is a common belief in economic circles.[8] But could there be something else going on?

Science’s expansion after WO-II was facilitated by the close relationship with technology and industry. There was a symbiosis between science, technology and industry; nuclear energy, for example, was the result of this symbiosis. In the end, science derived its legitimacy from its practical usefulness, although that use was not known in advance in the case of fundamental knowledge.[9]

Usefulness does not require technology in a narrow sense. Science can produce also knowledge that is useful to government, or indeed to the practice of science itself. If ‘technology’ is interpreted in a broad sense, the science-technology link serves as a way to ensure science is useful. Another way to increase science’s usefulness might be to tilt the balance between public and private funding.[10]

The Rise of Social Sciences

On the wings of the success of the natural sciences, the social sciences[11]prospered. By applying the scientific method to social problems, it was expected that society’s most difficult issues could be solved or at least alleviated.[12] Fields of study, such as social risk studies, science and technology studies and science communication, came to fruition. Other areas of social science that expanded significantly included anthropology, behavioral science, and social psychology. Unlike the natural sciences, however, the new social sciences were more prone to bias and ideology.[13]

Vague theories accommodated a diversity of perspectives, thus mandating further (inter)subjective interpretation.[14] Instead of prediction, ‘understanding’ was the objective. Understanding, however, cannot avoid the scientist’s own perspective. In social science, claims often cannot be tested against pre-established impersonal criteria consonant with observation.[15]Whether a claim is true or false might be a matter of the personal or social attributes of its proponent.[16] In social science, particularism does not preclude scientific claims.

Post-modern ways of understanding the world opened the door to explicitly ‘politicized’[17] science; the theory that what authorities claim as “scientific knowledge” is really just a means of social control, shed an entirely different light on the scientific enterprise, issuing an invitation to resort to science to all those who want to either apply or fight social control. By integrating ideology and subjectivity into the academy and science, these fields may also have exercised an influence on the biological and natural sciences.

The new social sciences had an explicit social agenda.[18] In itself, this may not be objectionable, but it created two main risks: the specter of academic activism disguised as science, and the risk of spill-over to the natural and biological sciences. Through disciplines such as cultural anthropology, the social sciences have pushed self-refuting concepts such as cognitive relativism[19] and moral relativism.[20] If their claims were true, science would have no special status, or even no point at all. Although these propositions never became part of the mainstream, they did have the effect of undermining the authority of science as a privileged social institution, and opened the door for new forms of ‘science’ that could claim equal validity. Indeed, the suggestion that the urgency of a social agenda, which itself is in part prompted by science, determines a need for supporting science became an acceptable vision.[21] The seeds for new activist science were sown, and there was no barrier to prevent its expanse to the biological and natural sciences.

To address these persistent issues, it has been argued that the social sciences should endorse the rational, rigorous, and empirical scientific method.[22] In the social sciences today, we are still governed by “superstition and fear fueled by ignorance.” To escape from these new Dark Ages, the sociologist “should put himself in the same state of mind as the physicist, chemist, or physiologist when he probes into a still unexplored region of the scientific domain.”[23] The question arises whether social science has a future as science, if it does not endorse the empirical method.

Despite these deficiencies, with the added social science disciplines, the scope and size of the industry of science grew rapidly to the point where universities have become more interested in their finances than in knowledge.[24] Universities have assumed the role of the main provider of information to government agencies and the body politic. As public funding increased, government was able to increase its influence on science; science had to serve it, rather than society. Political usefulness replaced practical usefulness. A strong link between science and technology remained visible only in a few fields, such as engineering.

New Science’s Social Norms and Advocacy

During the same period, science witnessed a development in the social norms governing the practice of science itself. While this development might be related to the growing influence of social science, it can also be evaluated as a separate, stand-alone issue.

In the postwar period, science was defined by strong social norms.[25] Science was regarded as communal, which meant that all scientists not only had access to all scientific data, but were also willing to collaborate with other scientists. It was generally accepted that scientific knowledge should be objective, universal and independent of personal opinion. Critically important was the norm that science had to be constantly open to criticism and debate. Scientists held beliefs only tentatively, based on the evolving theories and evidence, always subject to falsification.[26] Only through the open, fierce battle of theories and evidence science might find truth.[27] Scientists believed that they should be disinterested in the outcome of their research, and scientific institutions were always supposed to act for the benefit of the common scientific enterprise, rather than for the personal gain of scientists or the institution itself.

In our times, scientists no longer subscribe to and internalize these norms, at least not to the same extent.[28] There still is strong support for ‘communism’ as an academic norm. On the other hand, disinterestedness, defined as “personal detachment from truth claims,” is the least popular contemporary norm, as academics align their research interests with funding opportunities. Organized skepticism and openness to criticism have also come under serious pressure due to post-modern thinking that promotes “deconstruction,” “relativism,” and understands science as means of social control. An example of this trend is the issue of defining uncertainty in climate change science: “the mere occurrence of uncertainty talk is not interesting unless we can document and interpret its construction, representation, and/or translation. According to constructivist accounts, representations of uncertainty do not reflect an underlying ‘reality’ or a given ‘state of objective knowledge’ but are constructed in particular situations with certain effects.”[29] In this account, ‘reality’ and ‘objective knowledge’ are relative concepts that depend on individual perspectives.[30]

As the importance of disinterestedness declined, scientists have found it acceptable to start acting as issue advocates.[31] To justify advocacy, it was pointed out that scientists are also citizens, who should be free to engage in advocacy on the issues they study.[32] In some cases, such activism can go so far that scientists push for a particular ideological position without having any ability to understand the implications of their advocacy. In a Dutch climate court case, for example, scientists, using their academic titles and affiliations to enhance the authority and credibility of their statements, petitioned the Dutch government not to appeal,[33] although they could not read Dutch or knew Dutch tort and constitutional law, which were the key issues relevant to the decision whether to appeal.[34] These academics thought it appropriate to opine on issues far beyond the reach of their expertise,[35] using their academic titles and affiliations to give their petition undue authority and credibility, and as a science-based aura it does not deserve.[36]

Thus, science’s social norms have evolved, which has changed the conditions under which science is produced. Scientists have adopted a new set of social norms to replace the old norms of “universalism, communism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism.” It has been suggested that the contemporary social norms of science include “capitalism, particularism and interestedness.”[37] The evolution of science’s institutional imperatives have resulted in a new ethos of science, an ethos that allows for much greater subjectivity, social engagement and advocacy. Under this new ethos, as experience has shown, there is an increased risk of ‘activist science.’[38]

In the field of climate science, this new ethos is even able to accommodate the ‘denormalization’ of scientific debate, the silencing of dissenting opinions, and the stigmatization of skepticism. These deviations from the traditional scientific process are brought about by a combination of strategies and tactics: professionalization of climate scientists,[39] the use of artificially constructed scientific consensus,[40] a wide range of rhetorical devices,[41] intimidating language,[42] ‘bullying’ strategies,[43] political attacks,[44] and even civil and criminal litigation.[45] In implementation of an overall strategy to influence policy decisions and public opinion, climate scientists are assisted by flanking strategies that treat ‘consensus positions’ as dogma. These strategies include the deployment of ‘spin doctors’ that sell the dogma invoking urgency and doom scenarios,[46] while discrediting skeptics.[47] They include also the implementation of institutions that treat the findings of climate science as foregone conclusions, and, thus, engage in climate science awareness, communication, education, and ‘solutions.’[48] Few climate scientists have publically disapproved of these strategies and tactics. Fewer yet have insisted on open, free, and honest scientific debate, and disassociated themselves from those who do not subscribe to these norms.[49]

Reflecting a more general trend, scientists have deemed it acceptable to participate in climate activism groups that seek to manipulate public opinion with a “narrative that creates public outrage” and to deploy “multiple, complementary legal strategies” to solicit assistance from the machinery of law to go after companies.[50] Partisan scientists that are concerned about climate change serve as main drivers and instigators of such activism.[51] Needless to say, there is an issue as to whether an activist attitude is compatible with the open-minded, objective, impartial attitude required by scientific debate.

In short, the evolution of science’s social norms has raised concerns about the privileged status of science itself. Where value judgment or subjective beliefs are disguised as objective science, political debate and policy-making are distorted. As Merton has pointed out, “[t]he abuse of expert authority and the creation of pseudo-sciences are called into play when the structure of control exercised by qualified compeers is rendered ineffectual.”[52] Climate science may be a case in point.

Politics and New Science

In politics, as elsewhere, knowledge is power. Because knowledge is power, power is inclined to solicit support from science. Indeed, science can be a powerful argument in debate. Accordingly, politicians have realized that there is potential political gain in science, at least if it ostensibly provides the right ammunition. Since having science on one’s side in political discussions is a substantial advantage, politicians tend to measure science’s utility not by its objectivity and veracity, but by the policy-support it provides. Although they talk of science-based policy, they are often more interested in policy-based science.

As the ‘risk society’ unfolded, politicians saw themselves increasingly faced with risk issues.[53] Genetically modified organisms, chemicals, electromagnetic waves and greenhouse gas emissions were hot issues. Politicians were careful not to ‘shoot from the hip’ on these highly complex and politically explosive issues. With reference to the precautionary principle, which had been laid down in international treaties and legislation,[54] they passed on these ‘hot potatoes’ to science. The result was that science became involved with matters that are only in part scientific, and also involve a series of subjective choices, values, and social norms.[55]

Scientists had to figure out how these choices, norms and values could be considered and reflected in their studies and reports.[56] Given the nature of the issues, science could not provide an adequate response. As scientists started investigating and reporting on ever small, more remote, more uncertain, and more ‘long tail’ possible hazards or risks associated with industrialization and technology, the political demand for such science increased. A new ‘science of the objectively unknowable’ was born: a science that addresses possible hazards or risks in value-laden, ambiguous and epistemically and politically uncertain contexts. This new science leaves ample leeway for scientists’ subjective preferences to shape the science. The body politic does not mind, as long as it can use science to deflect and manage political risk. Hence, a conundrum arises: since science is controlled by politics,[57] it is the body politic that is in charge of solving this problem, but it has no incentive to do so.

Weakened by the new ethos of ‘capitalism, particularism and interestedness,’ scientists, instead of bouncing the ball back to the body politic, attempted, for better or worse, to deal with the implied values, ambiguity, and uncertainty. They did so by stating explicitly the assumptions, conditions, and parameters they used in developing a wide range of possible scenarios and models to answer the unanswerable questions posed to them. They also stated the unknowns, at least those unknowns that they knew of; all others were relegated to the ever expanding category of ‘unknown unknowns.’ Of course, these attempts had to fail. Even worse, they brought science in disrepute.[58]

In some areas, including climate science, science is at now risk of becoming an extension or peddler of the body politic or bureaucracy.[59] Science is recruited not to advance technological innovation, but to assess the potential or possible risks of both industrialization and new technologies, from bio- and nanotechnology to pesticides, electromagnetic waves, and greenhouse gas emissions. Like the problems it addresses, this new science tends to be imprecise, ambiguous, contingent, and uncertain. As such, it serves no useful purpose, except to enable politicians to launch a fight against industrialization or to restrict, if not, prevent the introduction of new technologies by invoking the precautionary principle.[60] As a result, new science, and maybe all of science, is at risk of losing its non-political, non-partisan status.

Academic Victimhood Culture

Further complicating the state of affairs, the problem of new science’s politicization is related to, as well as compounded by, the rise of a new culture, the ‘victimhood culture.’[61] Facilitated, if not actively promoted, by the rise of the social sciences, victimhood culture had made its way from US colleges to European universities. Closely related to the precautionary principle, victimhood culture instills beliefs in scientists’ minds that aggravate the crisis due to the demise of the ethos of traditional science. Consistent with post-modern textuality, a novel key belief is that spoken and written language determines the fate of the world (“as if there were nothing but texts”).[62] An important implication is that words can both hurt and do good. The proposition that words can hurt, however, comes dangerously close to the idea that knowledge can hurt; it would seem to be a small step from hurtful knowledge to “forbidden knowledge,” i.e. “knowledge considered too sensitive, dangerous, or taboo to produce.”[63]

The victimhood culture is visibly at work in the spreading adoption of academic policies regarding political correctness, racial and ethnic diversity, micro-aggression, inclusion, and ‘safe spaces.’[64] Due to such policies, academic debate and free speech have been seriously curtailed.[65]   Its effect is not necessarily limited to academic policies, however, but may also affects the practice of science itself. Science’s motto no longer is “dare to think” but “beware of thinking.” Instead of the open mind, the cautious mind prevails. Science’s lodestar no longer is human ingenuity, creativity, and the infinity of possibilities, but the vulnerability of people and the planet, and the urgent need for protection, precaution, and sustainable development.[66]

Victimhood culture is not an isolated phenomenon; it is part of a new social justice movement. Social justice involves the pursuit of a just society by challenging injustice, valuing diversity, and demanding a right to equal opportunities and outcomes, respect for human rights, and a fair allocation of resources.[67] Pursuant to the social justice imperative, top universities have declared that the use of free speech may reflect “the lack of sensitivity to others, the lack of consideration for the community, and the lack of responsible concern for the University as an institution,” and, as such, “seem to [b]e reprehensible.” Accordingly, it is “entirely appropriate” for a university “to attempt to persuade a group not to invite a speaker who may cause serious tension on campus.”[68] But why would this imperative apply only to invited speakers, and not to faculty members and research proposals? Victimhood culture rejects knowledge for reasons unrelated to its objectivity and veracity. As a logical culmination, claims are now made that science is racist, colonial, or imperialistic, and that it should be decolonialized: “[d]ecolonizing the science would mean doing away with it entirely and starting all over again to deal with how we respond to the environment and how we understand it.”[69]

Through its unavoidable effects on the mindset of scientists, this culture stifles the ability of science to advance innovation and technology, and move society forward. As Haidt has pointed out, the pursuit of social justice is incompatible with the pursuit of truth.[70] Although his argument is limited to education, the social justice movement is likely to exercise also a strong influence on research, as academics have broadly internalized (and in some cases actively promoted) its ideals. The new social justice-driven science might produce information relevant to political debate and policy-making, but does not necessarily improve the lives of the people. Scientists involved in the new science tend to “have no doubt of [their] premises, and want a certain result with all [their] heart,” and therefore “naturally sweep away all opposition.”[71] Once doom scenarios and grave injustice become the drivers, little is too extreme if it advances the good cause. Quite possibly, however, the kind of science that is aimed at saving the world and establishing a just society, is also less likely to deserve the label ‘science.’ In other words, victimhood culture works to inconspicuously make academies and research an extension of politics.

While the effects of victimhood culture are stronger in the social sciences and humanities, the natural and biological sciences, being constituencies of academic institutions, are by no means immune to this culture. Climate science, for example, has been made part of the vision for social justice; whether or not all climate scientists are happy about it, climate science has been tied to a climate justice movement.[72] Since climate change has been recognized as a global problem with grave environmental, social, economic, distributional, and political implications,[73] activists and the body politic have now firmly put climate science in the position of having to support policies to protect the threatened planet and the human, animal, and plant life on it.

The Disutility of New Science

Even disregarding the issues discussed in this essay (but maybe not independent of them), science is in dire straits. Bad incentives have caused bad science.[74]There are regular reports of scientific misconduct,[75] including “other-harming” misconduct that leads to “falsely negative conclusions about someone else’s work” through “biased quality assessment, smear, and officially condoning scientific misconduct.”[76] Deceitful tactics and abuse of the scientific process may involve appeal to emotion, personal (‘ad hominem’) attacks, mischaracterization of an argument, inappropriate generalization, misuse of facts, misuse of uncertainty, false authority, hidden value judgments, scientific misconduct, and science policy misconduct.[77] Unsurprisingly, according to several researchers, most published research findings are false.[78]

Scientists and institutions are exposed to a wide range of possible biases[79] that may distort research findings. Some common forms of bias include self-selection bias, recruiting bias, institutional bias, ‘group think’ or tunnel vision, funding bias, study design bias, cognitive or paradigm bias, modeling bias, peer review bias, publication (or outcome reporting) bias, citation bias, policy-support bias, ideological or confirmation bias, scientistic bias, and precautionary bias.[80]Systemic biases, such as funding and ideological bias, are particularly harmful, because they affect all research findings.

Due to politicization, science’s disutility increases further. By introducing bias at all levels, politicization causes a structural deficiency of the scientific process that affects all research. Consequently, the new science produces an endless stream of uncertain, ambiguous, and vague information about social issues such as immigration, poverty reduction, nanotechnology, and climate change, without ever moving closer to resolution or ‘the truth.’ For example, the science of the endocrine disruption is concerned with the identification of hardly measurable, possible long term effects of minuscule doses of chemicals on the human body. With severe overconfidence, climate science even tries to predict the state of the climate in the year 2100. But this information, even though it meets a political demand, does not bring us closer to solving problems for the benefit of society. To the contrary, the resulting ‘scientization’ of politics (or ‘scientized framings’ of policy issues[81]) may make it harder to reach a compromise.[82] Due to such distortions, science is “in deep trouble,” as an authoritative science scholar recently proclaimed: it “isn’t self-correcting, it is self-destructing.”[83]

Conclusions and Way Forward

In pursuit of precautionary policies, science has become an instrument used by politicians and agencies to arm themselves with powerful arguments in complex value-laden debates about often small, remote, multi-factorial possible hazards or risks. Scientists have let the politicians hijack the scientific enterprise. Capture of science by politicians (a phenomenon that I have elsewhere called ‘scientific capture’[84]) is accompanied by ‘regulatory capture’ of the policy process by activists and scientists.   Both policy makers and scientists exploit scientific uncertainty, which is ubiquitous, to avoid debate on the relation between science and politics, facts and values. Armed with science, politicians reap the added benefit of avoiding accountability for decisions. Under the guise of science, a new pseudo-science has developed that, to varying degrees, reflects values or even political, subjective opinion.[85] Climate science is the prime example of this troublesome development.

Paradoxically (‘uncertainty is certain’), the politicized new ‘science of the unknowable’ has purged out or marginalized doubt and skepticism, the hallmark of all science.[86] In lieu of serious debate, it has allowed a socially constructed dogma of scientific consensus to stifle further discussion necessary to advance the science. In science, truth might emerge only through the clash of diverging opinions. In climate science, to the contrary, debate has been ‘denormalized,’ skepticism stigmatized, and dissent squashed. Disinterestedness has been replaced by scientific advocacy or even activism. Activist climate science makes use of a series of strategies and tactics to influence public opinion and politics. Climate scientists, with a few notable exceptions, have not had the courage to oppose the abuse of science, and to demand science free from political ideology, debated on the basis of its scientific merits. They can no longer remain silent, however, because science itself has now come under siege.

Due to the current lack of effective mechanisms to protect against misleading science (whether politicized science,[87] activist science, pseudo-science,[88]junk science,[89] voodoo science,[90] or other forms of pathological science[91]), society has to actively manage the risk of being led astray by new science. As part of the remedy, science itself has to rehabilitate the proven, traditional social norms of universalism, communism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism. Scientists should reinstate ‘truth,’ not policy, as their principal.[92] To ensure its usefulness, science’s relationship with technology is to be reinvigorated, and private funding should be encouraged further.

In short, scientists should stop catering to the needs of politicians, so that science can again contribute to social progress. For their part, politicians need to respect the limits of science and refrain from dumping complex value-laden problems wholesale on science’s plate to avoid accountability. Scientists and politicians need to take their responsibility to society seriously, and live up to their raison d’etre.

If both parties honestly evaluate the current state of affairs and take appropriate action, science’s future may be bright. They will realize that a reformation is necessary. Given the strong vested interests and the political pressures that will likely be applied, courage will be necessary.[93] In the area of climate change, a reformed, probably substantially slimmed down, climate science with realistic ambitions may well be able to make a useful contribution to society.


Extensive EndNotes are in the attached file [end-notes]

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