Is There Really a War on Science?

For several years now the popular media has run headlines about “a war on science.” Reporters note that federal funding for research is down, campaigns to undermine climate science attract hundreds of millions of dollars and politicians routinely reject findings that are uniformly accepted by scientists. But a panel of scholars last weekend argued for the most part against calling these aversive movements a war, with two historians even scolding scientists who embrace the idea as out of touch with public concerns. 

Certainly, opponents of genetically modified crops, vaccinations that are required for children and climate science have become louder and more organized in recent times. But opponents typically live in separate camps and protest single issues, not science as a whole, said science historian and philosopher Roberta Millstein of the University of California, Davis. She spoke at a standing-room only panel session at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting, held in Washington, D.C. All the speakers advocated for a scientifically informed citizenry and public policy, and most discouraged broadly applied battle-themed rhetoric.

Millstein was the pacifist. “There is no war on science, is what I’m claiming.” Or maybe there is a war on science, she said, but calling it such is “counterproductive.”

Co-panelist Mark Largent of Michigan State University, a science historian who has interviewed many parents who refuse to fully vaccinate their children, took the argument further. Scientists should shift away from an embattled position, he said, and acknowledge that they have tremendous power over various social arenas. Scientists today are an “intensely privileged group of people,” Largent said. “You are revered. You have more cultural and social authority than any other group, other than very wealthy people.” A defensive stance misrepresents science’s influence and can alienate people already mistrustful of vaccines or other socially relevant findings, he argued.

As further evidence of his view, he noted at an earlier news briefing that people who oppose GMOs, vaccines and climate change findings often try to call upon scientific studies to bolster their own claims, even if that research is widely considered flawed or manufactured. The very attempt to marshal even bogus science in their favor shows that they oppose a specific issue, not science as a whole.

In many cases, people on both sides of a particular conflict about science may agree on basic facts, Millstein added. Largent’s vaccine resisters were highly educated, fairly well informed about science, and trusting of doctors. The disagreement can come in the interpretation of the significance of specific findings, events or risk statements. In other cases, people opposed to a scientifically sound position might feel unheard, and inviting them to air their grievances can defuse a pitched battle. “You can’t just throw more data and information at people,” Millstein said. “It doesn’t work. You’re not addressing people where they are. There’s a disconnect.”

Largent agreed. Parents who question or resist vaccinating their children feel anxious and disempowered about a matter that squarely affects them at home. Efforts to convince these parents to accept the medical consensus that vaccines are safe tend to fail, Largent said. In some cases, such conversations harden resistance to vaccines.

Panelist Steve Strauss, Oregon State University professor of forestry, took a sharper tone as he lay out of a brief history of a growing campaign against genetically modified crops. Genetic modification techniques, he noted, have yielded herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant crops, increasing crop yields and decreasing the exposure of agriculture workers and people in farming communities in particular to dangerous and often carcinogenic pesticides. The technology also has enabled the development of fortified crops, which can deliver nutrients that conventional techniques could not to some of the world’s 795 million chronically undernourished people. Numerous products now on grocery store shelves have long been made with genetically modified grains.

Yet “non-GMO project verified” labels adorn the packages of many processed foods sold in U.S. grocery stores, with more than 22,000 products making the claim in 2014, according to Whole Foods Market research. Similar labels are used in dozens of other nations. As a result, GM crops and foods now carry stigma in the minds of some consumers, despite the fact that hundreds of independent studies have found that GM food poses no more risks than other food.

Anti-GMO activity can have chilling effects, preventing products from being researched and thus reaching consumers who could benefit, especially in the developing world.That’s really an ethical issue for us in the developed world who are setting a lot of the rules” about the global food system, Strauss said. “When controversy distorts science or robs society of very important benefits, then science should take action.” 

Mistrust can be dissolved by putting new agricultural technology more directly in the service of the public, rather than putting big corporations or government regulations front and center, Strauss said. “If it’s not corporations versus people,” he said, “then the whole conversation can change.”

The gloves come off, though, on the topic of global warming. Climate science is currently the most embattled field, as research by Harvard University science historian Naomi Oreskes, Erik Conway and others has made clear in recent years. Oreskes and Conway co-authored the 2010 book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, which revealed organized, well-financed, multi-decade and effective campaigns, often drawing on parallel approaches, to delegitimize findings on various subjects, including acid rain, pesticides and eventually global warming. Such messages create the appearance of scientific grounding but lack substance. “I think this is a problem for science,” said Conway, who also served as a panel speaker at the AAAS session, including the implications for science funding.

Yet Conway, an independent scholar based in Pasadena, California, also hedged on whether to call this scenario evidence of a war on science, noting that the conditions and concerns surrounding climate science differ from those surrounding GM foods and vaccinations. “At the very least,” he allowed, “I’d say there is not one war on science.”

War or detente, diffusing tensions may lay in deals that make some room for doubters of evidence-based thinking. For instance, a 2014 rule in Michigan allowed parents to obtain a waiver for required vaccinations following a visit to a county health department for a vaccine education session. Although it gives parents who are anxious a way to opt out, preliminary data shows that they forgo the hassle of visiting their local agency and sign up their kids for vaccinations, Largent said. Waiver rates since have dropped 63 percent in Detroit.

Scientists and policy-makers in general should seek workable compromises, he advised. “Stop with the hubris and stop with the bold confidence that everything you say and do is right,” he said. That just acts to polarize disagreement. Drawing perhaps on the words of Martin Luther King, Largent added, “politics is the work of the possible.”

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