Science and politics: The thin line

My differentiation criterion between science and politics is simple and clear. What is right and what is wrong is a scientific debate. Who is right and who is wrong is a political one.

Democracy is the leading norm in politics today although it is yet far from being universal. The structure of politics in democracy is such that although there can be public debates on various issues and two or more possible stands taken on any issue, what we ultimately vote is not any particular stand but an individual leader or a political party. This is inevitable because there are multiple issues and only one election. The election is between parties and leaders, not between alternative policies on every issue. It is possible that you agree with a given leader’s stand on certain issues but not on others. Then you need to prioritize, give more importance to certain issues and decide your vote accordingly. Here, we can say that it is because of the structure of the democratic process that who is right takes an upper hand over what is right.

By the principles of science, all debates should be about what is right and what is wrong. They are supposed to be driven by logic, mathematics, evidence, experiments, data and so on. But that happens surprisingly rarely. What we see in reality is that any debate quickly takes the form of who is right and who is wrong. It becomes my hypothesis versus yours. Science is not formally driven by voting. But at some level it takes the form of voting. The community ultimately accepts, rejects or ignores a given hypothesis, possibility, opinion, interpretation and the like. This form of voting is worse than political voting because in a democratic process every vote has the same weighting. In science the elite vote is orders of magnitude heavier than a student’s or young researcher’s vote. Often there are experiments, opinions or interpretations that could be logically correct, supported by evidence but have only a minority of followers. Such pieces, even if published are often ignored by the community rather than debating on it. Of late, even the cancel culture seems to have entered science. So a minority stand is not allowed to be expressed, or is quickly labeled ‘anti-science’ or ‘mis-information’.  It is almost impossible to publish a non-conformist hypothesis, experimental result or data analysis in a peer reviewed journal. And the ways of reaching people directly through social media are also closed owing to the increased pressures on social media to sensor ‘misinformation’.

On this background Dr. Anthony Fauci saying, “Attack on me is attack on science” is a 100% political statement. Given that he was responding to political attacks, he might be fair in saying this. But this demonstrates how quickly science becomes politics. Fauci’s is a dangerous statement because the line between science and politics is very thin. Having a scientific opinion against the mainstream Covid preaching is not an attack on science. Disagreeing with the mainstream is never an attack on science. In fact, cross questioning is an essential exercise in science. Without alternative thinking, without competing hypothesis and without challenging mainstream beliefs there remains only pseudoscience. During the Covid pandemic we have seen the tendency to suppress, ridicule and cancel the non-mainstream opinions very frequently. From health authorities and people of mainstream science, public statements and assertions were being made without adequate evidence. The clean chit against the lab leak hypothesis, the insistence on social distancing and use of masks, the imposed lockdowns were all without sufficient data support. In emergency, you may not be able to wait for support. You may have to start doing something with a belief. This is fair, but it shouldn’t have been projected as the word of ‘science’. As soon as data accumulate, all the hypotheses and measures taken based on it need to be reexamined and policies changed accordingly. It is likely that what is seen to be working over a short term might become counterproductive in the long run. So, even tested and published results need to be rechecked in the altered context. But such possibilities are not even being discussed.

By human nature once you advocate something, it gets associated with your ego. A challenge to a policy becomes a challenge personally to you, and then it s not easy to be open to any change. This is in no way restricted to Covid related issues. It has been common throughout the history of science. It became much more serious after peer reviews became the mandate in the 1970s, because peer reviews became an authenticated tool to reject inconvenient evidence or interpretations and impact factors became the convenient tool to ignore them even after being published.  

I believe that the cause of the problem lies in the evolved human nature. Human reasoning has evolved to judge humans and to take sides, not to make unbiased judgments on issues. The question who is right and who is wrong is central to the evolved human mind. What is right may be the appropriate scientific question, but in no time we slip on to the ‘who’ question without even being aware of having done so.

In politics where there are several issues you may agree with someone on some of the issues but not on others. Potentially this can be a very complex process. But in reality, it turns out to be surprisingly simple. Very few people appear to be confused about whom to vote, because they agree on certain issues and disagree on others. For most people, the decision comes quickly and clearly. This is because when you like a leader or a party, you tend to agree with most of their stands. This also seems to be driven by basic human nature. Often the opinion about a person is not made based on issues, the opinions about issues is made based on the person.

This is the reason why the pursuit of science without bringing in politics is so difficult. It may not be impossible but it doesn’t come naturally. You need continued conscious efforts to see that you do not slip on to personal judgments, lobbies, individual cost-benefits or power games in supporting or opposing a stand. The tendency to selectively ignore or cherry pick evidence also comes from making it my hypothesis versus yours. There might be a positive side to it. It is possible that mine versus yours adds more spirit and interest to the debate, but I think the negative side far outweighs the possible benefit. The spirit of focusing on ‘what is right’ and weeding out ‘who is right’ should be a part of basic education and training in science. Training in science today is almost entirely training in tools of science. We rarely talk about the methods of science, the appropriate mindset for science. Scientific studies on the process of research have been very primitive and limited to a few mundane questions. I think possible solutions to the problem of frequent slipping into politics  may lie in the undergraduate classes.

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