How does one politicize Science when Science has NO political inputs? Indirectly. You politicize its participants and its outputs. How does this work out in reality? Short answers is disastrously.
Now for the long answer.
THE BIG IDEAS
First, what is Science? It is an enterprise where human beings do their best to explain how Nature works. But I oversimplify. The process is far from simple though as theories are developed under mountains of data from experiments. These data obtain because of empirically familiar regularities, or what scientists call laws. This is the umbrella under which the entire edifice operates. Models are developed and subsequently tested. The most useful models are the ones that have the broadest contextual reach. Models aren’t so much wrong or right as much as they are useful. Many scientists would say that all models are wrong because none of them answer every question. However, they do answer LOTS of question with predictive power. This is what theories do: they explain with broad scope and predictive success.
Second, what is politics? It’s the way we elect government officials and promote ideas that get summed up as “platforms.” Again, I oversimplify. The American system of politics is a two-party system that operates poorly, to say the least. It is nasty and irrational and dripping wet with culture war. It is religious. It is violent at times. It is a disaster that somehow keeps “working” by way of drastic swings in political madness. We needs a political system of some sort in order to live up to our Constitution, which specifies a few functions of government. One of those functions is Public Health. Has Public Health been politicized? No doubt.
Third, Science changes because the physical world changes. However, the progress of Science is towards greater clarity and accuracy rather than political whim. In politics, changing your mind is a cardinal sin unless the dogma demands it, whereas in Science it is a cardinal virtue when the data demands it. Science seeks the truth, whereas politics seeks more power. Scientists advance their careers by honestly seeking the truth about reality, whereas politicians advance their careers by seeking popularity at any cost. These two human enterprises couldn’t be more fundamentally different, yet somehow public perceptions and political action seek to mash them together.
THE SAD HISTORY
The COVID pandemic has become a dumpster fire for politicized science. Technically, the science can’t be politicized because the laws of Physics have no interest in ideology. The fluid dynamics of aerosols demand that masks work just as much as molecular dynamics requires that vaccines work safely. Sure, one could pretend to debate those facts, but they are facts that do not care about your feelings. Viruses do not care about your feeling or your politics, just whether you will become their next host. Aerosols don’t vote, but they do have volume that comes to rest in your lungs, which is the vehicle for all respiratory viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2. Science makes these declarations of fact because of the overwhelming amount of data that confirms them as such.
Q: So what is getting politicized if it is not the Science itself?
A: Science communication and science contributions.
Scientists say stuff. They say it in writing every time a paper is published. Public Health officials say it when they report on disease progression and offer mitigation strategies. These are not political things until politicians and pundits make it so. It is a bastardization of the Science when this happens, which was painfully evident in 2020 during the end (thankfully) of the Trump administration. It started well when Dr. Anthony Fauci was the front man, but it quickly degraded once Trump and his minions realized that following Public Health was political suicide. As Public Health (CDC, Fauci, Birx, etc.) was progressively sidelined, actors and pseudoscientists like Navarro and Atlas took center stage. This was the politicization of Science by way of poisoning science communication within the abject absence of expertise.
Political and religious anti-science aggression had begun long before the pandemic, but found an epic launch point in the Trump administration. The booster rockets of deliberate ignorance and culture warring pseudoscience took flight at the expense of hundreds of thousands dead from COVID in the United States. The decline of science by way of this madness was subtle but effective. Demonizing scientists like Fauci, whose advice was strictly based on the data that is available, became step one in the plan. Why Fauci? He’s a government employee, which makes it political since Congress funds the NIH. In other words, the witch hunt for Fauci was a cheap trick. But cheap tricks like these trickle down to the scientific community because Fauci gets his data therein.
Does Anthony Fauci represent Science? Yes. Is Fauci Science personified? No. That’s a stupid idea that he and every other scientist that publish and speak in official capacities would reject. All scientists represent Science with their publications and declarations. It’s a brutal process though, because publishing your data means opening yourself up to a ruthless examination by the entire scientific community. Their starting assumption is that you are wrong and they are eager to demonstrate it. This is one of many reasons why Science is a self-correcting enterprise, unlike politics. In politics, you hide the mistakes for as long as you can in order to survive, whereas in Science you try to avoid mistakes so that your publications survive with you.
Masks. Had 100% of the world donned N95 masks while indoors in congregate settings back in February 2020, the pandemic would have ended that summer. The Physics and Chemistry of aerosols is settled on this issue because the laws of Physics at the undergraduate level are clear. But no, we humans couldn’t do that for all of the reasons given above. Had 100% of the world been vaccinated in December of 2020, then the pandemic would have ended in spring 2021. Why didn’t we do this? Logistically, it was impossible to distribute that many doses worldwide. Summer 2022 is the earliest that vaccines could reasonably be expected to reach the entire globe.
Vaccines. Politics could have shined here if the wealthy countries of the world had realized that vaccinating the poorer countries was in their self-interests. They didn’t do that. American politics could have shined if folks like Dr. Atlas hadn’t affirmed the Great Barrington Declaration that wanted to just let the virus rip through Earth’s population and kill more millions than it already has. Think about, Scott Atlas is a neuro-radiologist that was put in charge of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. You might as well go see an electrician for a hernia. The persistence of political agendas politicized science through deliberate ignorance that was in fact personified in people like Scott Atlas.
Ventilation. If we could have sent everyone outdoors for a few weeks back in 2020, the pandemic would have most certainly slowed down, and likely ended because its virtually impossible to transmit a respiratory virus outdoors. People would have to yell in each other faces for 15 minutes or more for this to happen, and even then, a small gust of wind would dilute those aerosols and prevent reaching one quanta of viral load. The scientific field of Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) is littered with atmospheric chemists, fluid physicists, and multiple branches of engineering. The IAQ community has been trying to get governments to do something about IAQ for decades, but no one listens. One reason for this is that IAQ has historically been about comfort and energy savings rather than actual air quality. Proper ventilation and UVC lighting in every congregate indoor space would have ensured that SARS-CoV-2 went nowhere. Politics as usual is why IAQ has been ignored for so long. Hopefully, we’ll learn our lesson this pandemic and get it together for the sake of our children.
So … do I think Science has been politicized this pandemic? Yes and No.
- Yes, its communication and contributions have been politicized and its participants demonized.
- No, it is technically impossible to politicize the methods, models, and theories of natural science.