Politicization of science

The politicization of science is the manipulation of science for political gain. It occurs when government, business, or advocacy groups use legal or economic pressure to influence the findings of scientific research or the way it is disseminated, reported or interpreted. The politicization of science may also negatively affect academic and scientific freedom. Historically, groups have conducted various campaigns to promote their interests in defiance of scientific consensus, and in an effort to manipulate public policy.[1][2][3]


Researcher William R. Freudenburg and colleagues have noted that where decisions and action are required, science can offer valuable degrees of certainty, however, it can never offer a guarantee.[4] John Horgan describes how this point is sometimes intentionally ignored as a part of what he calls an "Orwellian tactic".[5] Organizations sometimes seek to shift all discussion on some issues away from 'conclusions are most scientifically likely' to 'even the more probable conclusion is still uncertain.'

Chris Mooney has claimed these tactics are used to gain more attention for views that have been undermined by scientific evidence. In his view, the media ends up in a misguided pursuit of "balance" which results in undue weight in reporting. As examples, Mooney offers the Teach the Controversy campaign that seeks to cast doubt on some aspects of evolutionary explanations, and other campaigns that seek to cast doubt on certain aspects of anthropogenic climate change.[6]

William R. Freudenburg and colleagues have written about this rhetorical technique, and state that this is an attempt to shift the burden of proof in an argument.[4] Cigarette lobbyists combating laws that would control smoking via trivializing evidence as uncertain, is offered as an example of a SCAM (Scientific Certainty Argumentation Method). They maintain that what is needed is a balanced approach that carefully considers the risks of both Type 1 and Type 2 errors in a situation while noting that scientific conclusions are always tentative. The authors conclude that politicians and lobby groups are too often able to make "successful efforts to argue for full 'scientific certainty' before a regulation can be said to be 'justified' — and that, in short, is a SCAM."[4]

Hank Campbell and microbiologist Alex Berezow have described "feel-good fallacies" used in politics, where politicians frame their positions in a way that makes people feel good about supporting certain policies even when scientific evidence shows there is no need to worry or there is no need for dramatic change on current programs. They have claimed that progressives have had these kinds of issues with policies involving genetically modified foods, vaccination, overpopulation, use of animals in research, nuclear energy, and other topics.[7][8]

Historical examples

Soviet Union

In the Soviet Union, scientific research was under strict political control. A number of research areas were declared "bourgeois pseudoscience" and forbidden. This has led to significant setbacks for the Soviet science, notably in biology due to ban on genetics[9] (see "Lysenkoism") and in computer science, which drastically influenced the Soviet economy and technology.

Tobacco and cancer

A cigarette carton warns about the health risks of smoking. Public awareness was delayed by a SCAM (Scientific Certainty Argumentation Method).[4]

By the mid-1950s there was a scientific consensus that smoking promotes lung cancer, but the tobacco industry fought the findings, both in the public eye and within the scientific community. Tobacco companies funded think tanks and lobbying groups, started health reassurance campaigns, ran advertisements in medical journals, and researched alternate explanations for lung cancer, such as pollution, asbestos and even pet birds. Denying the case against tobacco was "closed," they called for more research as a tactic to delay regulation.[10] John Horgan, notes a rhetoric tactic that has been used by tobacco companies. It is summarized in a line that appeared in a confidential memo from a tobacco company, in 1969, when they sought to cast doubt on evidence that supports smoking causes cancer. It read, "Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy."[5] [11]


Main article: Eugenics

Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler was well known for eugenics programs which attempted to maintain a "pure" German race through a series of programs that ran under the banner of Racial Hygiene. The Nazis manipulated scientific research in Germany, by forcing some scholars to emigrate, and by allocating funding for research based on ideological rather than scientific merit.[12]

In the early 20th century, Eugenics enjoyed substantial international support, from leading politicians and scientists. The First International Congress of Eugenics in 1912 was supported by many prominent persons, including: its president Leonard Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin; honorary vice-president Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty and future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; Auguste Forel, famous Swiss pathologist; Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone; among other prominent people.[13]

The level of support for Eugenics research by the Nazis prompted an American Eugenics advocate to seek an expansion of the American program, with the complaint that "the Germans are beating us at our own game".[14]

There was a strong connection between American and Nazi Eugenics research. Nazis based their Eugenics program on the United States' programs of forced sterilization, especially on the eugenics laws that had been enacted in California.[15]

Recent examples

George W. Bush administration

In 2004, The Denver Post reported that the George W. Bush administration "has installed more than 100 top officials who were once lobbyists, attorneys or spokespeople for the industries they oversee." At least 20 of these former industry advocates helped their agencies write, shape or push for policy shifts that benefit their former industries. "They knew which changes to make because they had pushed for them as industry advocates."[16]

Also in 2004, the scientific advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report, Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration's Misuse of Science[17][18] which charged the following:

"A growing number of scientists, policy makers, and technical specialists both inside and outside the government allege that the current Bush administration has suppressed or distorted the scientific analyses of federal agencies to bring these results in line with administration policy. In addition, these experts contend that irregularities in the appointment of scientific advisors and advisory panels are threatening to upset the legally mandated balance of these bodies."

A petition, signed on February 18, 2004, by more than 9,000 scientists, including 49 Nobel laureates and 63 National Medal of Science recipients,[19] followed the report. The petition stated:

"When scientific knowledge has been found to be in conflict with its political goals, the administration has often manipulated the process through which science enters into its decisions. This has been done by placing people who are professionally unqualified or who have clear conflicts of interest in official posts and on scientific advisory committees; by disbanding existing advisory committees; by censoring and suppressing reports by the government’s own scientists; and by simply not seeking independent scientific advice. Other administrations have, on occasion, engaged in such practices, but not so systematically nor on so wide a front. Furthermore, in advocating policies that are not scientifically sound, the administration has sometimes misrepresented scientific knowledge and misled the public about the implications of its policies."

The same year, Francesca Grifo, executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Scientific Integrity Program, stated "We have reports that stay in draft form and don't get out to the public. We have reports that are changed. We have reports that are ignored and overwritten."[20]

In response to criticisms, President Bush in 2006 unveiled a campaign in his State of the Union Address to promote scientific research and education to ensure American competitiveness in the world, vowing to "double the federal commitment to the most critical basic research programs in the physical sciences over the next 10 years."[21]

Surgeon General

Richard Carmona, the first surgeon general appointed by President George W. Bush, publicly accused the administration in July 2007 of political interference and muzzling him on key issues like embryonic stem cell research.[22][23]

"Anything that doesn't fit into the political appointees' ideological, theological or political agenda is often ignored, marginalized or simply buried," Carmona testified.[24]

Although he did not make personal accusations, the Washington Post reported on July 29 that the official who blocked at least one of Carmona's reports was William R. Steiger.[25]

Food and Drug Administration

In July 2006 the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released survey results that demonstrate pervasive political influence of science at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).[26] Of the 997 FDA scientists who responded to the survey, nearly one fifth (18.4 percent) said that they "have been asked, for non-scientific reasons, to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information or their conclusions in a FDA scientific document." This is the third survey Union of Concerned Scientists has conducted to examine inappropriate interference with science at federal agencies.

The Department of Health and Human Services also conducted a survey addressing the same topic which generated similar findings.[27] According to USA Today, a survey of Food and Drug Administration scientists by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Union of Concerned Scientists found that many scientists have been pressured to approve or reject new drugs despite their scientific findings concerns.[28] In July 2006, the Union of Concerned Scientists released survey results that they said "demonstrate pervasive political influence of science" at the Food and Drug Administration.[29][30]

United States Department of the Interior

Main article: Julie A. MacDonald

On May 1, 2007, deputy assistant secretary at the United States Department of the Interior Julie MacDonald resigned after the Interior Department Inspector General, Honorable Earl E. Devaney, reported that MacDonald broke federal rules by giving non-public, internal government documents to oil industry and property rights groups, and manipulated scientific findings to favor Bush policy goals and assist land developers.[31] On November 29, 2007, another report by Devaney found that MacDonald could have also benefitted financially from a decision she was involved with to remove the Sacramento splittail fish from the federal endangered species list.[32]

MacDonald's conduct violated the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) under 5 C.F.R. § 2635.703, Use of nonpublic information, and 5 C.F.R. § 2635.101, Basic obligation of public service.[33]

MacDonald resigned a week before a House congressional oversight committee was to hold a hearing on accusations that she had "violated the Endangered Species Act, censored science and mistreated staff of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service."[34]

Intelligent design

The intelligent design movement associated with the Discovery Institute, attempts to "defeat [the] materialist world view" represented by the theory of evolution in favor of "a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions".[35] The Discovery Institute portrays evolution as a "theory in crisis" with scientists criticizing evolution and that "fairness" and "equal time" requires educating students about "the controversy."

That all forms of life on Earth are related by common descent with modification is one of the most reliable and empirically tested theories in science.[36] Accordingly, any controversial aspects of evolution are a matter of religion and politics, not science.[2][37] The 2005 ruling in the Dover trial, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, where the claims of intelligent design proponents were considered by a United States federal court concluded that intelligent design is not science, that it "cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents", and concluded that the school district's promotion of it therefore violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.[38]

A 2006 article in scientific journal Science, said the reason that among the thirty-four developed countries surveyed, the U.S. ranks second from last in the number of adults who accept the theory of evolution: "The acceptance of evolution is lower in the United States than in Japan or Europe, largely because of widespread fundamentalism and the politicization of science in the United States."[39]

Global warming

Both mainstream climatologists and their critics have accused each other of politicizing the science behind climate change. There is a scientific consensus that global surface temperatures have increased in recent decades and that the trend is caused primarily by human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases.[40][41][42]

In 1991, a US corporate coalition including the National Coal Association, the Western Fuels Association and Edison Electrical Institute created a public relations organization called the "Information Council on the Environment" (ICE). ICE launched a $500,000 advertising campaign to, in ICE's own words, "reposition global warming as theory (not fact)." Critics of industry groups have charged that the claims about a global warming controversy are part of a deliberate effort to reduce the impact any international treaty, such as the Kyoto Protocol, might have on their business interests.[43]

In June 2005, John Vidal, environment editor of The Guardian, asserted the existence of US State Department papers showing that the Bush administration thanked Exxon executives for the company's "active involvement" in helping to determine climate change policy, including the US stance on Kyoto. Input from the industry advocacy group Global Climate Coalition was also a factor.[44]

In 2006, Guardian columnist George Monbiot reported that according to data found in official Exxon documents, 124 organizations have taken money from ExxonMobil or worked closely with those that have, and that "These organizations take a consistent line on climate change: that the science is contradictory, the scientists are split, environmentalists are charlatans, liars or lunatics, and if governments took action to prevent global warming, they would be endangering the global economy for no good reason. The findings these organisations dislike are labelled 'junk science'. The findings they welcome are labelled 'sound science'."[45][46] The "selective use of data", cherry picking, is identified as a notable form of scientific abuse by the Pacific Institute, an organization created to provide independent research and policy analysis on issues at the intersection of development, environment, and security.[47]

In December 2007, the Christian Science Monitor reported that at least since 2003, and especially after Hurricane Katrina, the George W. Bush administration broadly attempted to control which climate scientists could speak with reporters, as well as edited scientists' congressional testimony on climate science and key legal opinions.[48] Those who have studied organizations set up to delay action and manufacture uncertainty about the well established scientific consensus have divided their tactics into three basic categories: first deny there is a problem, second, make the case that it's not a problem and may actually be beneficial, and failing that to admit it's a problem but insist there's nothing anyone can do about it.[49]

Waxman report

In August 2003, United States, Democratic Congressman Henry A. Waxman and the staff of the Government Reform Committee released a report concluding that the administration of George W. Bush had politicized science and sex education. The report accuses the administration of modifying performance measures for abstinence-based programs to make them look more effective. The report also found that the Bush administration had appointed Dr. Joseph McIlhaney, a prominent advocate of abstinence-only program, to the Advisory Committee to the director of the Centers for Disease Control. According to the report, information about comprehensive sex education was removed from the CDC's website.

Other issues considered for removal included agricultural pollution, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and breast cancer; the report found that a National Cancer Institute website has been changed to reflect the administration view that there may be a risk of breast cancer associated with abortions.[50][51] The website was updated after protests and now holds that no such risk has been found in recent, well-designed studies.[52]

Abortion–breast cancer hypothesis

The abortion-breast cancer hypothesis is the belief that induced abortions increase the risk of developing breast cancer.[53] This belief is in contrast to the scientific consensus that there is no evidence suggesting that abortions can cause breast cancer.[54][55][56] Despite the scientific community rejecting the hypothesis, many pro-life advocates continue to argue that a link between abortions and breast cancer exists, in an effort to influence public policy and opinion to further restrict abortions and discourage women from having abortions.[57] While historically a controversial hypothesis, the debate now is almost entirely political rather than scientific.[57]

The most notable example of the politicization of this topic was the modification of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) fact sheet by the George W. Bush administration from concluding no link to a more ambiguous assessment regarding the abortion-breast cancer hypothesis,[58] despite the NCI's scientifically-based assessment to the contrary.[59]

United States House Science Subcommittee on Oversight

In January 2007, the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology announced the formation of a new subcommittee, the Science Subcommittee on Oversight, which handles investigative and oversight activities on matters covering the committee's entire jurisdiction.[60] The subcommittee has authority to look into a whole range of important issues, particularly those concerning manipulation of scientific data at Federal agencies.

In an interview, subcommittee chairman Rep. Brad Miller pledged to

look into...scientific integrity issues under the Bush Administration. There have been lots of reports in the press of manipulating science to support policy, rigging advisory panels, and suppressing research by federal employees or with federal dollars. I've written about that here before, and you interviewed me a year ago about the manipulation of science. In addition to the published reports, the committee staff has been collecting accounts, some confidential, of interference by political appointees. I hope that more folks will come forward now that Democrats are in the majority and we show we're really going to pursue the issue.[61]

Dedications and holidays

On January 22, 2013, New Jersey Representative Rush D. Holt, Jr., a Quaker Christian and nuclear physicist, introduced a resolution to the United States Congress designating February 12, 2013 (Charles Darwin's 204th birthday) as "Darwin Day" in order to recognize "the importance of sciences in the betterment of humanity".[62]

Scholarly studies of the politics of science

The politicization of science is a subset of a broader topic, the politics of science, which has been studied by scholars in a variety of fields, including most notably Science and Technology Studies; history of science; political science; and the sociology of science, knowledge, and technology. Increasingly in recent decades, these fields have examined the process through which science and technology are shaped. Some of the scholarly work in this area is reviewed in The Handbook of Science & Technology Studies (1995, 2008), a collection of literature reviews published by the Society for Social Studies of Science.[63][64] There is an annual award for books relevant to the politics of science given by the Society for Social Studies of Science called the Rachel Carson Prize.

See also


  1. Evolution or design debate heats up.
  2. 1 2 "Some bills seek to discredit evolution by emphasizing so-called "flaws" in the theory of evolution or "disagreements" within the scientific community. Others insist that teachers have absolute freedom within their classrooms and cannot be disciplined for teaching non-scientific "alternatives" to evolution. A number of bills require that students be taught to "critically analyze" evolution or to understand "the controversy." But there is no significant controversy within the scientific community about the validity of the theory of evolution. The current controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution is not a scientific one." AAAS Statement on the Teaching of Evolution American Association for the Advancement of Science. February 16, 2006
  3. Intelligent Judging — Evolution in the Classroom and the Courtroom George J. Annas, New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 354:2277-2281 May 25, 2006
  4. 1 2 3 4 William R. Freudenburg, Robert Gramling, Debra J. Davidson (2008) "Scientific Certainty Argumentation Methods (SCAMs): Science and the politics of doubt". Sociological Inquiry. Vol. 78, No. 1. 2–38
  5. 1 2 "'THE REPUBLICAN WAR ON SCIENCE,' BY CHRIS MOONEY", Political Science, Review by JOHN HORGAN, Published: December 18 2005
  6. Mooney, Chris (2005). The Republican War on Science. Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-04676-2.
  7. Hank Campbell, Alex Berezow,. Science Left Behind : Feel-good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left (1st ed.). New York: PublicAffairs. ISBN 9781610391641.
  8. Garfinkle, Adam (14 February 2013). ""Team Science" Takes on Its Left-Wing Doubters". The American Interest. Retrieved 24 March 2014.
  9. Glass, Bentley (May 1962). "Scientists in Politics". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 18 (5): 3.
  10. Tobacco companies obstructed science, history professor says
  11. "Original "Doubt is our product..." memo". University of California, San Francisco. 21 August 1969. Retrieved 3 October 2012.
  12. Ute Deichmann; Thomas Dunlap (15 May 1999). Biologists Under Hitler. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-07405-7.
  13. Blom, Philipp (2008). The Vertigo Years: Change and Culture in the West, 1900-1914. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, Ltd. p. 334. ISBN 978-0-7710-1630-1.
  14. Lynn, Richard (2001). Eugenics: a reassessment. New York: Praeger. p. 18. ISBN 0-275-95822-1. By the middle decades of the twentieth century, eugenics had become widely accepted throughout the whole of the economically developed world, with the exception of the Soviet Union.
  15. San Francisco Chronicle Sunday, November 9, 2003--"Eugenics and the Nazis – the California connection" by Edwin Black:
  16. When Advocates Become Regulators Anne C. Mulkern. The Denver Post, May 23, 2004.
  17. Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration's Misuse of Science Union of Concerned Scientists
  18. Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policymaking Union of Concerned Scientists
  19. Scientific Integrity Statement Signatories Union of Concerned Scientists
  20. Bush Science Push Fails to Transform Critics Don Gonyea. National Public Radio, Weekend Edition Sunday, February 26, 2006.
  21. Space Studies Board (2007). Space Studies Board Annual Report 2006. National Academy of Sciences. p. 110.
  22. Harris, Gardiner (July 11, 2007). "Surgeon General Sees 4-Year Term as Compromised". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-03.
  23. Dunham, Will (July 10, 2007). "Former Bush surgeon general says he was muzzled". Reuters. Retrieved 2007-12-03.
  25. Bush Aide Blocked Report, Christopher Lee and Marc Kaufman, The Washington Post, July 29, 2007.
  26. FDA Scientists Pressured to Exclude, Alter Findings
  27. Schmit, Julie (December 17, 2004). "FDA scientists question safety". USA Today. Retrieved May 22, 2010.
  28. Survey: FDA scientists question safety
  29. FDA Scientists Pressured to Exclude, Alter Findings; Scientists Fear Retaliation for Voicing Safety Concerns
  30. Examples of abuse, Scientific Integrity at Risk: The Food and Drug Administration
  31. "Report: Interior official blasted for twisting environmental data". USA Today. March 30, 2007.
  32. U.S. Endangered Species Program Burdened by Political Meddling
  33. "Report of Investigation: Julie MacDonald, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Fish, Wildlife and Parks" (PDF). US Department of the Interior. March 23, 2007.
  34. Embattled Interior official resigns post"
  35. The Wedge Document (PDF file), a 1999 Discovery Institute fundraising pamphlet. Cited in Handley P. Evolution or design debate heats up. The Times of Oman, 7 March 2005.
  36. National Academy of Science Institute of Medicine (2008). Science, Evolution, and Creationism. National Academy Press. ISBN 0-309-10586-2.
  37. "That this controversy is one largely manufactured by the proponents of creationism and intelligent design may not matter, and as long as the controversy is taught in classes on current affairs, politics, or religion, and not in science classes, neither scientists nor citizens should be concerned." Intelligent Judging — Evolution in the Classroom and the Courtroom George J. Annas, New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 354:2277-2281 May 25, 2006
  38. Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 04 cv 2688 (December 20, 2005). , Conclusion of Ruling.
  39. Miller, Jon D.; Scott, Eugenie C.; and Okamoto, Shinji. 2006. Public Acceptance of Evolution Science. 313: 765-766.
  40. Oreskes, Naomi (December 2004). "BEYOND THE IVORY TOWER: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change". Science. 306 (5702): 1686. doi:10.1126/science.1103618. PMID 15576594.
  41. America's Climate Choices: Panel on Advancing the Science of Climate Change; National Research Council (2010). Advancing the Science of Climate Change. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press. ISBN 0-309-14588-0.
  42. "Understanding and Responding to Climate Change" (PDF). United States National Academy of Sciences. 2008. Retrieved 30 May 2010.
  43. The PR Plot to Overheat the Earth
  44. Revealed: how oil giant influenced Bush, White House sought advice from Exxon on Kyoto stance John Vidal. The Guardian, June 8, 2005
  45. The Denial Industry The Guardian, September 19, 2006
  46. The Political and Selective Use of Data: Cherry-Picking Climate Information in the White House
  47. Integrity of Science initiative of the Pacific Institute
  48. Study Finds White House Manipulation on Climate Science
  49. Global Warming is Good for You Dylan Otto Krider, Houston Press, 2002
  50. Politics and Science
  51. Politics & Science: Investigating the Bush Administration's Promotion of Ideology Over Science
  52. The full report in PDF format is available from http://oversight.house.gov/features/politics_and_science/pdfs/pdf_politics_and_science_rep.pdf
  53. Russo J, Russo I (1980). "Susceptibility of the mammary gland to carcinogenesis. II. Pregnancy interruption as a risk factor in tumor incidence". Am J Pathol. 100 (2): 505–506. PMC 1903536Freely accessible. PMID 6773421. "In contrast, abortion is associated with increased risk of carcinomas of the breast. The explanation for these epidemiological findings is not known, but the parallelism between the DMBA-induced rat mammary carcinoma model and the human situation is striking. [...] Abortion would interrupt this process, leaving in the gland undifferentiated structures like those observed in the rat mammary gland, which could render the gland again susceptible to carcinogenesis."
  54. "WHO - Induced abortion does not increase breast cancer risk". who.int. Archived from the original on 2007-12-14. Retrieved 2007-12-24.
  55. "The Care of Women Requesting Induced Abortion" (PDF). Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. p. 43. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-06-27. Retrieved 2008-06-29.
  56. "Politics & Science - Investigating the State of Science Under the Bush Administration". oversight.house.gov. Archived from the original on 2008-03-27. Retrieved 2008-04-14.
  57. 1 2 Jasen, P (2005). "Breast cancer and the politics of abortion in the United States". Med Hist. 49 (2): 423–44. doi:10.1017/S0025727300009145. PMC 1251638Freely accessible. PMID 16562329.
  58. "Politics & Science - Investigating the State of Science Under the Bush Administration". oversight.house.gov. Retrieved 2007-11-04.
  59. "Summary Report: Early Reproductive Events Workshop - National Cancer Institute". cancer.gov. Retrieved 2007-11-04.
  60. "The Subcommittee handles investigative and oversight activities on matters covering the entire jurisdiction of the Committee on Science and Technology. This Subcommittee is new for the 110th Congress." Subcommittees, Committee on Science and Technology
  61. Democrats Form New Science Subcommittee Brad Miller interview. Daily Kos, January 24, 2007.
  62. Oppenheimer, Mark (1 February 2013). "Seeing Darwin Through Christian Eyes? It All Depends on the Christian". New York Times. Retrieved 2 February 2013.
  63. Handbook of Science & Technology Studies, Second Edition, Sage Publications (1995)
  64. Handbook of Science & Technology Studies, Third Edition, MIT Press (2008)

External links

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