Does Knowledge Still Equal Power?

You may have heard of the adage ‘knowledge is power’. But with technophobia, vaccine hesitancy, and climate change denial sweeping our society, is this really true? Power is the capacity to influence behaviour, and these examples of widespread rejection of scientific facts illustrates that science is currently failing to do just that.

A trend of research rejection has emerged in the face of a huge loss of faith in politics, exacerbated by the ‘fake news’ phenomenon. Why do we refuse to accept scientific fact at face value? Is it that our trust in ‘truth’ has been marred by the time of political polarisation we live in?

The Wellcome Global Monitor reported in 2018 that only 18% of people globally have a ‘high’ trust in scientists, and this figure was as low as 10% in North and South America.1 However, this does not seem to be due to ignorance; a 2015 Yale study by Dan Kahan illustrated that the more scientifically literate people were, the more strongly they felt about the extent of the threat of climate change.2 However, this applied to both ends of the spectrum, causing him to conclude that scientific literacy only polarised opinion. The problem is not a lack of scientific knowledge or understanding – it is our lack of readiness to take on information contrary to our beliefs.

Science is controversial. Pushing the boundaries of knowledge always will be. However, it is science’s association with partisan politics which poses a threat to our faith in research. When people already have opinions on social issues, such as climate change, they will digest empirical evidence with ‘motivated reasoning’. They already know what they are going to believe, but just need to work out the logical steps towards justifying it, regardless of what the research concludes. Thus, as a 1979 paper illustrating this ‘confirmation bias’ concludes, providing scientific information on a cause of social dispute ‘may be not a narrowing of disagreement but rather an increase in polarization.’3

Galileo’s inquisition, which followed after defying the Catholic Church doctrine with his heliocentric model of the universe

Though this shows flawed critical thinking, unfortunately we are right to be suspicious of the research promoted to us. Scientific progress has never been entirely isolated from political agenda. When Galileo provided evidence for the theory of a heliocentric universe, he posed such a threat to Catholic belief and doctrine that the Pope accused him of heresy and sentenced him to house arrest. 400 years later, Donald Trump is dismissing climate change evidence by claiming global warming is hoax created by the Chinese. In both cases, it is the threat that scientific knowledge poses to the perceived infallibility of authority that has obstructed its publication.

Consequently, it is unsurprising that the grants and promotion received by research schemes operates on a political bias. In 2019, the US Agriculture Department was exposed for ‘burying’ scientific studies illustrating the dangers of climate change.4 Even though the research was government funded, the Trump administration refused to publicise these reports.

Furthermore, we cannot underestimate the significance of political alliances between individual scientists and government. Pavlov, vocal and often impetuous (even writing “I am ashamed to be called a Russian!” to Stalin after he purged the Academy of Sciences), ceased his protests against communism in the final two years of his life, allegedly to protect his colleagues and solicit support for his laboratory. Indeed, the laboratory mostly avoided the wrath of the Soviet government during Stalin’s Great Purge.

This totalitarian relationship between government and scientists was embodied by Trump in 2017 when he requested a list of researchers working on climate change in the Energy Department.5 The implication from the Trump administration to punish and silence dissenters was confirmed in 2019, when climate scientist Maria Caffrey lost her job, following officials wiping all evidence of human impact on climate change from her report.6

Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt of the Trump administration, who denied anthropogenic climate change, was consistently embroiled in controversy during his tenure. Credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0

The issue is that government treats science as a tool to be used to support pre-determined policy. The order of this is inherently flawed; research exists to inform beforehand, not desperately justify in the aftermath. The combination of political bias in research with cognitive bias in individuals’ reception of it cries out for a re-evaluation of the funding structures within science.

Steps are being taken towards this – in 2007 The European Research Council was founded. A public body run by an independent Scientific Council, the ERC is designed to distribute funding without a political or thematic agenda. But this is not enough to counteract our nature to disregard facts dissonant with our personal beliefs.   

I want science to be a common good. Science should not lie, nor should it hide important elements. Science, the pursuit of truth, by definition should be something absolute which we can all agree on. Human nature demands that we must separate fact from any motivation not to believe in it and, as we will always have ideological disputes, we cannot eradicate this tendency. Thus, it is essential that science is untwined from belief and principle. For the benefit of scientific progress as a civilisation, science must be apolitical. 

Isabella Ward is an undergraduate student studying Physics at Imperial College London.

References:

[1] https://wellcome.ac.uk/reports/wellcome-global-monitor/2018?gclid=Cj0KCQiAyp7yBRCwARIsABfQsnTQlpYOL8EV2qlc5h_p-EQMvHDxkKlyuwrd7GHoVmVoQYyOikPxg3waAr7rEALw_wcB

2 Donald Braman et. at., The Polarizing Impact of Science Literacy and Numeracy on Perceived Climate Change Risks, 2 Nature Climate Change 732 (2012).

3 Lord, C. G., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. R. (1979). Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(11), 2098–2109.

4 https://www.politico.com/story/2019/06/23/agriculture-department-climate-change-1376413

5 https://insideclimatenews.org/news/25082017/energy-dept-asked-scientist-remove-climate-change-project-description

6 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/25/trump-administration-climate-crisis-denying-scientist

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