- Pareesa Mangal, AIT
Politicizing Scientific Issues: A One-Time Blunder or a Pattern
One would not think that such an archaic tool as word of mouth could rival a scientific claim. Yet, throughout history and even in the modern-day world, when groundbreaking, controversial scientific claims arise, wide-spread false or inaccurate information and hysteria tend to follow.
On an individual level, people can convert their fears of new ideas into skepticism, if only to ease their minds. Political groups sometimes take advantage of this anxiety to foment distrust of scientific claims for their own benefit.
As a historical example, the theory of geocentrism or belief that the Earth is the center of the universe, has long since been disputed and is scoffed upon nowadays. However, in its prime, the theory held widespread support. During the Medieval Period, the Roman Catholic Church was the primary and incontestable source of knowledge. In 1616 B.C.E., the church banned Nicholas Copernicus’ work “De Revolutionibus,” which argued that the sun was the center of the universe. When polymath Galileo Galilei published his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” a few years later, his support of heliocentrism directly opposed the Church, landing him on house arrest for the remaining nine years of his life.
Church orthodoxy at the time stated that Earth was the immovable center of the universe and that everything the Church said had to be law. Pioneers such as Galileo Galilei, Nicholas Copernicus and Giordano Bruno, who supported the theory of heliocentrism, were subsequently condemned by the Roman Catholic Church and became heretics, outcasts from the church. The persecution of these figures was nothing short of persistent, and in some cases, believing in heliocentrism could cost one his or her life. The only way to be free of such persecution was to forcefully denounce the theory, as Galileo did towards the end of his life.
It was not as if the claim that the sun was the center of the universe was not supported, as both Galileo and Copernicus were astronomers, and Copernicus is even now revered as the very father of astronomy. However, in this case, a simple scientific claim became a large religious debate; did Copernicus really believe the universe was heliocentric or did he simply want to discredit the church?
Now, it is clear that Copernicus and others who preached heliocentrism during this time period were simply trying to bring attention to a new discovery. However, the power held by the Roman Catholic Church was enough to cause many members of society to view individuals like Galileo and Copernicus, who questioned accepted belief, as if they were deranged. As these two men have since become revered as two of the most groundbreaking and influential scientists of all time, it can be surprising that people were blind towards the obvious scientific evidence that was present before them. The Church’s power-play, devised to keep a control on the spread of information, politicized these scientific claims and temporarily halted subsequent scientific advancements.
What makes the issue of scientific advancement complex is that there have been times when the moniker “science” has been used to support theories that weren’t really scientific. Take the eugenics movement, whose purpose was to eliminate negative traits from the human race through selective breeding. Polymath, naturalist, and pioneer in the fields of meteorology and psychology, not to mention Charles Darwin’s half-cousin, Francis Galton coined the term eugenics in 1883. Crudely connected with scientific findings of the time period, such as Gregor Mendel’s pea pod heredity experiment and Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolution, Eugenics was taught in colleges, with articles on its subject being published in Scientific American, classes being taught at prestigious universities, and conferences held at the Museum of Natural History. In the United States, “thirty-two states passed eugenic-sterilization laws during the twentieth century, and between sixty and seventy thousand people,” many of whom were inmates or mentally ill or people of color, most of whom were poor, were forcibly sterilized under these laws in an attempt to breed socially undesirable traits out of society. All of this was done under the guise of science. It was not until 1935 that Carnegie Institution convened a panel to review Eugenics research and deemed the work “unscientific.” Though in Germany, the holocaust was ushered on by a belief in Eugenics, and into the twenty first century, underserved Americans continued to be forcibly sterilized under the laws proposed in its name.
Though heliocentrism has since been unanimously accepted, Eugenics disavowed, everyday people remain skeptical of scientific findings, even when the scientific community reaches near consensus on topics such as the complex coronavirus or climate change.
No one is a stranger to the Coronavirus pandemic, but Americans’ responses to the pandemic have received almost as much news coverage as the actual virus itself. In considering the actual effectiveness of the response to COVID-19 in America, it is important to note the stark politicization of the actual disease.
During the early stages of the pandemic, then-President Donald Trump and other right-wing media outlets downplayed the risks of the coronavirus. In addition, right-wing media outlets were more likely to follow suit, making Republicans more likely to be ill-informed about COVID-19. This led to Republicans exhibiting less social distancing than Democrats to be established.
Simultaneously, the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization were changing their COVID-19 guidelines constantly, undercutting their credibility with members of the more skeptical public. Left-wing media outlets during this time were also accused of engaging in fear-mongering, making the public more and more anxious about the virus and its effects, in order to increase their ratings. And in addition, many left-wing media outlets used this time to politicize President Trumps’ response to this and to discredit him, further alienating conservative viewers. As left-wing outlets focused on raising doubts about the President, and right-wing ones were politicizing the virus itself, there was no avenue for any real science about the virus to be spread to the public. The politicization of the virus went both ways. (Graph from Pew Research Center)
A total analysis of the numerous studies done on the polarization of news coverage and “stance” on the COVID-19 pandemic throughout the United States shows just how harmful word of mouth can be. The amount of total COVID deaths, as stated by the New York Times, climbs to around 800k as the year comes to a close. New variants, such as Omicron and Delta still pose an obvious threat.
Similarly, climate change, an issue which in its enormity seems to have apocalyptic repercussions, is not unanimously being taken seriously. Studies have shown that the temperature of oceans has risen and will continue to rise if the amount of greenhouse gases in use are not reduced immediately. According to data collected from the years 1901 through 2020, ocean temperatures have started to rise at an average rate of 0.14° F per year, and they do not seem to be stopping. Nevertheless, many companies who profit off of the wide-scale use of greenhouse gases have made efforts to silence, or at least spread misinformation about climate change around the goal. This is because many greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere in the production of things like oil and petrol. According to a report by The Guardian, the top four largest publicly owned oil and gas companies, including BP, Shell, Exxon-Mobile and Chevron together spent $200 million a year to stop climate change policies from being passed in the United States. Part of the strategy for stopping climate change legislation is through advertisements that foster skepticism about climate change.
The general issue with politicizing scientific claims is that ideas of “truth” become polarized. Such politicization leads to the spread of misinformation and fearmongering; this was displayed at the beginning of the pandemic, but such patterns are not new and have been witnessed throughout history, whether regarding the center of the universe or whether social ills should be selective bred out of a society. Humanity’s goal going forward should be to prevent these blunders through total transparency of scientific research as well as transparency of political and media funding.
Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and case count. (2020, March 3). The New York Times. Retrieved December 12, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/us/covid-cases.html.
DenHoed, Andrea. (2016, April 26). “The Forgotten Lessons of the American Eugenics Movement.” The New Yorker. Retrieved December 15, 2021, from https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-forgotten-lessons-of-the-american-eugenics-movement
Environmental Protection Agency. (2021, April). Climate Change Indicators: Sea Surface Temperature. EPA. Retrieved December 9, 2021, from https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/climate-change-indicators-sea-surface-temperature.
History.com Editors. (2009, November 13). Galileo is accused of heresy. History.com. Retrieved December 9, 2021, from https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/galileo-is-accused-of-heresy.
Keane, P. (2020, September 19). How the Oil Industry Made Us Doubt Climate Change. BBC News. Retrieved December 9, 2021, from https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-53640382.
Laville, Sandra. (2019, March). Top oil firms spending millions lobbying to block climate change policies, says report. Retrieved January 1, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/mar/22/top-oil-firms-spending-millions-lobbying-to-block-climate-change-policies-says-report