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'Partisan Science' in the Age of COVID-19

Science – do you “believe” in it? Interestingly, a person’s political leaning is likely correlated with the probability that they agree with - or trust - scientists’ claims or not. This disparity has been brought to the forefront by the current COVID-19 pandemic.


How is science tied in to politics?


As Thomas Backhaus from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden says, “science is inherently political” [1]. Science informs almost every part of our lives, from how we make our coffee in the morning, to how cars and buses get us from point A to point B, to what medicine we take to feel better. Science produces information and knowledge. This knowledge provides options for politics, and politics then enables, or impedes, science [1]. For example, when embryonic stem cell lines were first developed by James Thomson in 1998 [2], the scientific community recognized the potential for disease treatment and research applications. However, the ethical considerations of using human stem cells led the Bush administration to ban federal funding for newly created embryonic stem cell lines in 2001. This ban, which was eventually loosened in 2009 by the Obama administration, hindered research progress and collaboration among scientists in the stem cell field. [3] This is just one example of how science influences politics, and vice versa.


What’s the evidence that science is becoming partisan?


Despite the undeniable link between science and politics, science should not be partisan. Unfortunately, the public trust in science has likely already become divided this way. Let’s take our current health crisis, the coronavirus global pandemic, as an example. Confidence in medical scientists is growing since the COVID-19 outbreak, but only among Democrats. The Pew Research Center conducted a poll in April 2020 in which the percentage of Democrats who indicated that they had a “great deal of confidence in medical scientists” increased to 53% from 37% in 2019. Among Republicans, however, the trust in scientists decreased from 32% in 2019 to 31% this year. [4] Even the policymakers themselves can be divided on their “belief” in science based on their party. Or, interestingly, their science background could influence their political party affiliation. When 11 scientists were newly appointed to Congress in 2019 - from an animal scientist to an ocean engineer - 8 of them are Democrats and 3 are Republicans. This would suggest that science, or being a scientist, doesn’t hold as much weight among Republican voters. A “Republican scientist that could win their primary on a pro-science agenda” would be a “unicorn,” says Shaughnessy Naughton, president of 314 Action, a nonprofit committee that recruits, trains, and funds scientists and medical professionals who want to run for political office [5]. The partisan divide on Americans’ trust in science is detrimental to the funding, development, and communication of science that, when used correctly, could lead to the implementation of evidence-based policy.


Why is science a dividing topic?


It seems that there is a trend for the public perception of science to be divided among party lines, but why? A lot of it may have to do with one’s personal identity and core beliefs, with which science tends to be assimilated [6]. For example, opinions on issues such as evolution correlate with one’s ideology and party affiliation. Plus, the scientific process can be difficult to decipher from the outside. Why does research take so long? Why is there rarely a clear answer to a scientific question? Our brains tend to like clear-cut, black-and-white patterns. Science doesn’t always give us that; there can be a lot of “gray area.” For those not familiar with the scientific process, it can be frustrating and difficult to trust scientists when we constantly have to change our answers, or offer different suggestions to fix a problem. Research takes time in order to develop an answerable scientific question, infer what the answer will be, develop and test methods to answer that question, carry out those methods, analyze data from the experiments, make conclusions, decide what the next steps are, and get feedback from peers. (Whew, what a long sentence; I guess that highlights what a long process research can be…) Better communication of the scientific method to the public at large, through news outlets for example, could help dissuade some misconceptions and concerns about science.

A reason to change

We know that one’s political party affiliation is correlated with their trust and “belief” in science and medicine. But how can we change? This is especially important at the present time with public health being an immediate concern. It gets more difficult when opinions on how to regulate processes to maintain public health are mostly divided along party lines. The good news in all of this is that people are trying to find ways to change this. One research group from the University of Pennsylvania [7] tested the impact of social learning (i.e. learning from peers) on partisan bias in the interpretation of climate trends. Participants were split randomly into social networks that contained people from ‘both sides of the aisle.’ They were asked to look at a graph from NASA that displayed the downward trend in the amount of artic sea ice over the past few decades, and predict what the amount of sea ice would be in 2025. They found that individuals who identified as Conservative exhibited bias in their predictions and incorrectly predicted the amount of sea ice more often than their Liberal counterparts. BUT – when participants were shown their peers' answers without knowing their political party affiliation and were allowed to revise their answer, both liberals and conservatives significantly improved in their ability to predicts trends accurately. Exposure to opposing beliefs in bipartisan networks can encourage learning from others, especially when the political party affiliation of others in the network is not revealed. If we can determine more ways to facilitate bipartisan social interactions and discussion, we may be able to find more common ground than we think.

References


1. Backhaus, T. (2019). "Acknowledging that Science Is Political Is a Prerequisite for Science‐Based Policy." Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management 15(3): 310-311.

2. NIH Stem Cell Information Home Page. In Stem Cell Information [World Wide Web site]. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016 Available at stemcells.nih.gov/info/2001report/execSum.htm

3. Murugan, V. (2009). "Embryonic stem cell research: a decade of debate from Bush to Obama." Yale J Biol Med 82(3): 101-103.

4. Funk, C. & Tyson, A. (2020). Partisan Differences Over the Pandemic Response Are Growing. Scientific American. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/partisan-differences-over-the-pandemic-response-are-growing/

5. Brueck, H. & Kotecki, P. (2019, Jan 7). Congress just got a bumper-crop of scientists. Meet the 11 new science whizzes on Capitol Hill. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/new-scientists-in-congress-senate-house-of-representatives-2019-1

6. Lombrozo, T. (2017, Apr 24). Science Isn’t Partisan, But Public Perception of Science Often Is. National Public Radio (NPR). https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2017/04/24/525360310/science-isn-t-partisan-but-public-perception-of-science-often-is

7. Guilbeault, D., J. Becker and D. Centola (2018). "Social learning and partisan bias in the interpretation of climate trends." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115(39): 9714-9719.


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