Science and Politics: Opinion

Well, I am not particularly dedicated to writing in this blog. Since many of the posts I do are more technical, they usually require a bit more fact-checking and preparation, and as it turns out, it’s hard to do so when you have a lot of stuff to deal with (due to current world events). But I wanted to take a bit of a detour to discuss a bit about my personal opinions on current events and the role that science and information in general could play.

If you have been on the internet for a while, you are likely to have come across some post, twitter or video where some angry guy (not trying to be heteronormative here, but these are very usually guys) is fuming at some piece of entertainment that is being “ruined” by “lazy” writers and “snowflakes”, usually ending with the argument “Keep politics out of *blank*”, where that blank could be movies, music, video games or comics, just entertainment and art in general.

Ignoring the absurdity of apolitical art, it’s always interesting to note that the only time these media elements are perceived as being political is when they correspond to a very specific ideology or worldview. Which leads me to conclude, perhaps prematurely that what they really mean is “Keep *YOUR* politics out of *blank*” or “Keep the politics *I don’t agree with* out of *blank*”. I won’t delve further into this, but for more on this topic, I recommend you to check Jim Sterling’s Youtube Channel, he discusses this in one of his “Jimquisitions”. (On a side note, you know who was aware of art’s value in political messaging? Sadly, the nazis.)

While the argument of politics and art, is pretty heated right now, there is not much discussion with regards to science in relation to politics, at least not outside of academia. This might be perhaps, due to an ill-conceived assumption that the practice of science is completely independent from any external factor, such as one individual’s social background and or political view.

I’ve argued and discussed briefly in a previous post about how an individual’s circumstance affected their outcome in regards to scientific achievements (Where are the Einsteins?), so I think it’s not a controversial statement to say that science is not independent from society. Therefore, it’s not a stretch to consider that science may not be as independent from one’s worldview as we would wish.

Recently, there is a growing skepticism towards scientific evidence being displayed by certain groups of individual, skepticism that is often manifested through behavior that is not recommended during a pandemic, like say, not wearing masks when asked to do so because of a nebulous definition of freedom. This would seem strange, but as someone who has been within the online ecossistem for a while, this does not look like an isolated event but as a trend, possibly going back to before I was born (I am not really old, so it’s not really that long ago, but it’s definitely not recent). As someone involved with science and who enjoys science communication, I’ve come across a fair share of climate change denialists, young earth creationists and flat earthers, and the general demeanor of the anti-maskers is very similar. In fact there is a significant overlap between these groups with several members being subscribers to multiple of these conspiracy theories.

What do all of these conspiracies have in common? They are all characterized by a distinctive anti-intellectualism, not philosophically but politically motivated.

NOTE: Anti-intellectualism here does not stand for anti-intellectual, is a philosophical ideology that opposes the notion that knowledge is the only approach to truth, and manifests into a distaste for perceived expertise (which scientists often have).

How do scientists deal with these positions, which are political by nature, while remaining apolitical? It is virtually impossible. We currently live in a world where believing there is evidence for antropogenic climate change, or that the earth is not flat are seen as political views, rather than scientific ones. While scientists may have tried to remain apolitical, or outside the grand sphere of real politik, these events came to show that science was never independent from politics after all.

While I am talking about scientific consensus and anti-intellectualism, it is naive not to point out that in current academic circles, for instance, it is established certain concepts such gender fluidity and the nature of race and gender as social elements, rather than biological ones. These again are scientific facts that go directly against some political ideologies and worldviews. Which is also why several of these conspiracy theories have a large intersection with homophobic, racist and anti-semitic ideologies. And the growing trend of right-wing extremists slowly gaining popularity, and the increase in hate crimes and stochastic terrorism by white nationalists (i.e. in the US or the EU) is eerily similar to the growth in anti-intellectualist sentiment.

This is also parroted by right-wing pundits who accuse academia of being biased against their worldviews, without acknowledging their own biases. This only adds to the fuel. Science in general, be it social, natural, formal sciences, all of them, have been a key part of human development. By losing thrust in the scientific community and in scientific progress, there is also associated a rejection of several benefits brought up by science, as vaccines. People are literally putting their lives and the lives of their close ones in risk due to their opposition to science norm.

I don’t want to make a reductionist argument here. There are several issues we need to tackle to solve this crisis. But I doubt we will be able to succeed with this lingering anti-intellectualism. I won’t argue it is the “root of all evil”, but it is damn right close. We are not elites, we are not the rulers or controllers of this world, we are just people who are working so that our collective human society can one day surpass its limitations and go beyond what we currently are right now.

And for my fellow scientists, our time of privilege as apolitical beings is over. Either we act now or else we might be in for an hard time. I’m not being an alarmist, it’s just that reality right now is too alarming.

EXTRA NOTES AND SOME SOURCES:

Oddly enough I found two interesting articles on the subject of politics and entertainment that I will link here. These do not really address the same points I have about politics and entertainment, but it shows that argument predates the current internet zeitgeist:

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