As an increasingly broad spectrum of issues start to become topics of partisan debate, it is important to examine the significance and implications of forcing these previously-neutral matters into the political arena. It is particularly worrisome that scientific facts and institutions have become targets of pointed partisan arguments and accusations. Since it is necessary to recognize that there have always been and will always be disagreements regarding the relative importance of individual issues and their corresponding policies and legislation, this post seeks to explore cases when views on science become extreme and polarized, and are used to justify and facilitate political gain.
It is common knowledge that there is a long history of debating scientific matters; this is expected because it is reasonable to be wary of new ideas that one does not completely understand. However in recent decades as society has become more data-reliant and the general comprehension of the life sciences has continued to grow, scientists, their innovations, and their discoveries have largely been spared from intense political criticism. The information gained from their research, while inherently incomplete, has been implicitly accepted to be the best representation of society’s current understanding of the material.
During the past few years, scientific concepts have been increasingly used to rationalize political agendas. Established facts have been challenged, and even dismissed, by prominent political figures. Notably, President Trump has repeatedly denied the threat of climate change and has recognized the power of harnessing the important status of this concept to support his agenda and theories, claiming in 2012 that, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” This statement, while fundamentally untrue, could effectively change the hearts and minds of uninformed citizens. Trump has also attempted to discredit and politicize scientists (and their work by association), claiming (with no evidence) in fall 2018 that climate scientists “have a very big political agenda.” While it is unnerving that a civil leader would publicly perpetuate false claims and baseless hypotheses, it is perhaps most concerning that a new precedent is being set: one can have an opinion on something that was previously indisputably factual. Linking these opinions to a political agenda encourages citizens to subscribe to different interpretations of facts based on their political leanings.
Scientific information is also being manipulated in order to avoid contradictions with the government. One of the primary examples of this occurred in fall of 2019 when President Trump, speaking about the predicted path of Hurricane Dorian, mentioned erroneously that the state of Alabama was likely to be impacted by the storm and was therefore in danger. The National Weather Service (NWS) consequently issued a correction stating that Trump’s words did not accurately reflect scientific predictions. Not wanting to admit to what could have been merely an honest mistake, the Trump Administration instructed Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to threaten to fire employees of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) if this correction was not repudiated. NOAA complied, shortly thereafter releasing a memo that “disavowed its own sub-agency’s scientifically-valid statement.” The Trump Administration’s escalating actions in this situation blatantly showed that saving face was more important to them than informing citizens about the danger posed by an impending national disaster.
The Covid-19 pandemic has provided a plethora of opportunities for politicization, with the Republican Party in particular seizing the chance to frame scientific strategies and practices as anti-Republican measures. In May 2020, Eric Trump declared that, “COVID-19 social distancing measures are part of a ‘cognizant strategy’ for Democrats to win the 2020 Presidential election.” This statement communicates a dangerous message to Trump supporters: practicing social distancing, a strategy that has been scientifically proven to reduce the spread of Covid-19, actively helps the opposing party win the next election. As in previous examples of manipulating scientific evidence, the true danger in this statement is to the public’s health and welfare: discouraging citizens from following safety guidelines by politicizing scientific evidence both puts the American population at increased risk and undercuts the current and future credibility of scientific institutions and research.
Another pandemic-related example of using the governmental platform to spread baseless guidance couched as scientific information took place in spring 2020, as the U.S. struggled to keep up with a growing number of Covid-19 infections and public desperation for news of a treatment or cure increased. During a cabinet meeting, President Trump misleadingly stated that a drug called hydroxychloroquine “is used by thousands and thousands of front-line workers, so that hopefully they don’t catch this horrible disease or whatever you want to call it.” While small clinical trials of hydroxychloroquine were occurring at the time, the widespread use of this drug for disease prevention that was implied by Trump’s statement was simply not occurring; in fact, the American Medical Association clarified that no studies, surveys, or tracking had been conducted to support his claim. As before, this fallacious information backed by the White House – a historically trustworthy institution – poses a true threat to the health and well-being of the public.
Several conclusions about the new political, scientific, and societal reality can be drawn from this analysis of the politicization of science. Firstly, a person can now choose whether or not to believe in scientific facts, and a decision either way is representative of their opinion. Secondly, regrettably, the U.S. public cannot trust the scientific advice that comes from the highest office in the land because it is altered to reflect the interests of the ruling party. Citizens must research issues on their own, and fact-check information released by the governmental body whose sole job – ironically – is to protect the people. Finally, due to the politicization of aspects of science that were once generally accepted as facts, citizens who were previously uninvolved in political contention are being forced to politicize themselves since they must make choices to live their lives, and these choices are now synonymous with political opinions. Especially during the time of a pandemic, many day-to-day decisions are governed by science; in this hyper-polarized environment, trusting scientific measures has become a political statement. The danger of polarizing science is that objective issues that directly affect public health and welfare become topics of dispute, and as polarization increases the possibility of moderation, compromise, and effective communication decreases. With a lesser capacity to negotiate polarization grows more extreme, thus perpetuating this negative feedback loop.
 “Trump Administration Disavows Own Meteorologists for Issuing Factual Statement on Hurricane Dorian.” Union of Concerned Scientists, 3 Feb. 2020, www.ucsusa.org/resources/attacks-on-science/administration-disavows-meteorologists-statement-hurricane.
 Law, Tara. “Eric Trump Claims Social Distancing Is a Democrat ‘Strategy’.” Time, Time, 18 May 2020, time.com/5838104/eric-trump-coronavirus-disappear/.
Hi Eleanor, I really enjoyed reading your post about partisanship of science. I think this is a great topic and it should be discussed more. I agree with what you said about citizens needing to fact-check what information the government is putting out and it is very unfortunate that it has to be this way. In the age of disinformation one would hope that government sources contain trusted information.
As someone who is not from the United States, I am slightly concerned with the fact that COVID-19 became politicized. I remember seeing posts on social media after the The Rose Garden “super spreader” event regarding the fact that it was “suspicious” that Republicans are getting infected more frequently than Democrats, which is obviously not a “gotcha” but proof that COVID-19 is a partizan issue; and it should not be.
It is scary that we have politicians denying scientific facts and bringing snowballs to the Senate floor to “prove” that climate change is not real. You put this incredibly well: “it is perhaps most concerning that a new precedent is being set: one can have an opinion on something that was previously indisputably factual.”
Where do you think the future of science in politics is?
Hi Eleanore. Your post is clear and succinct in that it explores cases when scientific evidence is used for polarizing, political tactics. Your blog addresses that science data is inherently incomplete and falsifiable articulating the point that as such, it is scientific; science cannot be consistently conclusive in order to be good science. You use strong evidence from Trump’s own tweets and quotes to support the illustration of polarizing rhetoric. I especially appreciate your calling attention to Trump’s false equivalent that Hydroxychloroquine, a medicine used to prevent malaria, could be a viable treatment or preventative for COVID-19. My mind is still blown over how irresponsible he was to suggest it. Perhaps it may be useful to also show when bad science is used as a polarizing tactic from the liberal side, as well. And possibly sources from scholars like Resnick or Bermeo would lend more robust support. Overall, the post is strong, easy to follow, and has a logical argument that this reader genuinely appreciates.
Hi Eleanor! Your post covers a really interesting topic, and I’ve had the same thoughts myself. It’s disturbing to think of how strong the division is in this country that people are now forming opinions on scientific fact. I think the idea of identity politics largely contributes to this conflict; I have even seen lawn signs that include the saying “in this house, we believe in science,” and it saddens me to realize how, for some people, believing in science is now part of their political identity when it should really just be considered as objective fact. It’s outrageous that so many politicians and citizens refuse to believe facts backed by scientific evidence simply because the opposing political party expresses their belief in it.
As you mentioned, President Trump’s spread of misinformation and objection to scientifically proven studies is extremely dangerous. I was shocked to learn about how he essentially forced the NOAA to issue a false statement about something as serious as a hurricane, and I hadn’t heard about this before I read it in your post. Overall, your post was very informative and covers a topic that is increasingly worrisome. I wonder now if, as a country, we’ll eventually be able to separate political and nonpolitical issues or if this problem will only get worse.
Eleanor, I really enjoyed reading this blog post, as it highlights an important issue that has manifested during Trump’s presidency. Given the prevalence of Trump’s disputes about scientific facts, I’d be curious to explore why Trump supporters readily believe one individual’s word over many well-established scientific organizations and individuals. As Trump’s refusal to believe numerous obvious scientific facts is vastly unprecedented in the presidential office, there is no preexisting reason as to why supporters would choose to believe him over other scientific organizations. While I would guess that this belief is partly due to the deep partisan division in the United States, I would love to explore this topic more fully.
Hi Eleanor, I really enjoyed your post and completely agree that the politicization of science is alarming and only seems to be spreading in the United States. I’m reading your post on December 11th so at this point the Covid vaccination rollout has started around the world. I’ve noticed a really interesting development since it was announced. I live in a city that’s pretty divided 50/50 between Trump supporting Covid danger deniers and democratic mask wearing science believing people. And my city is one of the worst in Massachusetts for Covid spread because of this. But since the vaccination rollout has started, I’ve heard so many people who have forgone masks this whole time say that there better be enough vaccinations for them and wondering when they’ll be able to be vaccinated. This has kind of given me hope that the trust in science is not as eroded as I thought it was and that it’s more of a political front. If that’s the case, the politicization of science is just as concerning but maybe not as difficult to walk back.