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/.