Why we need a fifth estate

Science: “knowledge about the structure and behavior of the natural and physical world, based on facts that you can prove, for example by experiments” (source).

Politics: “the activities involved in getting and using power in public life, and being able to influence decisions that affect a country or a society” (source).

By the looks of it, the definitions for science and politics are completely unrelated to each other, and describe drastically different domains. And yet the two are seemingly becoming increasingly conflated over time. Politicians are picking and choosing which scientific findings line up with their agenda, while science-based outlets are endorsing political candidates. This trend is harmful to both science and politics.

False assumptions

This intertwining of science and politics is nothing new. The mid-20th century USSR provides a good example: a country that was incredibly dogmatic, views that dissented from the status quo were quickly silenced. So when politics started interfering with science, views that went against the scientific dogma were similarly censored.

This was most clearly displayed with the country’s ‘belief’ in Lysenkoism. Lysenkoism describes a theory that rejected the biological premises of natural selection and genetic inheritance. While this view was demonstrably wrong, it had political support, and anyone that dared criticize the state-appointed view of biology was therefore persecuted.

While the intermingling of science and politics is arguably more likely to occur in totalitarian states, democracies aren’t safe from it either. A few decades later, the other side of the world was gripped with research into the premise of generating energy through cold fusion. While no real evidence for the idea has ever been found, the political will behind it was so strong that for a time skeptics of the theory were labelled as unpatriotic.

Science is supposed to be the process of finding truth, based on continuous development through trial and error. Only when there is room for mistakes, can science actually progress. Yet when politics start to interfere, the margin for error disappears and the room for mistakes is gone. And when politically backed science gets something wrong, it’s a ‘win’ for the other side. Scientists are therefore increasingly forced to double down on their initial hypotheses, even when proven wrong. Making concessions becomes impossible, and science stagnates.

Read more about the problems caused by not admitting being wrong.

Just trust me

With politics’ invasion into science, it wouldn’t come as much of a shock if societies overall trust in science lowered as a result. Given how reliable most politicians tend to be, how can we really trust politicized science?

You may therefore be surprised to learn in fact, general trust in science has not changed significantly over the past decades. And especially when compared to other influencers such as national governments, media or business leaders, scientists are trusted significantly more.

That’s good news isn’t it? As long as people are seemingly still capable of seeing through the politics to trust the science, there should be little harm done. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. In spite of a relatively stable level of trust in science overall, we still base our decisions primarily on our own ‘research’ or the thoughts of friends and family versus the opinions of experts.

Given how easy it is to find scientific support for just about anything these days, it’s clear to see what’s going on here: driven by our confirmation bias, we simply look for the ‘science’ that supports our own instinctive views. And when we manage to find confirming evidence (as we inevitably will), we subsequently interpret this as being highly reliable.

When politics becomes science

The clearest evidence we have for the intertwining of politics and science is unveiled when we look at how our ideologies shape our views on scientific matters.

Nowhere has the politicization of science in recent times caused more direct harm than with the Covid-19 pandemic. A global virus that has been incredibly politicized, we see wide discrepancies in views of the virus based on ideology. For example, there is a clear correlation between political orientation and hesitation to take the vaccine. Vaccine hesitancy is nothing new, and even pre-Covid-19 did the link between hesitancy and political ideology exist. But the Covid-19 pandemic has only made this connection even stronger, and the results speak for themselves:

“The good thing about science is that it’s true, whether or not you believe in it.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson
Vaccine hesitancy is clearly linked to political ideology (source).

Vaccine hesitancy wouldn’t be so problematic if the consequences were negligible. Unfortunately this is not the case. For a virus that is presumably a-political, there is a remarkably strong correlation between deaths and political ideology.

Covid deaths and it’s relation to political ideology (source).

And it’s not just Covid-19 where politics has affected science and scientific thought. For example, the perceptions on climate change depend on political ideology, and the threats of global warming are more likely to be ignored by those on the political right. On the other hand, those on the left of the political spectrum tend to have more health concerns that lead to opposition to genetically modified foods, in spite of evidence showing that it’s perfectly safe.

Political ideologies also shape what kind of research is conducted in the first place. For example, the right side of the political spectrum has tried to inhibit research into HIV for years based on religious grounds. Meanwhile, the political correctness that primarily originates from the left has stifled research in fields such as evolutionary psychology due to the potential implications of the results. Regardless of the merit of the field and its findings, a priori condemning of outcomes because of potentially socially undesirable results is nothing if not bad science.

Science and politics are getting ever more intertwined. I’d suggest that if we are indeed hell-bent on merging politics with science, we should start taking it all the way:

  • The law of gravity? That’s clearly just communism trying to bring us all down to the same level.
  • Entropy causing an increase in disorder? Must be driven by anarchist ideologies.
  • The amount of mass in a closed system cannot increase over time? Sounds like a very anti-capitalistic perspective.

In all seriousness, irrespective of what our views might be about any of the aforementioned topics, our political ideologies should have no bearing on the results that the science produces. Nor should it affect in which areas science is conducted. The stronger our belief that politics is driving science, the less we trust the science overall. Politicizing science has clear, harmful consequences.

Unserendipitous

There might have been a silver lining to science becoming politicized if it meant that in turn, politics would increasingly be influenced by science. Unfortunately it seems like the exact opposite happened instead: while science got more political, politics became less and less science based.

Ironically, this might have actually been an inevitable outcome from the moment politics started invading the domain of science. The reason lies in how politicians engage with science, and how it differs from the scientific approach.

Science is generally based on running falsifiable experiments. This means that whenever a scientific discovery is made, it’ll be subjected to scrutiny and peer analysis to determine its validity. Sometimes, corroborating support is found. Other times, subsequent experiments unveil contradictory evidence. In most cases, a vast body of evidence accumulates over time. Scientists can then take a big picture view, and determine in which direction the evidence leans. And when the evidence is strong enough, scientists eventually come to a consensus, even when some have to concede that their initial hypotheses might have been false.

“Science and politics have very different goals and objectives.”

Politicians however, are not subjected to a similar process. Instead, politicians are expected to defend their chosen position at all costs. They are therefore encouraged to try to seek whatever supporting evidence they can find for their views, no matter how scientifically unproven. When confronted by journalists who question their underlying assumptions, how often do you hear them concede any valid criticisms? Instead, politicians are more likely to try to hide the scientific evidence that doesn’t support the political message they want to convey

Read more about the problems with our politicians.

The fifth estate

The only way to solve this issue is a restructuring of science’s position in society. Historically, society was seen as a combination of three groups, that jointly determined the overall social hierarchy: the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners. These groups (known as ‘estates’), were viewed as the main sources of power within a society: each being dependent on the others while still having their own roles and responsibilities. In more recent times we’ve also come to recognize the existence of a ‘fourth estate’ in society: our acknowledgement of the media as an increasingly powerful source of influence distinct from the other estates.

“For an estate to function effectively, it needs independence.”

In an ideal world, our scientific research would be completely trustworthy, free from human bias and ideological slant. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world, and completely disentangling science from outside influences such as politics is impossible. What we can do however, is try to detach them as much as possible. What we need therefore, is a decoupling of science and broader social concerns. We need science to become the fifth estate.

For an estate to function effectively, it needs independence. The problem is that science is currently far too beholden to both politics and the media. Politics have enormous sway because they allocate funding and budgets, while the media translates scientific evidence into public reporting to suit their own ends. Both need to be separated. Just like how regulators need to be detached from the entities they regulate, we need to detach science from other external influences.

Read more about our need to detach regulators from those they regulate.

Science and politics have very different goals and objectives. An easy first step to prevent political objectives from seeping into scientific pursuits would therefore be to allocate an immutable percentage of the annual budget to funding science and research. Subsequently, it should be a council of scientific representatives, not politicians, that’s in control of subsequent distributions of funding. Only when politics have less budgetary control over science can we remove their influence from what kind of scientific research is done or prioritized.

The next step would be to limit media reporting on science. Driven by clicks and engagement, the media has little to no incentive to report accurately on what representative scientific consensus. Instead, it’s far more appealing to report on outlier studies with outrageous (and often irreproducible) results, because those tend to drive more engagement. And instead of waiting for consensus to emerge, the media prefers to report on every new finding immediately, sometimes even before peer review has taken place.

This leads to wild speculation and unfounded assumptions, which are at times far removed from where scientific consensus eventually settles on. Instead of relying on the traditional media, science needs their own outlets that are independent of engagement for funding, which are responsible for conveying scientific findings to the public.

Read more about the issues with our current media.

Finally, science needs to be open and publicly available for scrutiny to all. Some slow progress is made in this domain by the increasing demand for open access journals, but there’s still a long way to go. By making the science publicly available it’ll be much easier to assess and validate hypotheses based on their merits, instead of their ideological leanings.

A separation of powers often leads to more struggle. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The fourth estate of the media creates checks and balances on the other estates (especially politics), by creating a degree of accountability. This is exactly why we need science to become the fifth estate. As an independent entity, it’s much better positioned to act as a countervailing force to both politics and the media, instead of becoming consumed by them. We generally prefer our lives to be well-balanced. It’s time we added some more balance to society as well.


Ron Maas
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