Where does this weird idea come from?

Ed Yong has written about a common assumption that scientists must be ‘objective’: Do Scientists Lose Credibility When They Become Political? (the answer is “NO”, by the way), and ThinkProgress is also concerned about it.

Scientists have historically stayed above the political fray, but now that researchers face regular attacks under the Trump administration, many are planning to fight back.

TP cites the same study to say that it does no harm for scientists to be politically active.

I’m curious, though, where this odd notion that scientists are or should be apolitical comes from, though, because it’s never been true. Never. Not once in the history of science. When scientists have socially relevant information in their field of expertise, they tend to speak out — even when they’re wrong. How do you think eugenics became so popular? It wasn’t because geneticists at Cold Spring Harbor were reluctant to advise the public. How about the battles over the health effects of smoking? Scientists were generally quite clear about how bad it was, except for the minority of paid shills who, again, weren’t shy about advertising their views.

I’d have to say that it’s a nearly universal property of scientists that they are political because they are human. The only time it hurts their credibility is when they use their authority to promote lies.

Way back when I was a grad student, I worked with George Streisinger, the man who put zebrafish on the map. He was also Jewish, born in Hungary, and when he was a child, his family emigrated to the US to escape Nazi persecution. Do you think he was apolitical? He organized to oppose the Vietnam war. He shut down efforts to create a unit for war research on the University of Oregon campus. One time, I was in his office to talk about some routine lab issues, and we somehow got off on a tangent about dose-response curves to toxins and radiation, and we spent an hour talking about testimony he was going to give in a court case for the Downwinders. He was passionate and fierce, and a model for me for how a scientist ought to be.

So when people beat their breasts about whether scientists are too political, I feel like I’m listening to aliens from another culture, another world, one that I have never visited. It’s very strange. I wish George were still alive to instruct them in the folly of their assumptions.

That ThinkProgress also has a remarkable map that shows what happens when scientists aren’t loud enough. This is a map of the proportion of people who have swallowed the lie that scientists are in disagreement about global warming. This is not true, of course: the overwhelming majority of scientists agree with the consensus that global warming is happening, and that it has an anthropogenic cause. So this is simply a Map of Wrong, where all the blue areas represent large numbers of people who hold demonstrably incorrect views about what scientists think.

The proportion of adults who believe that most scientists think that global warming is happening.

The proportion of adults who believe that most scientists think that global warming is happening.

That’s stunning. This doesn’t say that scientists should avoid political issues, it’s saying that there are active forces of ignorance lying about the science, and at the same time spreading this destructive idea that a good scientist should be above the fray.

How can you be a good scientist and restrain yourself from pointing out where people are wrong?


  1. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    It is politicians who make science political by grossly distorting the science to fuel their ideology and short-sightedness. Oil barons of course don’t want their industry abolished, yet never consider the advantage of leading the migration to the replacement (wind and solar)
    Scientists enter politics to defend it not impose it
    Or so I hope

  2. says

    I’m not sure where and when the emphasis on “objectivity” crept into philosophy. I believe the term started to get popular with Kant… but it may be that it really kicked in with Ayn Rand. I was trying to research that a few weeks ago and didn’t come up with anything I felt was solid enough one way or another. Google searchwords? I dunno. It sure looks to me that our current usage of “objective” is pretty Randian. Maybe there is a philosophy-educated reader here who has a better idea…?

  3. says

    It’s not that the scientists weren’t loud enough. Much like with Big Tobacco, there were corporate attempts to obscure and downplay – attempts which were funded and had amplifiers, so they were louder.

    For example, the Guardian reports that Shell had 1991 internal documentaries about the danger:
    But … that’s bad for business. And the invisible hand of the market corrected it. What do you mean “too later”?

  4. dhabecker says

    Where does weird idea come from?
    Let me put a few of my feeble neurons to work on it.
    I’ve come up with an equation that works today; tomorrow it may reverse polarity.
    GS=(I+K+E) – (r+Rbs)
    Good Science = Intelligence+Knowledge+Effort minus religious and Republican bullshit.
    Also applies to “Phonies and frauds ” below.

  5. says

    With inept and scientifically illiterate bunglers in control, my fear is persecution of scientists like what happened to the group of Italian geologists. They were convicted of manslaughter for “failing to predict an earthquake”. The verdict was later overturned, but the Italian public still view them as guilty.

    Italian seismologists cleared of manslaughter

    Six seismologists accused of misleading the public about the risk of an earthquake in Italy were cleared of manslaughter on 10 November. An appeals court overturned their six-year prison sentences and reduced to two years the sentence for a government official who had been convicted with them.


    The finding by a three-judge appeals court prompted many L’Aquila citizens who were waiting outside the courtroom to react with rage, shouting “shame” and saying that the Italian state had just acquitted itself, local media reported. But it comes as a relief to scientists around the world who had been following the unprecedented case with alarm.

    How clowns like Trump will respond if climate change gets worse? Very likely, he will blame the scientists for not doing anything to prevent it. Who is going to be the next Linus Pauling?

  6. drst says

    I suspect this is the same strain of thought that holds any display of emotion as negating an argument. It’s deployed heavily against women and minorities (“you’re damaging your cause by being angry” etc.) to silence them. Any sign that you have an emotional investment in a subject becomes an automatic disqualifier, because to be rational one must be objective and completely dispassionate – basically Vulcan, even though Vulcans show emotions all the damn time.

    Like it’s impossible to be furiously angry and completely logical at the same time.

  7. John Harshman says

    There’s an odd disconnect shown by the original survey. More people (and in fact a majority almost everywhere) think that there is global warming than think scientists agree on it. However, in many places, a majority reject human causes. Then again, a large majority support various actions to deal with carbon pollution. People are confused.

  8. specialffrog says

    I think it comes from the same source as the idea that supporting the status quo is apolitical.

  9. blf says

    A confusion between reports to help decide policy and the people who produce them?
    Yes, that’s oversimplified — e.g., fact- / evidence-based reports on AGW aren’t going to be “neutral” (which may not apply to reports on various “things to do about it”) — but seems like it might be part of a hypothesis about why the absurdity exists…

  10. numerobis says

    The idea of cold impartiality dates back at least to the Stoics, and somehow I doubt they invented it.

    Everyone on the Facebook march for science group who says “I’m marching for X” gets pushback that science is apolitical and colorblind and nonpartisan etc. Thankfully, those comments get a ton of pushback too.

  11. consciousness razor says

    Marcus Ranum:

    It sure looks to me that our current usage of “objective” is pretty Randian. Maybe there is a philosophy-educated reader here who has a better idea…?

    Well, I don’t know who may have used it first. Definitely not Rand…. But my unsolicited advice, to anybody, would be to forget all of the times you’ve heard bullshitters like her using it about who-knows-what, since it has this odd tendency to confuse the fuck out of everyone else about what the topic under discussion is even supposed to be anymore.

    When is it an appropriate word to use? It’s really pretty simple: when you’re not talking about your own experiences as a subject (in the sense of a thing with a mind, like a person for example, as opposed to the sense of a topic of discussion), because instead you’re talking about some other object. Which is presumably “out there” somewhere for you, although it could of course be your left kidney or your haircut or whatever else. That’s it. If there is some existing thing to talk about, then you can be objective about it. And there is nothing suspicious or presumptuous or Randian or any other bad thing about doing that. Those two options are exhaustive: assuming you’re talking about anything and not just making a bunch of confusing noises, then either that thing is a “subject” or it’s not.

    A pretty simple example (from #1), which messes it up or at least confuses the issue: you shouldn’t “be objective about life.” Whatever the hell that means. I’m told that you only do that with “data,” if you’re unfortunate enough to be this special thing called a “scientist” (which apparently doesn’t include biologists, who study life). Here’s a question: Is life a real thing which you can talk about as an “object,” one which isn’t a “subject” and specifically isn’t the subject that we call “you”? Yes, it certainly is. And I have no idea how “being objective” about that, in any sense of the words that seem remotely useful, would be a genuine problem.

    Here’s another one, which might seem a little trickier: art (or if you want to be more specific, music, literature, film, etc.). Is that entire thing, every proposition or question that anyone would ever be able to formulate about that topic “subjective”? No. Simply and flatly no. It’s a real object, which is not you and is also not some other subject. You may sometimes be talking about yourself when a topic like that comes up, but that obviously does not need to be the case. I study music, and I could tell you all sorts of objective stuff I’ve learned about it, which is to say that those things aren’t about whatever I’ve learned about my own subjective experiences (or anyone else’s experiences). There is of course some of the latter too. But there are things to say about it, and not everything is in fact all about me or you or people in general.

    So…. Caring about something, like politics or art or whatever it may be, enough to describe or study or do anything else about it, doesn’t imply you’re not being objective. The statement that you care is just plain independent of the claim that you’re describing/studying/etc. that thing instead of anything else. The fact that anything empirical involves you as a subject having an experience of something else — that also doesn’t imply you can’t be objective, as long as what you’re talking about is that something else, as opposed to only yourself. You probably won’t go very far down that solipsist rabbit-hole before you find your way back; but if you’re going to go there, hopefully you at least learn something in the process.

  12. springa73 says

    I think that the idea is that politics involves strong emotions, and that strong emotions are likely to make a person biased and even intellectually dishonest, which for a scientist would negate the value of their work. Don’t know how true or false that is.

  13. Crimson Clupeidae says

    Those are probably the same people that say that atheism just means “dictionary atheist”. No bigfoot or gods, but none of the other logical consequences follow.

    Also, those same people only want scientists to be ‘apolitical’ when their science disagrees with their worldview. If the scientific community came out tomorrow and said the climate was actually going to be just fine, they’d be all up in the politics with it (like they are about denying it).

  14. Bill Buckner says

    Everyone on the Facebook march for science group who says “I’m marching for X” gets pushback that science is apolitical and colorblind and nonpartisan etc. Thankfully, those comments get a ton of pushback too.

    Science is apolitical and colorblind and nonpartisan etc. Scientists (and science funding) are not.

  15. Scientismist says

    This disaster of populist ignorance has been building ever since the middle of the last century. In my grade-school years, General Motors sponsored a traveling “Caravan of Progress”, with trucks and buses full of exhibits that taught that science was a ladder of truth and precision that, like Johansson gauge blocks, could measure and eliminate the tiniest flaw in human knowledge.

    When I was an undergrad, I recall a piece of doggerel called “Epistemology Forever” being sung to the tune of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, and ending with the line “The truth does not exist.” Then in grad student in biology I got to hear a whole raft of eminent scientists (Bronowski, Orgel, Crick, Monod, Pauling) debating how we know what we think we know, and concluding that we don’t “know” it, we only construct good reasons to think it probable.

    Later I audited a philosophy of science seminar course, where I learned that there was an alternate theory, favored by certain philosophers and a lot of educators, that held that science is a compendium of absolute knowledge based in something called “Facts”, with bigger Truths built from smaller ones, like tinker-toys. Others pointed out that these so-called “facts” were themselves “theory laden”.

    Then, when I had the opportunity to speak to Carl Sagan for five minutes, I asked him if he was worried about the way science was being taught to high school and general-ed college students as a stuffed and mounted museum exhibit, while the messy philosophical guts were stripped out and buried. Wasn’t this kind of misrepresentation of science likely to come back to bite us? Yes, he answered, the absence of epistemology as part of science education was unfortunate, but “my plate is full.”

    Mine too, as my own career moved from biology to earth science, where questions of precision, accuracy, provenance, and metadata became crucial. And now, here we are, one-sixth of the way through the twenty-first century, and when scientists tell the public that it is highly likely that humans are altering the atmosphere, warming the earth and oceans, glaciers are melting, and that (unless the current political lack of will somehow changes) a large portion of habitable coastline will be under water by the end of the century, nearly half of them respond: “Oh, you think global warming is probably true? Then why don’t you get back to me when you are as certain of that as my preacher is of the rapture.”

    What we are being told is that science is no better than an ouija board, because it claims certainty (so they’ve been told in school), but nevertheless is sometimes disputed and always changeable. Meanwhile, their preacher says that rainbows are God’s promise that worldwide flooding is impossible. How dare you scientists try to influence politics, when you don’t really know anything?

    Meanwhile, contributions will be accepted for building the Trump Presidential Library (I hope they put it in Palm Beach alongside Mar-a-Lago).

    Please, PZ, teach them what science is, while you can. Yours is one of the most important jobs in the world.

  16. says

    That’s interesting you can see the influence of a college in rural Eastern Washington. It’s probably a good enough school in lots of ways, I heard their veterinary education is top notch, but they have a reputation as a party school where people just go to get wasted and kill time. Even with that, less climate change denialism on the map.

  17. rietpluim says

    I guess some people simply don’t know the meaning of the word “objectivity”.

    Or perhaps they just don’t care if it fits their agenda.

  18. unclefrogy says

    like most reactionary arguments they are standing on their heads.
    there is no rational argument in favor of the proposition other than the fear of not getting funding for science unless science stays mostly aloof from the worldly claims of politics.
    Don’t upset the patrons.
    reality is what we think it is things happen the way we think they do is really how anyone really do things or determine what we know things to be.
    What science does is try and determine what the odds are that any particular explanation is true using as much as possible objective methods.
    what the complaint is that science should stop butting in to any question in anyway publicly by expressing what is known of the odds of what is likely true in the question at hand.
    the other fear is the fear of being some how forced to have some kind of monolithic political view or perceived to have one. I would say that that is what is the charge now but the reality of it is some what different. The one view that characterizes all science is the understanding of the true nature of things is paramount not opinion or belief or desire alone.
    any proposed action or opinions must agree on the “facts” as we understand them.
    it was political and viewed as such to push hard for redesign of city drains to fight disease before it was accomplished and the results were there for all to see.
    uncle frogy

  19. says

    Do these people think that Einstein was apolitical? Do they think Niels Bohr was silent in the face of literal Nazis?

  20. EveryZig says

    “Apolitical” is a garbage concept. Anything, no matter how well supported, is a political issue when many people strongly disagree about it. Some definitions make a distinction between community/organizational politics versus government politics, but they are both fundamentally the same process of human interaction and maneuvering on different scales and with different sets of written and unwritten rules. Apolitical, then, is merely a respectable sounding way of saying “very widely popular” rather than anything about truth or objectivity. Science relies on a system of formalized evidence-based disagreement with previously widely held statements to move forward, so science is crippled without politics on a community level that can easily scale up to politics on a governmental level.

  21. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Do these people think that Einstein was apolitical? Do they think Niels Bohr was silent in the face of literal Nazis?

    Never forget Lise Meitner, a discoverer and explainer of nuclear fission. She refused to work on the Manhatten project, which ultimately unleashed the A-bomb, and later H-bomb, on the world. She was Jewish, and had to flee the Nazis, so there was a rationale for revenge, but she was a pacifist at heart.

  22. Pierce R. Butler says

    Political action requires seeking allies and building coalitions.

    Allies and coalitions require commitment to agendas beyond one’s own.

    The “science agenda” boils down to “more funding”, “freedom from external control”, and “better schools (more funding)”.

    When one starts with a narrow agenda, one’s own coalition gets very vulnerable to disruption and distraction.

    Those who agree on “more money for research” do not necessarily agree on other topics in the way a community in poverty can line up behind “health care” and “schools” and “jobs” and “public transit” and

    Nearly all scientists are specialists, obligated by necessity to avoid distractions and (usually) by experience to abstain from holding or expressing opinions outside their area of expertise.

    Activists often speak of “silos” in which issues remain isolated. That metaphor corresponds all too closely with that of ivory towers. By the very real problems of funding, knowledge, and limited working communities, in both cases the dominant dynamics produce very similar outcomes.

    On the other tentacle, human psychology does apply across the board. Universal experience indicates nothing brings people together better than having a common enemy – and in that, progressive activism and science (excluding weapons-related work) now have a lot of incentive for uniting strongly.

  23. Intaglio says

    By the same arguments artists, pastors and blacksmiths should not be political, try telling that to Picasso or Garfield or Michel an Gogh.

    One of the few things that can be said for the British House of Lords is that it allowed scientists to be brought into the political process without interrupting their careers by them having to campaign: eg Lord Russell, John Maynard (Baron) Keynes and Lord Kelvin.

    Of course the bad thing is that the HoL is currently filled with yes men and functionaries with few (if any) actual scientists.

  24. wzrd1 says

    A more concerning question is the converse of what PZ wrote about.
    How can on be a good scientist and lie?
    How can one be a good scientist and lie about the consensus on climate change?

    One cannot and worse, one undermines science when one sells one’s reputation and credentials to the highest bidder to undermine real, genuine science in favor of wealthy special interests.

    On a postscript, when PZ mentioned George Streisinger, I was wondering why the name rang a bell. That’s a bit unusual, as I’m infamously bad with names. To remember a name at all is rather exceptional for me, save if that person made a significant impression.
    He answered shortly after mentioning the good doctor’s political activism and what caused me to remember his name; the downwinders.
    In an era of many despicable things, ignoring those downwind of nuclear testing, especially atmospheric nuclear testing and downwind from nuclear processing for our military nuclear weapons program was one of the more despicable things done.
    And that, out of a rather long and tawdry list of misdeeds.
    Apologists for the era cite the cold war and Soviet misdeeds and I can admit to some sympathy, however I qualify that with, “Damn, while there were many sinners and no saints, that does not leave one a valid excuse to be the patron saint of the sinners!”.

  25. Akira MacKenzie says

    Silly PZ! A scientist’s job is to discover new products that wil make our fearless entrepreneurial class a profit. All this counting fruit flies and measuring carbon dioxide levels of looking for dark matter is a waste of good R&D money. Now get out there and invent a new widget, or whatever it is you do!


  26. DanDare says

    The problem stems from the scientists training to identify and avoid motivated reasoning. This makes scientists tend to be tentative and careful.
    Politics is no longer so disciplined despite attempts to move it that way over the centuries. Instead it is a game of authority and belligerence and fast talk.

  27. David Marjanović says

    I’m curious, though, where this odd notion that scientists are or should be apolitical comes from, though, because it’s never been true. Never. Not once in the history of science.

    Seems obvious to me: it logically follows from the idea that political ideologies are purely subjective, like taste, and are untestable even in principle.

    Is observed success due to policy X, or was it achieved in spite of that crippling policy? Believers in X will say X caused it, believers in Y will say X only held it back, forever. You have data that have a bearing on this dispute? Don’t be silly! That’s like having Scientific Proof® that vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate ice cream! Just smile and agree to disagree forever. Or don’t smile, and beat each other up like soccer fans, forever.

    Policy Z didn’t have the desired effect all three times it was tried? Believers in Z* will not blink an eye and will steadfastly maintain that Z must be implemented again at the next opportunity.

    In short, it’s the idea that reality cannot possibly have a liberal bias – that, once a fact is mentioned by a politician, it stops being true and becomes truthy. Or trumpy.

    * Kneel before Zod.

  28. David Marjanović says

    (Nothing against comments 7 and 9; the ideas outlined there certainly contribute.)