Science and Politics: Can they ever be separated?

  • 30 September 2020
  • General
  • Fay Bound Alberti

On 15 July 2020, a Foundation for the Science and Technology asked a timely and pressing question about science and politics: “How to bring them together, and keep them apart”. Timely, because of the rapid spread of Covid-19 around the world and pressing, because the pandemic presents a largely unprecedented public health challenge in a climate of distrust and disinformation.  Speakers included Dame Angela McLean, Chief Scientific Advisor, Ministry of Defence and University of Oxford; Professor Sir David King, Chair Centre Climate Repair, University of Cambridge and Former Government Chief Scientific Advisor, and Professor Sir Mark Walport, Former CEO, UKRI and Former Government Chief Scientific Advisor. 

The debate turned, inevitably, around the ways in which political decisions could, and should, be made on the basis of scientific knowledge. In the process, discussants considered the role of scientific independence (Dame Angela), the need to separate science from political influence (Sir David), and how far ‘science’ should incorporate the broader academic study of meaning, including social science, arts and humanities (Sir Mark). This last perspective corresponds to the German word Wissenchaft, which is often translated as ‘science’ but originally meant the systematic academic study of any discipline. This discussion was recorded and can be viewed online at the Foundation’s website:

It is unquestionable that science and politics intersect in profound and important ways, especially during a pandemic. Yet can they ever be separated? From the viewpoint of cultural history, science has always been political. To develop Sir Mark’s reference to Wissenchaft, this connection reflects the fact that ‘knowledge’ is a dynamic, discoverable concept. It is also a historically situated one. Prior to the 19th century, poetry, rhetoric, moral philosophy were all considered as important as ‘science’, for they taught the appreciation of beauty, goodness and truth. In late 18th-century Germany, as Bas van Bommel has argued, these humane subjects were effectively a Renaissance humanist education and interpreted as schöne Wissenchaften (“Fine Sciences”) as opposed to the Faculty Sciences (theology, law and medicine), and the Higher Sciences (höhere Wissenschaften) that included mathematics and physics. Taken together, any discipline could be regarded as ‘scientific’, then, provided it followed the basic inductive method of drawing conclusions from evidence (data).

Today, the definition of Science is far narrower, and restricted to STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). This shift reflects the changes that took place over the 19th century in defining and hierarchising some disciplines as having more value – and more connection with objectivity and ‘truth’ – over others. Thus, whereas art was once understood to reveal quintessential truths about human nature and moral existence, it had become, by the time of the philosopher Wilhelm Traugott Krug (1770-1842) mere ‘presentation of the aesthetically-pleasing’. By contrast, science was ‘never concerned with that, but only with the production or rather the discovery of truth’. 

The idea of science as the discovery of truth and art as aesthetics is still central to the hierarchy between  arts and humanities in Western education. It is unusual for UK Science Ministers to advocate for the value of the humanities, as Chris Skidmore has done. These are, after all, the ‘“very disciplines that make our lives worth living”. They enable us to think critically and communicate. They give us a moral compass by which to live. They boost our appreciation of beauty. And they help us make sense of where we have come from and, indeed, where we are heading.’ Yet the humanities are not only guides to life. They are also critical in understanding how and why people make the decisions that they do, how belief systems emerge and develop, how one form of argument is favoured over another, and why the ideal of objectivity is so important, and so problematic, to 21st-century science, and politics. 

In the post-Enlightenment age, reason is prioritised over emotion. In the pursuit of truth, scientific objectivity is supposedly outside of particular perspectives, values, bias or interest. It concerns the verifiability of facts that are objectively produced by theories, laws, experimental results and observations that represent the external, knowable world. Yet this presumption is fundamentally flawed. Science is carried out by human beings with their individual ambitions, beliefs and ways of viewing the world. It takes place within countries and institutions that similarly possess individual, often competitive, ideals and interests. Funders that use public money are necessarily held accountable to political interests, that influences what research might be a priority area, and which is unfundable. And what counts as important or relevant will change according to perspective. ‘Truth’ always depends on political and cultural context. 

The idea, for instance, that women were physically, emotionally, intellectually inferior to men has for centuries been core to the practice and perpetuation of patriarchal power. Evidence for this inferiority was found in the nerves and fibres of the human body from the medieval world of the humours to the present world of the hormones, as I argued in This Mortal Coil: The Human Body in History and Culture. Women had hips made for childbearing so should sit at home, and heads made for embroidery rather than business, according to physicians of the 19th century. There was no conscious conspiracy in determining that women’s bodies were evidentially inferior to men’s. But this physical evidence conveniently suited the political system that gave women far less power than their male counterparts. Similarly, the ‘fact’ that Black people were animalistic, as evidenced by their skull shape and facial structure, allowed and even encouraged slavery in the 18th century. In both instances, ‘scientific’ determinations of the value and potential of human bodies determined hierarchies of race and gender that remain with us today. (A modern example is facial recognition, which is regarded as a science, but inherently flawed, to the detriment of women and ethnic minorities.

Of course not all ‘truths’ are convenient, as shown by Al Gore’s climate change documentary of 2006. And climate change is a good place to start in thinking through the ways in which politics and science are irrevocably linked. Some 97 per cent of scientists publishing on the subject believe ‘significant’ climate-warming is taking place, linked to human activities. So why do some people – and world leaders – refuse to take action? It’s not simply a question of ‘objective’ facts, because there is ample scientific evidence. Those facts need to be linked to individual values. And to emotions, as well as reason. 

The language of climate change creates fear and anxiety, but also apathy and indifference. Some of this is due to overwhelm and the challenges of thinking of abstract future generations as our collective responsibility (largely, in the West, a product of individualistic values, as I have argued about the modern birth of loneliness). So we might argue that it is not the science of climate change that will change people’s behaviour now, but rather ways in which the debate is framed. It doesn’t matter how much ‘evidence’ is thrown at people who don’t believe in the science; denial is an emotional and political issue as much as it is about ‘facts’. 

And it is the arts, humanities and social sciences, the so-called ‘Fine Sciences’ (schöne Wissenchaften) that explain the contexts in which science is understood, practised and disseminated, and the emotions, motivations and actions that underpin human behaviour.  The language in which the climate change is framed, the narratives used, and an appreciation of different cultural contexts is vital for the success or failure of scientific ideas. In the US context for instance, where climate change denial is most common among right-wing evangelicals, appealing to conservative values like patriotism, authority and the protection of nature can be more influential in encouraging conservatives to support environmental actions than any number of warnings of negative consequences. 

Acknowledging these inevitable interplays between science and politics – from identifying what counts, to who can do the counting, from the economic sustainability of research to its international reach and implementation – is important. If science is not objective and always political, then we need to focus more on ensuring scientific values are integrated with ethical and social values. On an institutional scale, that is what the Wellcome and other funders are doing when they seek to improve ‘research cultures’, by addressing the systemic racism, sexism and inequality that can exist within academic environments. On an international scale, it means championing core values, such as empathy, transparency and equity, and ensuring these are built into organisational strategies, scientific practice and funding systems to rebuild public trust and accountability. This is a vital step in challenging the ever-rising problem of ‘Fake News,’ which threatens not only the basis of Western democracy, but also, as conspiracy theories about Covid-19 have shown, the belief in science itself.

Dr Fay Bound Alberti is a Reader in History and UKRI Future Leaders Fellow at the University of York and Foundation Future Leaders Fellow at the Foundation for Science and Technology.