Ethics of Sciences' Involvement in Politics

You may have heard about the March for Science this coming Earth Day. I am hearing on the radio that some scientists are questioning the ethics of getting involved in politics. I am not surprised I am hearing scientists raise this question. When I was involved in scientific research I was often completely confused by what scientific ethicists regarded as ethical and unethical.

But in this case, it is clear to me that scientists have ignored their ethical obligations by avoiding involvement in politics. Scientists have an obligation to disseminate their results to the public. They are good at doing that among their peers, but terrible in performing this function for laymen. Major avenues by which research makes it to the public are the news media, entertainment media, and politicians. All have a history of grossly distorting findings. Dissemination to their peers is more accurate because the communication is tailored to the audience, but more importantly, the scientist is involved in all steps of the communication. That is not the case when scientists allow their work to be disseminated to the public via these other mechanisms.

Given that a scientist’s work will be grossly distorted without their involvement in its dissemination, scientists are ethically obligated to shepherd their results to all corners of the public and this includes direct and vigorous involvement in politics.


The problem academics face is that, typically, when they involve themselves in politics, politics in turn start involving themselves with academia, to the great dismay of all (and quite a bit of really bad science being produced).

Do you have an example of this and wouldn’t a greater role in politics better protect scientists from political involvement in science?

As it stands, there is heavy political involvement in the science that matters most and this is because the science that matters most has immediate consequences on policy. To risk misunderstanding of that information is a problem the scientific community must do a better job of addressing. This means marching, becoming politicians, propaganda.

And when are politics not involved in academia, from national curriculums to grants to…? And in other aspects where science is directly involved, such as medical standards or environmental policies.

Most politicians wouldn’t recognize science if it kicked them in the arse, but STEM types can’t complain that the lawyers aren’t listening to us unless we do speak up.

Scientists are people too, so they don’t always live up to their ideals. But ISTM that in its best form, science values truth, explored and supported by gathering objective evidence. Being a scientist means being able to change your position when presented with new facts that show your previous point of view or hypothesis was wrong.

We need more of that kind of thinking in the public sphere.

Scientists have every right to express opinions but if they’re opining in their field of expertise and the field is politically charged then it’s advisable to tread carefully.

I don’t see it as a matter of ethics, just pragmatism. Scientists who act as public communicators for their findings may feel that they’re doing a public service – and very often they are – but they risk being labeled as advocates for a particular cause and their work tainted in the public perception as biased. Those who go further and actually become political advocates understandably drive the perception of bias even further.

My own view is that science as an institution needs more scientific communicators, rather than more scientists communicating. People like Carl Sagan and Al Gore are all too rare. (Sagan was of course a scientist, too, but his career as a communicator practically overshadowed that.)

In the USA there are no national curricula as Universities are either state controlled or private. You have a point with grants.

One problem with academia involving itself in politics is that there will be pressure for balance in faculty. Especially in liberal arts.
Another problem is that politically active academics will be seen to produce politically slanted research.

Under our former Conservative government our problems with science meeting politics was if government funded research revealed any results that actually conflicted with the government’s position, the scientists were forbidden to speak and the research then not released.

One of the reasons the Liberals swept to power. People really didn’t like that. We’re paying for the research we should hear the results whether or not they conflict with the government’s agenda!

Not sure how to take this reply, Lysenko actually relied on pseudoscience, and he is more in the same camp as the unscientific yahoos Trump has put in charge of places like the EPA.

There was something similar here too, the former government of Bush tried to quiet the conclusions of some researchers, one reason why I did vote for Obama in 2008 and 2012.

All gains seem to have gone with Trump. The removal of many of the reports regarding climate change from the white house site points to more efforts, besides the ones already done by Trump, to quiet the scientists and to hide inconvenient information.

I remember reading the excuse from some right wing media sources that this is a routine thing, it usually is; but more than a month has passed and there seems to be no interest as the current WH site has only one mention of climate change and it is to tell us that we should not mind “unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan” from the past administration.

GIGObuster #10,

Psuedoscience? Only in retrospect. The problem is he gained political support for his beliefs.


I’ve recently come to the conclusion that claims that “X shouldn’t be involved in politics” are red herrings. Unless you’re a hermit in the forest devoid of contact with other humans, we’re all involved in politics. The real issue is whether any specific instance of being involved in politics compromises the mission or truthfulness of the other duty.

For example, scientists who became shills for the gas industry and testified before Congress that lead was not harmful were wrong–not because they were “involved in politics,” but because they lied and let their involvement in politics dictate their scientific conclusions. On the other hand, those scientists that testified before Congress and became involved in spreading the truth that lead was highly toxic were right because their involvement in politics was dictated by their independent scientific conclusions instead of the other way around like the aforementioned shills.

I wasn’t talking exclusively about the USA. There’s almost 200 countries in the world, and many of them have national curricula at the primary and/or secondary school levels. I have no idea why you would think about them only at the tertiary level :confused:

You might be thinking of Lamarck? Lysenko was born in 1898, and started working in the 1920s, well after Darwinian natural selection and Mendelian genetics were fully accepted, established science.

Here’s a quote from his wiki biography:

That’s not mistaken science. That’s not misguided science. That’s just not science.