The Politicization of Science

James Druckman

“A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics,” Popular Science explained in September after disabling its online comments. Such comments on the politicization of science seem more frequent in the public sphere, but does politicizing science really affect what the public thinks about scientific innovations?

In some of the first empirical research on how it might (forthcoming in Public Opinion Quarterly), IPR associate director and political scientist James Druckman, with IPR social policy professor Fay Lomax Cook and Toby Bolsen of Georgia State University, find that politicization negatively affects support for an emerging technology—in this case, nuclear energy, selected because of a renewed U.S. focus on building nuclear plants. The trio conducted a nationally representative survey of 1,600 Americans. They randomly exposed respondents in treatment groups to one of nine conditions, in which they were exposed to one of two frames—either on the politicization or benefits of science—or they received no frame at all.

The most striking finding stems from the politicization frame. Participants were told, “It is increasingly difficult for nonexperts to evaluate science—politicians and others often color scientific work and advocate selective science to favor their agendas,” before answering questions on nuclear energy. Respondents receiving this statement were more likely to oppose nuclear energy use, even when later presented with supportive statements and evidence on its benefits. Politicization rendered even reference to accepted scientific evidence moot, Druckman said.

Druckman believes this effect would hold true for other emerging technologies. For example, rather than just telling respondents politicization exists, a study could present two contrasting arguments to see if they had the same effect. 

Speculating that increased polarization in Congress and among elites might be behind this politicization, Druckman also points out that it would help to start studying the history of politicization of science. In cases where there is real scientific consensus, he hopes that the research will uncover ways to break through the politicization.

“A lot of scientists, and particularly those who invent these great technologies, they don’t realize they have to be accepted by the public,” Druckman said. “A critical next step involves seeking ways to overcome politicization’s apparent ‘status-quo bias’ when a socially beneficial technology emerges.”