Policy & Politics Opinion

Science Skepticism Has Grown. Who’s to Blame?

Researchers must work harder to separate their personal beliefs from their professional roles
By Rick Hess — January 13, 2023 5 min read
Illustration of man at computer weighing facts and opinions.
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I’ve just released the 13th iteration of the annual RHSU Edu-Scholar rankings, an exercise designed to recognize those who are bringing research, scholarship, and scientific expertise into the public square. In doing so, I’ve sought to honor serious researchers who leave the comfort of the ivory tower to share their particular expertise. The challenge: some scholars who are only too eager to use their credentials and platform to clothe personal agendas in the garb of “science.”

This year, that tension loomed especially large. Indeed, the pandemic-era tendency to wield science as a partisan cudgel (think of all those pointedly progressive “We believe science is real” rainbow yard signs) has harmed public debate, education decisionmaking, and science itself.

In 2021, Gallup reported that 64 percent of U.S. adults said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in science. That’s down 6 points from the last time Gallup asked that question, in 1975. Especially notable were the profound partisan shifts over time. In 1975, two-thirds of Democrats said they had confidence in science; by 2021, that had climbed to 79 percent. Meanwhile, trust fell among independents (from 73 percent to 65 percent) and plunged among Republicans (from 72 percent to 45 percent).

In response, Democrats have claimed to be the “party of science.” But this is far too flip. After all, with more than a little justification, many Republicans have come to doubt that scientific authorities are apolitical or that public officials will be scrupulous about interpreting the science.

Truth is, during the pandemic, science has been wielded in ways that often were less than scientific. Recall Georgia’s anti-Trump Republican governor, Brian Kemp, being vilified in The Atlantic (“Georgia’s Experiment in Human Sacrifice”) for pushing aggressively to reopen his state during the pandemic. Recall the vicious attacks on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for his push to reopen schools in fall 2020 or the factually suspect attacks on his pandemic record. Meanwhile, recall the adulation lavished on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for a “scientifically minded” approach, which included covering up nursing home deaths and extended school closures.In retrospect, Kemp’s and DeSantis’ decisions appear pretty darn defensible on scientific grounds.

Look, the same Gallup poll reporting that 34-point gap between Republican and Democratic trust in science found an even larger 45-point gap when it came to trust in the police. Only, there, the Democrats are the skeptics. Of course, when it comes to policing, plenty of academics, progressives, and would-be criminal-justice reformers explain that such skepticism is wholly deserved and that it’s on law enforcement to change practices and policies in order to regain trust.

Just so. The same holds when it comes to science. And it looks to those on the right like the research community has broken faith by aggressively seeking to stigmatize or stymie whole lines of research when it comes to topics like crime, family status, or gender. That dynamic was on vivid display when right-leaning physicians and researchers who opposed school closures or toddler masking were smeared as “scientifically illiterate” and dangerous purveyors of “misinformation”—even after the emerging evidence suggested their views were, at a minimum, reasonable and defensible.

Now, let’s be clear. During the pandemic, there was certainly anti-vaxxing, pro-Ivermectin madness on the right. The point is not that one party or the other is the actual “party of science”; it’s that science has no interest in our partisan disputes.

Science isn’t a badge to be worn; it’s a commitment to inquiry, the pursuit of truth, and systematic testing of theories against evidence. Indeed, I wouldn’t say that those who pushed to keep schools closed were “ignoring the science,” even as research increasingly made clear that the health risks of reopening were modest, especially after the arrival of vaccines, and the social, emotional, and academic consequences of closure were immense. That’s because such decisions are inevitably prudential and must be informed by local circumstances and imperfect attempts to weigh competing risks.

Those who’d claim to carry the mantle of science must work daily to deserve that honor. That means asking uncomfortable questions, scrutinizing studies (even when researchers like the results), acknowledging personal biases, and admitting errors or uncertainty. It means recognizing that, much of the time, crucial decisions will and must be value-driven—not merely “scientific.”

Indeed, those who’d still insist that respect for science is a Democratic thing might want to reflect on the contentious debate about the best way to teach reading. There, it’s Republicans who have long championed the phonics-heavy approach spelled out in one of the National Reading Panel’s reports and progressives who’ve been skeptics of that scientific consensus. Indeed, recall that early in the pandemic, the left-leaning National Education Policy Center and the Education Deans for Justice and Equity issued a report declaring, “The truth is that there is no settled science of reading.” As cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, the author of The Reading Mind, observed, “This claim doesn’t hold up to even passing familiarity with the literature.”

Researchers, educators, and citizens all err when we imagine that science should be understood as a partisan affair.

After all, science is a cumulative project. It took decades of work, by lots of researchers in lots of settings, to convincingly make the case that smoking a lot of cigarettes was bad for your health—in large part because the scientific process also included drawn-out clashes with industry-funded scientists committed to debunking the evidence about the health risks of smoking.

It’s fair to say that we’ve arrived at something like that in reading, where decades of research have yielded something of a broad-based consensus. But we’ve no such clarity around the vast majority of educational interventions—and certainly not around how they actually work on the ground. Let’s be straight about that with parents, educators, and communities.

The frustrating truth is that the research on many educational questions—from the impact of race-based affinity spaces to puberty blockers—is either scarce or wholly unsettled.

Let’s ask researchers to work harder to separate their professional roles and personal beliefs when it comes to partisan and ideological debates. In their professional roles, we expect doctors, attorneys, engineers, and educators to set aside their personal agendas. Education researchers should do the same, rigorously distinguishing between the evidence and their judgments.

If we can manage this, I’ve a sneaking suspicion it’ll be healthy for students, schools, and science alike.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2023 edition of Education Week as Science Skepticism Has Grown. Who’s to Blame?


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