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Are Some Science Stories Inevitably Political?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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RALEIGH, N.C.—Does writing about climate change or childhood vaccinations necessarily mean you’ve got an agenda? That’s one of the questions tackled at last week’s ScienceOnline 2012 meeting, a gathering of some 450 scientists, bloggers, scientist-bloggers, journalists and other communicators on the campus of North Carolina State University.

In this particular session, “You Got Your Politics in My Science,” attendees related their experiences and their approaches to dealing with perceived advocacy and reactive attacks. Everyone realizes that both scientists and journalists strive for impartiality. Yet certain hot-button topics invite scrutiny. Heather Goldstone, who reports for a public-radio affiliate and hosts, mentioned that whenever she wrote about climate change or evolution, she was asked if she’s advocating for something, even by her editors.

Science communicators often feel that the facts should speak for themselves. But public-relations firms practice “strategic communications” for a reason: framing and spin work. David Wescott, who writes the It’s Not a Lecture blog, cited the name change of the private military contractor Blackwater to Academi and the reference to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as “Obamacare” by opponents. Indeed, business history is full of such moves—how many people recognize that the Altria Group was formerly known as Philip Morris?

But even a nicely framed story would do little to change minds if the message isn’t properly targeted. People who have found their way to the fringe are unlikely to respond to persuasion going the other way. Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus (Simon & Shuster, 2011), which explored the autism fear of childhood vaccines, mentioned he wouldn’t bother writing about celebrity anti-vaccinationist Jenny McCarthy as it wouldn’t advance the story anymore. Of course, if McCarthy gets her own talk show, the vaccine-autism controversy could reenter the public discourse in a big way, demanding responses from more knowledgeable sources.

Instead, the attendees talked about reaching the unconvinced and finding the “bridge” audience. Mommy bloggers, for instance, are a good group to reach out to for dispelling myths about vaccines. One attendee mentioned trips to pharmaceutical labs as a means of demystifying the industry. The question then came up about who the “mommy bloggers” are for climate change, evolution and science literacy.

In terms of the climate change issue, the group discussed how contrarians have adopted some of the strategies of the tobacco industry. Big tobacco tried to cast doubt on the science showing the dangers of nicotine use as one way to preserve its hegemony.

Such attacks are not surprising. After all, science is all about change, but change inevitably threatens entrenched interests. (For counterpoints to climate change skeptics, see “Seven Answers to Climate Contrarian Nonsense.”) In the end, divorcing science from politics may simply be an unrealistic goal.  As moderator John Timmer neatly summed up, if you communicate science at all, you’re an advocate.

See a video of the hour-long session here (very little action—think of it as a podcast):

See also the excerpt, “Good Science Always Has Political Ramifications.”

Philip Yam About the Author: Philip Yam is the managing editor of He is the author of The Pathological Protein: Mad Cow, Chronic Wasting and Other Prion Diseases. Follow on Twitter @philipyam.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Dredd 6:05 pm 01/24/2012

    The answer comes mainly from Epistemology. The reality is that our “knowledge” is substantially belief in what someone else says they know.

    Politics is the profession of getting people to believe in what the politician says.

    When the two get together, history shows that science is the last thing to come of it.

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  2. 2. geojellyroll 8:44 pm 01/24/2012

    If there is agenda or political influence then it is not a ‘science’ story. It is a social story in a medium that is labeled as ‘science’.

    Not to knock Scientific American but it really isn’t full of ‘science’. Science exists independently of anyone reporting on it or not.

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  3. 3. 9:10 pm 01/24/2012

    Folks seem surprised that science is infused with politics, but it’s inescapable: Michel Foucault referred to the phenomenon as “biopolitics” and Bruno Latour calls it “cosmopolitics.” Science doesn’t operate in a social vacuum. For a scholarly critique see:

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  4. 4. Sartre21 9:15 pm 01/24/2012

    I understand what you’re saying. But science is itself a social construct, a tool for examining the universe, a tool invented by human beings. Nature exists independently of anyone trying to examine it scientifically. Science tries to translate nature into language and concepts human beings can understand. In doing so, scientists make choices, always. When these choices are hidden, they become suspect (often when they are admitted, they become suspect–we humans are a suspicious lot).

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  5. 5. Jerzy New 4:10 am 01/25/2012

    No, some stories are not inevitably political. But some reporters are. Scientific American included.

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  6. 6. jdey123 9:34 am 01/25/2012

    This blog seems to show that science stories are inevitably political. The latter half pushing the global warming myth once again. A scientific fact is indisputable. Take Einstein’s E=Mc(squared) formula. You only need 1 model to prove it, not the basket of models from which you cherry pick those that best fit your desired result, which is what warmists do. Nor does scientific fact have to promote myths e.g. 97% of climate scientists believe in the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis. Turns out that this came from a group of warmists who claimed to have googled climate science papers, read them and then determined for themselves that 97% of the authors agreed with them. To guage how much of a concensus there is, there need to be regular polls taken by organisations who are experienced in carrying out these types of surveys.

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  7. 7. Cogitari 12:34 pm 01/25/2012

    Since science is simply a method for discovering the facts about our world, it seems to me that uncovering the facts about those who fight against some established science would be a natural extension of this. If our government was not so easily corruptible and actually worked for the people instead of the monied interests this would not be necessary.

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  8. 8. ejwillingham 12:55 am 01/26/2012

    To answer the “Who are the mommy bloggers” question, we are:

    In fact, we have an “evolution explainer” coming up this weekend.

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