Experts examine the interaction of science and politics in UNC panel

Experts examine the interaction of science and politics in UNC panel

Should scientists stand outside of politics or do they have an obligation to engage in political debates around science? Do evolving social rules and mores threaten the teaching of science? Does the politicization of science, particularly in a global pandemic, threaten the public’s trust in it?

Those were some of the lofty topics tackled by a panel of experts at Tuesday’s night’s Abbey Speaker Series panel at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The panel, moderated by new university Provost Chris Clemens, featured former UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor and current editor-in-chief of of Science magazine Holden Thorp, and Luana Maroja, chair of the Biochemistry & Molecular Biology program at Williams College.

Provost Chris Clemens

Differing views over evolving social norms

Maroja has for years publicly lamented students’ growing resistance to well-established scientific principles with which they disagree on political grounds. Among the examples she says she’s encountered: the denial that IQ testing is valid, that IQ may be an inheritable trait, and that observed differences between males and females may be based in biology.

Maroja said the classroom pushback — including student requests for “trigger warnings” on topics they may find upsetting, and that she use gender-neutral language rather than phrases like “guys” when referring to mixed-gender groups — hasn’t fundamentally changed her teaching. But she believes it may for many others.

“It leads to a dilution of the classroom,” Maroja said. “What can be discussed and what cannot be discussed. And we don’t want to get in trouble.”

“People say ‘You have tenure. What do you fear?’” Maroja said. “You fear ostracism. You know, every human fears rejection and ostracism. It’s in our DNA. In our ancestral, you know, living system, if you were expelled from the tribe, you were dead.”

Clemens, a conservative astrophysicist who has himself spoken against politics’ influence on the teaching and understanding of science, pushed back against some of Maroja’s examples — particularly some student language preferences.

“This is really a conflict between an evolving set of elaborate social rules,” Clemens said. “You can imagine that developing in the animal kingdom, right? You don’t know whether to study it or confront it.”

The real question, he said, is whether those sorts of disagreements constitute an actual threat to the teaching of science.

Luana Maroja

“Will they be citizens in a democracy who can think scientifically and know the kinds of things you want them to know in the end?” Clemens said.

From his perspective as both a professor and editor of one of the most prestigious scientific journals, Thorp said he doesn’t see discussions about the language used in classrooms or even pushback on the way long-held scientific principles are taught as a threat.

“I believe these young people come to us the way they come to us and it’s our job to bring them along,” Thorp said.

Thorp said students, like much of the rest of the society, are often navigating complicated scientific concepts and how they fit into their ideas about society and how it should function. They’re also doing so in environments and systems that were largely built by and for white men and have themselves been slowly evolving. Blaming student for trigger warnings and expressing their discomfort with certain topics isn’t productive, he said. Trying to ignore the inherently political nature of human beings — scientists included — is a problem, he said.

“All human beings are subject to motivated reasoning,” Thorp said. “We’re political people with political views. Pretending like we’re not has not served science well at all.”

Agreement on COVID and the need to keep politics out of science

Political actors on the ideological left and right have sometimes gotten in the way of solid science on issues of public concern, Thorp said. The political right’s skepticism over many of the scientific aspects of climate change may give scientists headaches, he said, but so too does the political left’s resistance to genetically modified food and nuclear power as possible solutions to some of the same issues.

Scientists may have overplayed their objectivity in the pandemic, Thorp said, from messages on the efficacy of certain masks to their hopes vs. the reality of vaccine efficacy. Politics certainly played a part in discussions about the virus’s origins and how certain in their views on the matter that scientists could be, he said. Thorp, Clemens and Maroja all agreed that vaccination dramatically reduces the chance of serious illness and death and is an essential weapon against COVID-19 of which scientists are rightly proud. But they also agreed that in discussions on everything from vaccines to masking, messaging from politicians and government organizations could have been clearer and that the public was obviously uncomfortable with the ambiguities and evolving nature of science.

Holden Thorp, former UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor

It’s best for scientists to say they don’t know something for sure, Maroja said, rather than to project certainty for political reasons. The controversy over whether COVID-19 could have been created in a Chinese lab or escaped from such a lab while being studied was a good example, she said. The honest answer is that scientists can’t be sure because they don’t have access to all of the evidence, she said. But some scientists took a strong stand against the idea because it was being advanced by conspiracy theorists and political actors without evidence, resulting in violence against Asian people.

But more information and data are always becoming available about many aspects of COVID-19, Maroja said. The evolution of scientific thought on issues about which scientists have staked themselves out with certainty can lead to a public erosion of trust in scientists and science, she said.

“This is something where we’re both in strong agreement: science is an honorably self-correcting process,” Thorp said. “It needs correcting all the time.”

Scientists always want to be right, Thorp said, but good scientists are also happy to be corrected and to evolve their thinking as necessary based on new evidence.

“That’s the process of science,” Thorp said.