Science Isn’t a Two-Party System

When I was at the American Association for the Advancement of Science 2013 Annual Meeting this Thursday, I attended a panel presentation on how to talk about science in political contexts.

Buried among many nuggets of quotable insights was a surprising statement. I noticed later that many people posted it online. One of the speakers advised scientists to present themselves as either Democrats or Republicans if they choose to talk about “values” with politicians – and to stick to the stance they take.

Although this advice may be practical, I think it may oversimplify the complex reality of scientists’ views and values about policy. Thinking in terms of a simple two-party system obscures that:

  • If politically independent scientists “choose a party” because of social pressure, they will not be presenting their views accurately.
  • Bipartisan science organizations exist. They also write recommendations for the federal government. Some of their messaging does reflect values.
  • There is no reason to expect that a scientist will agree with all of a party’s platform, even if he or she supports most of it. That expectation could put a scientist in an awkward position.
  • Some scientists may support third parties.

Also, it is very difficult to present science without involving values at all. Values are almost always present in how we talk about science. Here are some examples of common science-related statements which contain values:

  • “The United States should increase funding for science and technology so we can maintain our competitive edge.” 
  • “New technology is good for our society.”
  • “We should evaluate K-12 schools in terms of their standardized test performance.”
  • “We should teach science in ways that are culturally competent.”

Rather than attempting to maintain a fiction of value-free objectivity, it might be more effective for scientists to adopt a stance of open-mindedness. An open-minded researcher considers information from sources with which he or she may disagree. An open-minded researcher also talks with people whose viewpoints differ from his or her own.

Simran Sethi, an associate professor at the William Allen White School of Journalism & Mass Communications at University of Kansas, gave the TED talk below to illustrate how she talks with hunters, Christians and Libertarians about environmentalism. In the video, she challenges listeners’ ideas about their own political superiority and shows the benefits of conversations that cross political divides.

I’ve blogged before about Public Conversations Project, a nonprofit organization which facilitates dialogues to bring together diverging viewpoints. In my opinion as a science blogger, an open-minded stance should be an option for scientists who are approaching politicians.

The fact that our federal government operates as a binary system doesn’t mean that this system matches the scientific method, reflects who scientists are, or represents the menu of options scientists should have when they communicate.

Scientists can be politically independent, affiliated with third parties, open to views that differ from their own, or interested in bipartisanship. If scientists choose to question either/or thinking, that could improve the quality of public conversations about science.

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5 thoughts on “Science Isn’t a Two-Party System

  1. Interesting. The only thing is, you know that a researcher’s findings will be influenced by who is picking up the bill. You have some right-wing politicians saying science originates from the “pit of Hell, and these seem to be the same people who are influencing the agenda for the entire Right. Many on the Right are still debating whether climate change even exist let alone provide funding to determine how to best fix it. In a perfect world where we are all in this together and money wasn’t the total motivator I think science could make huge strides but get politicians and dollars involved and people tend to try to please their benefactors. As you say, “values” enter into the conversation and researchers should adopt a stance of “open-mindedness” but do you really think they will if it comes down to toiling under financial pressures or working for a result that makes their employer happy and provides them with financial security?

    1. Good question. I’m considering writing a blog post about the Transparency, Accountability, Openness (TAO) project (, which requires that journalists both be open to considering alternate viewpoints and state the sources of their funding.

      I have signed up to display the logo of this project on my blog and have added funder info to all of the articles in my portfolio.

      So in this case, being open and being transparent are both included in the requirements.

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