“Politics?! I thought this was about science!”
This is a common trope that is often leveled against scientists and skeptics that challenge pseudoscience or political policies being pushed by anti-science politicians. However, it is fatally flawed on several different levels.
First, many forms of pseudoscience have deceptive political agendas, such as pushing creationism in public schools, undermining the vaccine schedule, shredding climate agreements or deregulating fake treatments that harm people. These cannot be ignored. Second, anti-science politicians are have no magic immunity shield towards criticism. If they promote nonsense, they are just as viable targets for intellectual criticism as any other profession.
Third, scientific victories were hard-won and should not be conceded so easily. Fourth, when scientists and skeptics argue for evidence-based policy, it is science that justifiably intrude on politics not the other way around like the accusers would have it. Fifth and finally, science crucially depends on science funding that is partially under the control by politicians. If you screw up science funding, you screw up science. Science and scientists should not be intellectual pacifists and not go quietly into the darkness.
Many pseudosciences have malignant political agendas that cannot be ignored
Many forms of pseudoscience have important political aspects. This is because pseudosciences by their very nature cannot win the scientific battle, so they must attempt to take the political backdoor into relevance. There are many such well-understood cases. Let us review a couple of them.
Some religious extremists have attempted to mandate the teaching of creationism in public schools, ban the teaching of evolution or push deceptive measures such as “equal time” laws, “teaching the controversy”, “teaching strengths and weakness” or “academic freedom”. In reality, teachers do not have the freedom to teach whatever they want but must follow science standards and teaching “weaknesses of evolution” has been shown to be a trick to bring in creationist materials in the classroom. Defending the science of evolution means opposing the introduction of creationism in schools. It would be weird to insist that scientists should only focus on the science and let science education be corrupted by creationism. If that happens, the future of science itself is under attack.
Many promoters of fake treatments for cancer and other diseases known that they cannot win the battle in medical literature, so they try to influence political policy by lobbying for massive deregulation of the supplement industry and consumer protection as well as block any legislation that protects vulnerable patients from quackery. It is ludicrous to insist that medical doctors should ignore it, only focus on the medicine and let quacks who defraud people for tens of thousands of dollars or outright kill their patients by medical neglect have free reign over regulatory issues.
Climate science has provided a massive amount of evidence that show that there is a current of warming trend and that human activity is the single most important factor in modern times. Because climate deniers cannot win the discussion in the scientific literature, they must fall back on trying to suppress climate education, climate science funding and government research on climate change. They also threaten international climate policy agreements that are necessary to mitigate and managing the effects of climate change. It is unthinkable to insist that climate scientists should just “stick to the science” as the science itself and its funding is under constant attack by anti-science demagogues.
Most people who deploy the “politics?! I thought this was about science!” gambit are extremely selective with their targets. Those that apply it to, let’s say, climate science, probably accepts that it is important to fight against creationist politicians pushing creationism as an alternative to evolution in science class. Thus, they are typically not logically consistent in their application of this tactic. Often, it is only brought ought when their favorite politician or political party is being critically scrutinized.
Anti-science politicians have no magical invulnerability shield
Anti-science sentiments can be found everywhere in society. Pseudoscience can be found in everything from molecular biology and physics to history and audiovisual technology. The people who exclaim “politics?! I thought this was about science!” do not think that any of this should be given special treatment and that bakers or diving instructors should be immune to criticism if they start promoting pseudoscience. However, when it comes to politicians, they apparently seem to believe that politicians have some kind of magical invulnerability shield and should be exempt from scientific criticism when they push their anti-science viewpoints.
This is a profoundly ridiculous idea. Politicians are obviously not some kind of superhero class, but humans like the rest of us. As humans they can become intellectually corrupted and attempt to advocate bad ideas. If so, they should be allowed to be criticized. Being a politician or being involved in policy-making does not give you immunity or the possibility of preventing others from criticizing your anti-science activities.
Science is too important to be left up to political ideologues
Science has brought humans so many benefits related to technology and human health. It has given use immense knowledge from the tiniest subatomic particles to black holes and given us insights into everything from single-celled organisms to massive ecosystems. Science has in many ways become the victim of its own success. We are often complacent about its benefits even though these victories have not come without great sacrifices. Science has challenged political and religious authorities. It has fought bigotry and ignorance. Many scientists have sacrificed their lives, both figuratively and literally, in their struggle to push the boundaries of knowledge about the world.
Thus, we must not get stuck in our relatively comfortable existence in high-income countries at the early years of the 21th century. These science victories have cost us a lot and science is always under attack. Science is much too valuable to be left up to political ideologues and their evidence-free claims. Science must be defended at every opportunity.
Science (rightly) intrudes on political policy, not the other way around
When scientists, medical doctors or scientific skeptics talk about things that seem to involve politics, they are not advocating that political beliefs should corrupt science. On the contrary, they think that science and skepticism should justifiably intrude and improve political policy. Political policy on important issues should be evidence-based, not based on arbitrary ideological beliefs about how things work. Insisting on the “politics?! I thought this was about science!” or “Stick to the science!” rhetoric means that you actively oppose making political policy more evidence-based. Let that sink in for a moment.
Science funding depends on having pro-science politicians and policies
Science is not free. It costs money. Reagents used in the lab costs money. Buying and maintaining scientific equipment costs money. Scientists need salaries for housing and food. Do this money appear magically out of thin air? No! Science funding comes from government, private companies and science foundations. With effective science policy, money can go to discovering new treatments for cancer, gathering climate data, inventing vaccines, producing new plants and so on. Bad science policies that cut important parts of the science budget can make some forms of scientific research grind to a screeching halt. Without good science policy, there is no science. It is completely unreasonable to demand that scientists stay quiet and passive while anti-science politicians shatter their field. Science is not, and should not, be intellectual pacifism.
Finally, there is no magical barrier between science and society that keeps the two separated by an impenetrable vacuum. Science affects society and society affects science. It is our job to make sure that both science and society develop in an efficient and fruitful way that benefit human flourishing.