Science isn’t a political trump card

Scientists have been taking sides over the science in James Damore’s ‘sexist’ Google memo. Canadian neuroscientist Debra Soh wrote: ‘The memo was fair and factually accurate. Scientific studies have confirmed sex differences in the brain that lead to differences in our interests and behaviour.’ But others claim his memo is based on flawed science, pseudoscience and scientism.

After Charlottesville, science once again entered the political sphere when scientists – usually from one of the groups keen to promote the idea that science and ‘experts’ should dictate politics – denounced the misuse of science to perpetuate racism. Science journal Nature wrote that ‘science cannot and should not be used to justify prejudice’. And rightly so.

But this didn’t stop the Washington Post from publishing an article titled, ‘Why are people still racist? What science says about America’s race problem’. Drawing on research in the fields of psychology, sociology and neurology on the roots of racism, the newspaper asked social psychologist Jennifer Richeson what she thought. Her answer confirms just how small an insight science can give us on this issue: ‘This is not the product of some deep-seated, evil heart that is cultivated. It comes from the environment, the air all around us.’

There are constant calls for science to inform politics and policies and yet, at the same time, others decry the misuse of science by political opponents. Clearly, we live in a world where science can only be used if it confirms one’s own political opinions.

There is nothing wrong with using scientific theories and hypotheses to argue our points in our search for the truth. With freedom of speech and the possibility for diverse opinions, we can challenge others on their arguments as well as on the truth of specific scientific theories. The problem arises when we assume that the mere mentioning of ‘science’ or ‘evidence’ proves we are right.

Scientism, the belief that science can answer all our political, philosophical and moral questions, has led to all sides claiming scientific evidence in order to bypass debate and claim authority for their argument.

Instead of having discussions about the values, morals, philosophical and political ideas that we want to support or challenge, we spend our time throwing evidence at each other with the hope it will do the work for us. But if we truly believe that people are rational beings capable of reasonable discussions, we cannot bypass the hard but necessary arguments.

Dr Christine Louis-Dit-Sully is a writer and researcher based in Germany.

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