Was ‘science’ really on the 2020 ballot?

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The lead-up to and outcome of the 2020 U.S. presidential election led prominent scientific leaders and politicians to declare that a significant portion of America simply no longer accepted scientific fact. In a Policy Forum, Stephen Hilgartner and colleagues argue that lumping Americans into pro-science and anti-science factions, as happened recently, misdiagnoses the problem. They say confusing political dissent with an all-out rejection of science has ultimately damaged the public authority of science. “Was ‘science’ really on the ballot? Is it useful to imagine U.S. citizens as divided into pro-science and anti-science camps? Does the label anti-science serve the purposes of deliberative democracy? The answer to these questions is plainly no,” write Hilgartner et al. According to the authors, to restore the public authority of science, policy leaders must learn to recognize when disagreements over scientific facts reflect deeper disagreements over social values and competing ways of life. For example, epidemiological measures of deaths averted don’t capture other essential aspects of daily life, including economic, social, political and spiritual. Thus, while the policies aimed primarily at reducing health risks are based on scientific facts, they can become suspect to those who see other needs as being unjustifiably neglected or impinged upon. Presenting science-based policy as right simply because it’s based in science leaves no room for debate around competing values. This resistance too easily becomes labeled as anti-science – a sentiment that erodes public trust in science overall. “History shows that science fares best when it is responsive to skepticism, not insulated from it,” write the authors. “Building a less paternalistic, more inclusive dialogue between science and citizens is crucial for informed, democratic governance.”

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