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04/12/2024 | News release | Distributed by Public on 04/13/2024 11:11

POV: Policymakers Are Entitled to Their Own Opinions. But Should They Be Entitled to Their Own Science

POV: Policymakers Are Entitled to Their Own Opinions. But Should They Be Entitled to Their Own Science?

Republicans are less likely to cite research than Democrats and more likely to cite misleading science when they do

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Voices & Opinion

Policymakers Are Entitled to Their Own Opinions. But Should They Be Entitled to Their Own Science?

Republicans are less likely to cite research than Democrats and more likely to cite misleading science when they do

April 12, 2024
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Scientific research is playing an increasingly prominent role in the policymaking process. That's according to a new working paper, which finds that policymakers have become increasingly likely to cite scientific research when producing policy documents (e.g., congressional committee reports) on topics related to infectious disease threats, climate change, the costs of health insurance, and much more.

Reliance on scientific research in the policymaking process is, in my view, a very positive development.

That's because the United States increasingly faces a wide range of complex policy challenges, including mitigating the effects of a changing climate, developing sustainable artificial intelligence regulations, and responding to emerging infectious disease threats. Crafting effective policy solutions that address these concerns requires specialized knowledge that most members of Congress simply cannot be expected to have.

Still, I believe that there is some cause for concern.

Some policymakers are more likely than others to defer to scientific expertise when informing their efforts to combat some of the most pressing issues facing the country today. Specifically, Republican members of Congress are less likely than Democrats to cite scientific research papers in conference proceedings. Republican elected officials at many levels of government are also less likely than Democrats to exhibit deference and respect for scientific experts.

I refer to this phenomenon as the asymmetric polarization of scientific expertise.

Asymmetric polarization in deference to scientific authority mirrors two complementary developments that I describe in my forthcoming book, Anti-Scientific Americans: The Prevalence, Origins, and Political Consequences of Anti-Intellectualism in the United States (Oxford University Press). There, I demonstrate that self-identified Republicans have become increasingly likely to hold negative views toward scientists as people-a phenomenon I and others refer to as "anti-intellectualism."

In my book, I show that the resentment of scientific authorities tends to coincide with the election of anti-science candidates to political office. This includes Donald Trump's rise to the White House in 2016, which was characterized by hostility toward science in many forms, such as efforts to defund scientific agencies, prevent government climate scientists from presenting the results of their research, and undermine the public health recommendations of his own administration's public health advisors throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Partisan asymmetries in public anti-intellectual attitude endorsement provide an electoral incentive for GOP policymakers to forgo soliciting the advice of scientific experts. Correspondingly, my book shows that lawmakers tend to be less likely to invite scientists to testify before congressional committees in periods of high public anti-intellectual attitude endorsement.

This dynamic may help explain the pattern of effects documented in that working paper. Republicans are less likely to defer to scientific expertise, because they see doing so as politically advantageous.

Of course, Republicans do not completely forgo citing scientific research in the policymaking process. Anecdotally, though, we do observe differences in the types of experts that partisans solicit when gathering the information necessary to inform evidence-based policy.

Consider, for example, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic's recent hearings on the origins of COVID-19. Ostensibly, information from a fact-finding mission like this one could be used to inform policy efforts to prevent future pandemics-such as a bill sponsored by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and US Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.) aimed at investing in the development of a universal influenza vaccine.

Indeed, Democrats on the subcommittee used the hearings as an opportunity to seek out sworn testimony from research scientists who authored a scientific study documenting that the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic were more likely to be the result of animal-to-human transmission than a "leak" from a virology research lab in Wuhan, China-and that the scientists reached these conclusions independently of potential political pressures.

Nevertheless, these hearings were, at times, focused on anything but the facts.

For example, subcommittee member Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who described herself as "having a PhD in recognizing bullshit," cited data from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) in order to cast doubt on COVID-19 vaccine safety. As my colleague Dominik Stecula (assistant professor of political science at Colorado State University) and I have written elsewhere, VAERS data are self-reported vaccine injury claims. While these data can be useful for identifying side effects warranting further scientific study, they can nevertheless be subject to misreporting.

So, even the most extreme members of the GOP caucus seek the trappings of science for their arguments. Greene's comments co-opt the language of science by drawing on government data to levy her anti-science claims, weaponizing science in service of casting doubt on scientific consensus. Her concerns were echoed by other GOP members of the subcommittee, including Representative Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio).

More generally, the asymmetric polarization of scientific expertise implies that, in periods where Republicans control the legislature, science may play a less pronounced role in informing public policy. This is concerning, as the policy challenges facing our nation are not subject to biannual election cycles.

That's why I believe that members of Congress should be entitled to their own opinions-not their own facts.

Still, I think there is plenty of reason for optimism.

If members of the American public place greater trust in science and scientists, policymakers will have less of an incentive to embrace anti-science views in Washington. I believe it is incumbent on all of us to defend the rigors of scientific peer review and scientists' nonpartisan intentions to produce sound research, when discussing current affairs with friends and family.

All of us can play a role in combating the asymmetric polarization of science.

Matthew Motta, an assistant professor of health law, policy, and management at Boston University's School of Public Health, can be reached at [email protected]. His book, Anti-Scientific Americans: The Prevalence, Origins, and Political Consequences of Anti-Intellectualism in the United States, is to be published by Oxford University Press in September.

"POV" is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact John O'Rourke at [email protected]. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.

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    Matthew Motta, assistant professor of health law, policy, and management at Boston University's School of Public Health, can be reached at [email protected]. His book, Anti-Scientific Americans: The Prevalence, Origins, and Political Consequences of Anti-Intellectualism in the United States, is to be published by Oxford University Press in September.

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