Science, Politics And Ideology: Uncomfortable Bedfellows


Eric Abetz recently provoked a media frenzy when he suggested a causal link between abortion and breast cancer. So ludicrous were the Senator’s claims that he was condemned not only by his political enemies, but the Australian Medical Association and the Cancer Council.

Later, Mr. Abetz attempted to clarify his comments, suggesting that the issue was best left to “the medical experts to determine… the body of opinion.” But they already had. The only evidence for Abetz’s claim, the public was quickly assured, stems from a long debunked study from the 1950s — an era which produced other such lasting scientific insights as the safety of tobacco, homosexuality’s classification as a mental illness and the efficacy of lobotomy as humane psychiatric treatment

But the pseudoscience didn’t stop there. Last week, Maurice Newman – the head of the government’s business advisory council – suggested that Australia was unprepared for the looming and inevitable disaster that will be global cooling; presumably rendering pointless all greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Newman cherry picked and misrepresented so much scientific evidence that Tim Flannery and the Climate Council proposed a much-needed elementary science lesson to set the record straight.

How did we find ourselves in this situation? Why would Senator Abetz seek to resurrect – explicitly or not – an otherwise dead and buried scientific opinion? And why would Maurice Newman attempt to pedal a scientific fiction worthy of the best Hollywood blockbusters?

Paradoxically, the answer may be that we afford science too much power in creating and shaping public policy. This attitude not only encourages the proliferation of bogus science in promotion of (often conservative) political agendas, but dangerously compromises the role of scientific assessments as legitimate inputs to governing. The problem is not, as many might think, that policies are being formulated and implemented ‘contrary’ to the scientific evidence. Rather, it is that pseudoscience is enlisted to defend them.

Abetz’s comments illustrate the extent to which this is becoming a problem. The legalisation and regulation of abortion is a complex issue; arguments for and against can draw upon economics, political theory, ethics and biomedical science.

But somehow the existence of a single, albeit important, scientific argument on the side of pro-choice advocates – the safety of abortion – cannot be tolerated by their pro-life opposition. Hence, long-discarded findings wind their way into Eric Abetz’s mouth in an attempt at one-upmanship. An issue traditionally the preserve of intense ethical debate has been reduced – at least in part – to mere risk assessment.

Of course, Abetz and other pro-Lifers are unlikely to give up their ethical arguments any time soon. Yet the Senator’s comments have illustrated just how obliged politicians feel to ensure that their political ideas have some kind of discrete, quantifiable and physical basis.

The sheer absurdity of scrambling to find technical arguments for a position rich in sophisticated ethical support was immediately highlighted by the Cabinet’s decision to quickly distance themselves from Abetz’s comments.

Maurice Newman’s recommendations are only the most extreme example of climate change policy masquerading as ‘science-based’ in Australian politics.

Officially, the Abbott government supports the scientific consensus on global warming. Its rhetoric surrounding mitigation policies, however, is confused, and often tends towards pseudoscientific arguments.

In a press conference following the repeal of the carbon tax, Barnaby Joyce supported climate science one minute and suggested Canberra was far too cold to worry about global warming the next.

The Coalition’s direct action plan attempts to further give policy the veneer of scientific credibility because they claim the program will meet emissions reductions targets – contrary to scientific assessments.

It is not the content of these policies that is inherently troublesome, even in light of the scientific evidence. Risk assessments alone do not produce imperatives to act without invoking a set of underlying – and contestable – assumptions. The reality and danger of anthropogenic climate change should not be dismissed, but it necessitates government action no more than the safety of abortions requires their legality.

What remains troublesome, however, is the use of false science to promote policies. Our current technocratic attitude not only proliferates pseudoscientific ideas to the public, but renders impotent the proper role of science in our democracy: to provide the best possible knowledge of the physical world, constituting one source of reliable information from which governments can make decisions.

This information cannot determine what should be valued, or how much we should value it. This is the job of politicians and the citizenry; to debate what’s important and why.

If no scientific arguments for a policy exist, one should be able to unashamedly promote it for its other virtues. In doing so, politicians are not rejecting the findings of scientific experts. Rather, they are asserting that other considerations outweigh the force of technical assessments. If a policy cannot stand without the help of false science, then it deserves to be discarded.

Current discomfort to portray any decision as ideologically motivated highlights that a discussion of values in Australian politics is decidedly lacking. A technocratic and managerial mindset encourages not only Eric Abetz or Maurice Newman to provide scientific evidence for principled positions, but Joe Hockey to construe his sweeping changes to the structure of welfare as the only possible response to a “budget crisis”.

Instead of discussing and comparing ideologies transparently, ideology has become a dirty word, and all government action must be seen through the lens of emergency action.

In order to protect the legitimacy of scientific findings both in the public eye and in shaping policies, expert technical knowledge must be viewed as only one input to the decision-making process.

To do otherwise would prevent necessary acknowledgement and discussion of our values, as well as limit the extent to which we – as non-expert citizens – can meaningfully influence our political future.

* Gavin Scott is a student at the University of Melbourne, where he studies the History and Philosophy of Science. His academic interests include the historical influence of social and cultural forces in the production of scientific knowledge and the role of science in democracies.
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