When science meets politics

As Dover’s school board deliberated textbook choices during the summer of 2004, evolution wasn’t the only scientific concept under debate in the public sphere. Far from existing in an inviolable realm of pure fact, scientific subjects such as environmentalism and global warming, stem cell research, and evolution were political battlegrounds during the heated presidential election then underway. A voter’s perspective on such issues moreover tended to correlate with his or her party affiliation. Thus in declaring that scientific data firmly supported a given conclusion, journalists risked implicitly aligning themselves with a political party.

Stem cell research, for example, posed unique reporting challenges. Embryonic stem cells could be programmed to grow into many different kinds of cells, potentially providing a way to regrow tissue damaged by such diseases as Parkinson’s and diabetes, perhaps eventually curing them. In 2001, President George W. Bush limited funding for stem cell research, restricting it to existing lines of stem cells and forbidding the production of new ones—which required the destruction of human embryos. His Democratic opponent in the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry, vowed to lift the restrictions.

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research argued that it was unproven to provide the cures its proponents promised, and that the ethical problems of destroying human embryos outweighed the potential benefits of the research. This side included evangelical Christians who believed life began as soon as an embryo formed—but moral and ethical objections to embryonic stem cell research were by no means the exclusive province of the religious. The research’s proponents, meanwhile, among them Democratic candidate Kerry, chided the Bush administration’s seemingly hostile attitude toward scientific evidence supporting man-made global warming, and pointed to the stem cell debate as another instance in which the President and his party placed ideology above scientific evidence. At the same time, some of the scientists who touted embryonic stem cell research’s benefits stood to gain financially from grants to conduct the research. Reporters covering the story were thrust into a thicket of competing interests.

The stem cell debate crystallized many of the challenges facing science journalists more generally. Science reporters—even those who covered science exclusively—were often plunged into subjects in which they had little or no expertise and expected to evaluate competing claims fairly. The were forced to rely on experts with unclear political, personal, and financial motivations of their own in negotiating what one writer called “the widening gap in knowledge between the scientific expert and the layman,” trying to package information from the former for consumption by the latter. Furthermore, this writer continued:

The vulnerability of science journalists converges with the economic and social constraints of newswork to give an unusual degree of power to those best organized to provide technical information in a manageable and efficiently packaged form. [1]

Kerry and Bush had staked out opposite sides in several other scientific matters, among them intelligent design. Bush argued that, as a critique of a scientific theory, intelligent design deserved a fair hearing in classrooms. Kerry maintained that “ideology should not trump science in the context of educating our children,” but said it was ultimately up to local communities to set their own curricula. [2]

The Dover school board would soon do so.

[1] Dorothy Nelkin, Selling Science (W.H. Freeman and Company: New York), 1995, p. 80, 123.