Why Is Politics "Upstream" of Science?

What does is mean to say that “politics is upstream of science”? My last article made this case with several historical examples: Lysenkoism, Deutsche Physik, and Project Camelot. This article will take a closer look at the nexus of politics and science, and explain why politics is upstream of science.

“Upstream” implies that something flows from politics to science. That something might be authority, influence, ideology, decisions, or demand. In my model of the politics-science relationship, there are several claims:

  • Politics creates a market for bad science. Politicians and regimes give explicit or implicit signals of what kind of science they will reward (or punish), and scientists create that science. Example: In the Soviet Union, the party created a demand for Marxist agriculture and denunciation towards “bourgeois science” like genetics, and Lysenko stepped up to fill this demand.

  • Politicians have executive authority over scientists. Politicians hire scientists, fire scientists, and set their priorities. Example: In Nazi Germany, Heisenberg was at the mercy of Himmler when persecuted by the Deutsche Physik clique for studying Einstein’s “Jewish Physics.”

  • Politics has intellectual influence on science. Scientists are ideologically influenced by the political climate of their time. Politicians only have interest in science for providing legitimacy, propaganda, or weaponry.

  • Politics determines which scientifically-revealed option is chosen. Science influences politics by communicating the parameters of nature, but politics determines where societies operate within those parameters, and sometimes tries to step outside them.

We will look at some of these claims in more detail, and address some potential counterarguments.

Politicians have executive authority over scientists

Politicians and government official have executive authority over scientists because they fund them, hire them, fire them, and determine what projects they work on. Even if a scientist is working for an institution that is supposedly separate from the state, they can still be fired or persecuted for political reasons.

Scientists can get fired for getting politics wrong. No politician was ever fired for getting science wrong.

Scientists run labs, but political elites run states and journalists run websites. Which do you think is more powerful? When push comes to shove, it is the politician and the journalist who get their way—and not the scientist. Scientists are human beings, who like living in heated rooms and attending award ceremonies, and who don’t like being stuck in infamy—or stuck in a cell. If you have to change a few words in your speech for the good of your career, or tweak an algorithm a little bit, then such is life.

If you try to do apolitical science on politicized subjects in a politicized environment, then at best you might be denied funding, and at worst, you might be harassed and need to have your mother speak to someone else’s mother to go easy on you—like Heisenberg. Depends on what kind of state you are in, of course.

If scientists can convince officials of the virtues of their approach, then they might be allowed a longer leash. The executive influence of scientists on politicians isn’t completely zero, but it’s small.

Political actors can create scientific institutions, like when Charles II created the Royal Society, or the United States government created the Manhattan Project.

Political actors can also set the priorities of scientists, such as when Margaret Sanger met scientist Gregory Pincus in 1951 and gave him a grant from Planned Parenthood to work on hormonal contraceptives. The science of “the pill” was upstream of the Sexual Revolution, but Sanger’s political cause was already upstream of the technology and instigated its creation. Politics was upstream of technology which was upstream of the next generation of politics.

Politics selects within a space of options revealed by science

A potential objection to the “politics is upstream of science” thesis is that science has actually had a large influence on human politics. Look at industrialization, contraception, and the germ theory of disease. These technologies greatly changed the landscape of society.

Science changes our understanding of the natural world and brings us technology. Technology and scientific understanding influence politics. Therefore, science does have some sort of upstream influence on politics, right?

While there is an influence of science on politics, there are several reasons to still maintain that in general, the influence of politics on science is larger, especially in the short-term.

Although science does influence society through technology, I want to make a distinction between science and technology. I am particularly interested in intellectual or ideological influence. While technology changes the landscape, science rarely makes politicians change their view of the world. The main examples I can imagine of fields that intellectually influenced the thinking political actors were game theory (during the Cold War) and evolution.

Aside from technology, the primary intellectual influence of science on politics is through revealing the workings of the natural world. Although science changes our understanding of the natural world, and this background knowledge eventually filters into politics, it is political power which determines how we interact with the natural world—not scientists, and not the wishes of scientists themselves.

Nature imposes a space of possibilities. The shape of this space is communicated by science. Political power determines where humans operate in this space. In some cases, politics tries to step outside of the boundaries of this space, in which case you see events like Soviet famines under Lysenko’s agriculture.

Science communicates Nature’s boundaries, but this signal is also made very noisy by politics pressuring scientists to say what power wants to hear. The signal goes through another level of degradation when the results of science are communicated to the public through the propaganda organs.

Science reveals evolutionarily stable strategies, also known as “natural law”. Politics fights natural law kicking and screaming.

Be cautious about the notion that science and technology “cause” political change. Every political actor likes to claim that their favored policies were “inevitable,” in order to gain greater legitimacy. Technologies only come into play because human agents decide to create them or unleash them, and these decisions are influenced by politics.

The final shape of a society is dictated by politics, especially in the short-term. Thanks to survivorship bias, we never hear of all the potentially society-changing technologies that were nixed due to lack of funding or lack of support from political actors.

Even if mandatory features of reality are revealed by science and altered by technology, politics will dominate the choices that are optional, and it will try to say that some of those mandatory constraints are actually optional—or nonexistent. Political power will try to use technology to change the features of reality according to its own agenda, which is always focused on winning short-term conflicts, without caring about long-term human welfare.

Does science eventually win?

Politics has executive authority over science, it holds intellectual influence over science, and it determines where we operate within the options that Nature gives us.

Politics dominates science in the short-term, causing boom-bust cycles of bad politicized science, hopefully followed by corrections, as the next regime finds it expedient to denounce the bad science of the previous regime. After all, German physicists now follow Einstein and Russians believe in genetics again.

In some cases, scientists might be able to do serious work by staying out of sight of politicians, or they might be able to convince politicians of the merits of their work. Sometimes they eventually get the last laugh after being persecuted. Science expands our knowledge of the natural world and creates technology and weapons, which eventually influence politics. Nevertheless, in the short-term, politics dominates science, and it can cause scientific fields to get screwed up for decades, or even longer.

What about the long-term? Do scientists always win eventually? We have examples where it does, like Heisenberg, but if we only look at the success stories, we risk falling prey to survivorship bias. There could be many cases where science is choked by politics, and we never hear about them because the scientists lost.

Between the Golden Age of Greece and the Middle Ages, a lot of science was destroyed, it would be surprising if that was the last time that science was lost.

Why does politics dominate science?

So why is politics so much more powerful than science? Because political actors have power due to spending all their time pursuing it, while scientists have very little power because they are spending all their time doing actually useful things. It’s not surprising that people who focus on the social world are more powerful than people who focus on the natural world.

The priority of politics is to win short-term coalitional conflicts, and the powerful are only interested in science and technology when it helps them achieve this goal. Power depends on influencing people—not on scientific advances or technological inventions. Science and technology influence politics by creating bigger populations, bigger weapons, and bigger megaphones. But these changes are continuous and do not change the game of domestic politics in any fundamental way, and they only change international politics if there is a large military differential between countries.

Science and technology cannot be upstream of domestic politics because politics operates in a low-tech world of human wetware, a world that only changes incrementally over time. Social sciences such as psychology and sociology examine this wetware, but those fields are not any more powerful than the intuitions of socially-skilled people, so they do not cause significant political changes.

Perhaps my case in this article is a truism, that power is powerful, and short-term power is powerful in the short-term. Powerful people (like political actors) exert agency on society; powerless people (like scientists) do not. Regimes are powerful while they exist, and weak when they have fallen. Political actors tend to produce the results they are trying to produce—short-term victories, not natural law, and not the scientific advancement of humankind.

Though perhaps they are truisms, recognizing them requires abandoning romantic notions about the status of science, its accuracy in the short-term, and the feasibility of technocracy under present-day political systems. If decisions, ideology, and priorities flow downwards from politics to science, then the potential of science to improve the human condition is limited by politics.

soviet science poster