Threats to Science: Politicization, Misinformation, and Inequalities

Published date01 March 2022
Date01 March 2022
Subject MatterIntroduction
8 ANNALS, AAPSS, 700, March 2022
DOI: 10.1177/00027162221095431
Threats to
and Inequalities
Science is often considered the best available route to
knowledge and, thus, essential for societal progress. Yet
contemporary science faces several challenges. These
challenges include politicization, misinformation, and
inequalities. I outline each of these threats, detailing
the ways in which they can undermine the optimal
production and application of science. I provide an
overview of various research agendas on each, as cov-
ered in this volume. Without minimizing the serious-
ness posed by each threat, I also suggest that existing
work provides reason for hope that the scientific enter-
prise can address these challenges and continue to
improve societal well-being.
Keywords: politicization of science; misinformation;
inequality; scientific progress
The scientific enterprise leads a precarious
existence. It produces systematized knowl-
edge that constitutes an unrivaled information
source on which to base decisions. Yet science
also incentivizes criticism, cannot provide
definitive proof, and is practiced by a relatively
small, homogenous group of experts. These lat-
ter features make science vulnerable to threats
that undermine its usefulness. These threats
include the misappropriation of science for
reasons orthogonal to the creation of knowledge
(specifically, political motivations), misinforma-
tion where inaccurate claims appear in the
guise of science, and inequalities of representa-
tion in the scientific enterprise that can lead to
flawed epistemology and group disenfranchise-
ment. While these threats are not new, societal
and technological trends in the twenty-first
James N. Druckman is the Payson S. Wild Professor of
Political Science and a faculty fellow at the Institute for
Policy Research at Northwestern University. He is also
an honorary professor of political science at Aarhus
University in Denmark.
NOTE: I thank Robin Bayes for superb advice on a
prior draft.
century have served as an accelerant. The experience of COVID-19 highlights
this reality—it has been riddled with partisans misusing and misconstruing sci-
ence; misinformation so pervasive that the pandemic was also labeled an info-
demic; and vast inequities in illness, morbidity, and economic hardship. This
volume offers a synthetic treatment of these three threats to science: politiciza-
tion, misinformation, and inequality. It brings together leading scholars in each
area who present empirically grounded discussions of major research agendas.
The articles in each section also build on one another to isolate the distinct nature
of each threat and, perhaps more importantly, to offer insights into what steps can
be taken in response. The hope is that readers are not left feeling deflated by
overwhelming challenges but, rather, are inspired by guidance on how to address
threats to advancing science and improving societal well-being.
The COVID-19 Pandemic Illustrates Threats to Science
How the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in the United States illustrates how
politicization, misinformation, and inequalities threaten science. An October
2019 Johns Hopkins report concluded that the United States was relatively better
prepared than every other nation to deal with a pandemic in terms of prevention,
detection, response, health care, risk environment, and so on (Nuclear Threat
Initiative and Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security 2019). Yet by September
2020—only six months after cases first started surging—America accounted for
more than 20 percent of all COVID-19 deaths despite accounting for only 4 per-
cent of the world’s population.1 Why did the United States perform so poorly
when it came to saving lives? A large part of the answer concerns a failure to fully
utilize science due to politicized belief systems, misinformation, and inequities.
Consider politicized belief systems. Perhaps more than any other country,
COVID-19 polarized the United States, dividing Democrats and Republicans at
the elite (Fowler, Kettler, and Witt 2021; Lipsitz and Pop-Eleches 2020) and
mass levels (Allcott etal. 2020; Druckman etal. 2021; Gadarian, Goodman, and
Pepinsky 2021; Gollwitzer etal. 2020). This division was exacerbated by the 2020
presidential election and the concomitant challenges to democratic norms. In
summer 2020, one study from Pew Research Center found that 77 percent of
Americans believed that the nation had grown more divided since the arrival of
COVID-19, a response 2.8 standard deviations higher than the mean of the other
thirteen nations in the study and 1.6 standard deviations higher than the second
highest nation, Spain (Dimock and Wike 2020). As a result of this division, poli-
tics, rather than science, drove many decisions about how to deal with the pan-
demic. This is a stark example of how politicization can lead to less than ideal
cientific decision-making; at the same time, though, not all threats stemmed from
During COVID-19, other challenges emerged, such as variations in lived expe-
rience that affected trust in scientific institutions and scientific recommendations.
This, along with the circulation of misleading statements with no basis in scientific
principles, created an environment ripe for misinformation—a second threat.

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