Are OA Politics Anti-Science?

OA politics — and the model that results — may work against science benefiting society

Science helps society when specialists and experts use strong evidence-based consensus to create policies, regulations, and laws that help as many people as possible.

We don’t have lead in gasoline or paints anymore because science showed us the harm, regulators accepted these findings, and laws and rules were changed. We pasteurize our milk, chlorinate our water, vaccinate our children (and ourselves), and refrigerate eggs, meat, and dairy in retail outlets because science showed us the benefits vastly outweighed any risks, and beat the previous status quo hands down.

Such science-driven social policies were largely embraced in the past, when illness was all around, food and water risky, and children dying at shocking rates. It wasn’t perfect, but it was strongly positive, with only a few notable problems.

Science proved itself with the Salk polio vaccine, antibiotics, and more marvels, and the processes that produced those were incrementally improved and remained productive for decades.

But libertarian political leanings — both textbook and tangential — have begun to erode the harmonious partnership between the evidence-based authority of science and the willingness within society to accept the results.

We don’t even accept a well-regulated information space for science anymore, with some — inadvertently or purposely — embracing libertarian politics to such a degree that we even argue about what constitutes a fact.

OA and open science converge around the libertarian notion that each individual should be on their own. In the OA world, libertarian politics boils down to giving everyone access to scientific information of all kinds so they can “decide for themselves,” while resentments around “unpaid reviewers,” “gatekeepers,” and “having to buy back our own work” resound with the same anti-community sentiments that a few years ago demonized taxation and shared communal efforts with slogans like “I built it” — a right-wing mindset which ignored how roads, schools, first-responders, safe foods, and clean air and water were always there for them.

The idea of “democratizing” is one we hear from both OA advocates and anti-science groups. Both groups misuse the term to fit a predetermined and strangely complementary narrative, as David Gorski wrote in 2022, worrying about the attacks on gatekeepers being levied from various quarters (another familiar libertarian-tinted refrain also found in the OA camp):

. . . democratization has been weaponized by ideologues to oppose science-based policies against the pandemic. It’s not just the pandemic, either. A similar dynamic is at work in climate science, evolution, “integrative medicine,” and the war against women’s reproductive health and the rights of LGBTQIA individuals, which science is misrepresented and misused to justify.

Ideas like “health freedom” and “personal autonomy” have thwarted vaccination efforts and other public health interventions. People and groups identifying with and funding these ideas are known for participating in the January 6th insurrection, which led to a comparison about our own related insurrection along ideological lines. In this context, efforts that appear to seek freedom actually support those already in power and drift us toward authoritarianism. (Oddly, those celebrating “personal autonomy” also worked tirelessly to deny women the right to choose when to terminate a pregnancy.)

As a writer in the Guardian noted some years ago in an article entitled, “Libertarian ideology is the natural enemy of science”:

[Climate change denialism and attacks on scientific authority] . . . stem from a clash between ideology and evidence. The ruthlessly individualist philosophy fetishised by the modern disciplines of Ayn Rand conveniently ignores the fact that humans do not exist in a vacuum, and that individual actions often have consequences for all.

When science loses authority, raw power gains ground.