Scientific evidence should inform politicized debates

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Sandy Schaffer

Over the years, readers have on occasion written to me to point out what they see as an increasing politicization of Science News. These are not accolades — more than one of those readers has contemplated ending their subscription. Some of those critics deny climate change, some oppose GMOs, others view any policy discussion in our coverage as worrisome. So, are we actually getting involved in politics?

My short answer is no. But there are many areas in which science has important things to say to citizens and policy makers. And reporting on the body of evidence that relates to societal issues falls fully within our mission, even for scientific questions with political ramifications. It’s well worth the ink to inform people about pressing problems or provide factual information in what have become hotly contested and polarizing debates.

Science can help establish what’s known, what’s not known and how scientists might find answers. That’s what Science News reports on, with the aim of giving readers not a political argument but a clear idea of where the evidence currently stands and what questions remain. Facts based on sound science can perhaps even provide a common ground for people of differing opinions to speak to each other rationally.

In the case of what researchers can say with respect to the efficacy of gun laws, it turns out that there are more questions than answers. The numbers on U.S. gun violence are clear: In 2013, the United States had many more gun-related deaths than other nations with similar standards of living. But as Meghan Rosen investigated the state of the knowledge, it became evident that now, in the United States, it’s hard to even do the science. Researchers told her that they just don’t have the data needed to answer questions about the impacts of different gun control laws.

“I thought the evidence behind well-known gun control policies would be more clear-cut,” Rosen says. But studies of background checks, waiting periods and a 1994 assault weapons ban don’t necessarily show a corresponding reduction in gun violence. Maybe such laws don’t do what lawmakers intended, but there are also confounding factors that may dilute any conclusions, Rosen reports. The 1994 ban on assault weapons, for example, stopped only sales of new weapons and didn’t apply to those already in circulation. Most disturbing to Rosen was the blocking of scientific research by Congress, which has maneuvered to stop the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health from doing or funding work that might advocate or promote gun control laws. That has effectively reduced research into the best ways to prevent gun violence.

The science that has been done on whether U.S. gun control laws reduce gun violence has been mixed. There aren’t a lot of straightforward answers to guide policy. But in this case, science has not had a fair chance to build the foundation for an evidence-based conversation. Without facts, it really is all political. Our aim is to find and report on those facts (or the lack of them), so that they can become part of the conversation.

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