Illustration: Katy Lemay


Politically Incorrect

How partisanship thwarts science-based programs.

As we anxiously await an end to the pandemic, public-health officials continue to battle another dangerous threat: misinformation.

Simply put, "some people are following their political leaders rather than scientists," said Mo Jones-Jang, assistant professor in the Department of Communication at BC. That wouldn’t be a problem if political leaders and scientists agreed—but too often during the pandemic, they have not. From mask-wearing to restrictions on gatherings, Americans’ perception of—and compliance with— COVID-19 mitigation measures has largely been divided along party lines. Now, that division could derail the vaccination efforts that scientists say are needed to put the pandemic behind us. In a new Pew Research Center poll, just 56 percent of Republicans said they would definitely or probably get a vaccine, or that they already had received at least one dose, as compared to 83 percent of Democrats.

Why do so many Americans trust politicians more than actual scientists? Jones-Jang’s research aims to answer that question. This "politicization of science," as Jones-Jang calls the phenomenon, is hardly limited to fallout from the pandemic. He has diagnosed it in everything from the perceived harmfulness of e-cigarettes to the climate change debate.

Jones-Jang has conducted experiments that reveal the politicization process in real time. For one recent study published in Health Communication, he created several versions of a fictional news article, some citing scientists who confirmed or denied the claim that vaccines cause autism, others citing former president Donald Trump making those same claims. He randomly assigned different versions of the article to study subjects, and then asked them what they thought about the supposed link. Republican participants were more likely to be swayed by Trump’s opinion, regardless of what position was ascribed to Trump in the article. Democrats and Independents, meanwhile, were more likely to be influenced by scientific opinions. "This research has become highly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic," Jones-Jang said. "If some people refuse vaccination due to their political orientation, that poses a significant threat to vaccine programs. To reach herd immunity, collective efforts are necessary."

Jones-Jang hopes this work will highlight the need for more direct lines of communication between scientists and the public—such as social media campaigns and press conferences— to remove the partisan filter whenever possible. And while it’s unlikely that politicians will stay mum about hot-button issues, Jones-Jang wants them to understand that injecting personal opinions that contradict the scientific consensus can have dire consequences. "Many people do not have ability or motivation to evaluate the scientific evidence themselves, so they tend to follow whatever cues are available," he said. "Politicians should be really careful when they speak about important health or science issues." ◽

More from the Lab

Negotiation gender gap
A gender gap in negotiation emerges as early as age 8, according to new research from Boston College’s Cooperation Lab published in Psychological Science. In the study of 240 boys and girls between ages 4 and 9, “we found that—consistent with adult work—girls asked for less than boys when negotiating with a man,” said Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Katherine McAuliffe.

Village Indigobird

Bird genome project
Evolutionary biologist Jeffrey DaCosta has long been fascinated with brood parasites: birds that abandon their eggs in the nests of other species, leaving them to be raised by foster parents. Now, the BC professor has helped to sequence the genomes of two such birds, the brown-headed cowbird and the village indigobird, for the Bird 10,000 Genomes Project.

Air pollution woes in India
Not only does air pollution in India have a devastating human toll—killing 1.67 million people in the country in 2019—it also has an economic impact. In a Lancet Planetary Health report, the Global Observatory on Pollution and Health at Boston College and public-health researchers from India estimate that all of those premature deaths resulted in $36.8 billion in lost economic output.