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News Flash: Science Has Always Been Political

Adam ShapiroFeb 21, 2017

Click to Enlarge ImageBack during the 2009 debates over healthcare reform, a story came out about a constituent telling his Republican Congressman to “keep your government hands off my Medicare.” As an April March for Science on Washington looms closer and larger, repeated calls to “keep politics out of science” express a similar kind of misunderstanding. Just as many Americans enjoy the benefits of Medicare, Medicaid, and the ACA (which is the same thing as “Obamacare”) without recognizing their government’s role in it, some very vocal scientists—even some of the March’s organizers—seem unaware of the political history of their profession, or they assume that the politics is a sideshow that can be separated from the business of uncovering the truths of nature. Even one organizer of the march tried to make this distinction, calling it “a protest, but…not a political protest.”

It may be true that gravitational waves don’t really care who won the last election, but the ability to discover these ripples in the fabric of reality is inseparable from the social, economic, and political circumstances within which scientists work. Scientists might rightly be worried that belief in science itself has become a partisan marker of political identity in the United States, but pretending that science stands in a position of detached neutrality is a tactic that no longer works (if ever it did.) The history of science—and the history of science and technology studies—reveals why.

Interactions between science and politics are not new. Questions about who could be a part of a scientific community and what kind of knowledge they could obtain were a matter of political control from the very beginning. The London-based Royal Society, established in 1660, initially restricted its membership to economically independent men, under the pretext that anyone else would lack the mental or moral capacity to set aside their self-interest and fairly observe the results of experiments. At the same time, these upper-class white men celebrated their ability to set aside politics by admitting members from a variety of Christian backgrounds. In the aftermath of a bloody English Civil War drawn along religious lines, this admittance was seen at the time as inclusive, tolerant, diverse, and a way to ensure that natural knowledge was not adapted to the whims of a partisan faction. The early members of the Royal Society and their overlapping political, scientific, and metaphysical views were the subjects of one of the most influential texts in the history of science, Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s 1985 book, Leviathan and the Air Pump.

Over 350 years later, some scientists still imagine their own purity, that quiet consensus within their own circles means that science is apolitical. One of the primary issues raised about the science march has been about the need for an inclusive vision of who scientists are, and a recognition that advocacy for scientific research and discovery must intersect with advocacy for people of color, people with disabilities, people of many genders and sexual preferences, and others who lack privileges that facilitate scientific success. Put simply, for science to flourish, we must call for both an end to political censorship of scientific ideas and create educational, social, and professional environments that live up to the ideal that everyone has equal access to practicing science.

The history and social studies of science have long shown that this ideal has never been realized. Increasingly, voices within the scientific community are speaking out on these issues, including the widespread problem of sexual harassment in the lab, field, or classroom; disparities in educational and economic opportunities that deter people from pursuing a STEM career or leave them ill-equipped to compete for one; poor accessibility for people with disabilities; or a lack of well-recognized role models who show that science is accessible to all, regardless of race, gender, or other forms of group identity.

Few scientists would say that greater diversity and accessibility in science are bad things. The NSF has programs dedicated to “broadening participation.” But racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of systemic inequality are not always evident to its perpetrators. And there are many scientists—often who are already in positions of privilege and prestige—who see diversity and intersectionality as secondary concerns, separate from science itself. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, for example, called these “distractions.” Twitter is rife with science-purist concern trolling, claiming that Marching for Science will “politicize” it and harden opposition to hot-button issues such as climate change research and evolution education. Criticism of the March’s original diversity statement (which did not just recognize the existence of diversity within science, but highlighted the benefit of diversity to the practice of science itself) led to a toned-down, more generic expression of “unity principles” that stated, “Scientists and people who care about science are an intersectional group, embodying a diverse range of race, sexual orientation, (a)gender identity, ability, religion, socioeconomic, and immigration statuses.”

The science-purity position argues that if Newton’s laws are true and right, his ideas are an objective truth that has nothing to do with his sexuality, race, nationality, or religion. But this position (mostly advocated by people in positions of privilege afforded to them by race, gender, language background, or other identities) often conflates positions of political privilege for political neutrality. The very idea of objectivity—what it is and why it is a scientific virtue—is a concept with a long and complicated history and that includes the creation of political spaces for scientific communities and the exclusion of groups of people through the claim that they could not participate in objective rationality. The claim that politicizing science is something new also overlooks advocacy by figures in the history of science or casts the work of white male scientists Robert Oppenheimer and Linus Pauling as apolitical. It imagines that ethical disasters such as eugenic sterilization, scientific racism, and using the imprimatur and prestige of science to justify sexual inequality and oppression are disconnected from the pure scientific facts themselves. That many opponents of “politicizing” science see it as something new says less about what science is and more about what these science-purists believe to be “political” and what is not.

From a historical perspective, imagining science as apolitical is itself a kind of political argument, advanced by scientists for the purpose of claiming a privileged virtuous position that makes them beyond the rebuke of ordinary political attacks. This perspective is why one of the most effective arguments made by climate-change opponents has been the impugnment of climate scientists’ impartiality, rather than the presentation of counterexamples of disputed interpretations of evidence. For science-purists such as Pinker, who see themselves as defending science from an external attack, advocates for equality and intersectionality in science may be better than being a “denier,” but once one opens the lid to science being political, one has no moral high ground from which to distinguish oneself. The science march may be united in opposing “antiscience” abuses by the new administration, and it has attracted the interest of more than 100,000 people, but two camps are quickly coalescing: those who believe science is objective and those who know objectivity is social.

This division is all very familiar to the scholar of science and society; this debate has developed between scientists and the field of science studies for a quarter century. The field of history and sociology of science provoked a major backlash from some scientists in the late 1980s and 1990s with the influence of social theories of scientific knowledge that saw scientists as members of a human community, whose claims to knowledge, authority, and respect were shaped by social norms. In the view of scholars promoting the “sociology of scientific knowledge,” (SSK) these social realities play a much larger role in the emergence of new discoveries and theories than the ultimate irrefutable truth out there in the natural world. Scientists ridiculing this “postmodern” approach to the history and social studies of science claimed that such work was meaningless—that without understanding that science reflected and discovered an objective reality that is independent of social politics, the field could not comprehend what science does. These debates (and a few highly controversial “hoax articles”) prompted a rupture between scientists and the field of science studies called the “Science Wars.”

On the one hand, the Science Wars are a debate over whether science is some nonpolitical discovery of absolute truth, or as Shapin says in a subtitle of his recent book, whether we should study “science as it was produced by people with bodies, situated in time, space, culture, and society, and struggling for credibility and authority.” On another level, the Science Wars are less about what science really is and more about the competition between the sciences and the humanities over funding, academic prestige and space, recruitment of students, and cultural influence. (Even SSK can be subject to an SSK-type analysis.)

A generation later, it appears that some of the key critiques made by science studies are being used within the scientific community itself. The critiques that science isn’t “pure,” seen by some scientists as an effort to undermine their authority, has been embraced by others as a way to make scientific spaces more inclusive and aware. The history of science also shows how acknowledging the inescapable political nature of science need not compromise scientific integrity. If scientists see themselves as fighting a battle against ignorance and denial, they should know that those movements also have a history. The argument for Science Marchers should not be to keep your government hands off of science; instead it should be that science and objectivity can have a complex political history, and that the discovery of facts can have a cultural and social basis—and “alternative facts” can still be lies.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of American Scientist or its publisher, Sigma Xi.

This post is published in Macroscope

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