Does science have anything worthwhile to say to the public? Should it even aspire to relevance outside of narrow disciplinary communities? And if so, how should we conceptualize the contributions that it is capable of making to public deliberation, or civic life more generally? Today I want to look at a few interesting recent articles that have posed some variant on these questions, the bread and butter of historians of science and other science studies scholars.
First is a piece in the Intercept by Kate Aronoff about climate change “half-measures.” As her title suggests, she argues that the politics of half-measures — faith in a technological deus ex machina like geoengineering, assertions that corporate benevolence or market-based innovation will lead to spontaneous decarbonization, and so on — amounts to “denial by a different name.” And a particularly insidious kind of denialism at that, because its proponents are free to boast about accepting the scientific consensus on climate change, despite the fact that their positive policy vision is almost indistinguishable from that of the more bite-the-bullet denialists.
I think this argument is completely correct. It’s a point that’s been made before: Naomi Oreskes ruffled some feathers a couple years ago by using the denialist label to characterize some of the more extreme rhetoric about nuclear energy, and Aronoff’s case is clearly indebted to influential work on the relationship between climate change and neoliberal politics by Philip Mirowski (whom she cites) and Naomi Klein (whom she does not). Still, Aronoff assembles the pieces of the puzzle with admirable clarity. With even ExxonMobil patting itself on the back for acknowledging the existence of the greenhouse effect, and Scott Pruitt, now the denialist-in-chief, equivocating on his stance on climate science at his confirmation hearings, it is more crucial than ever for climate activists to move beyond simply insisting that “climate change is real.”
But Aronoff doesn’t just denounce half-measures. She also targets activists whose rhetoric makes “it seem like climate change is a primarily scientific issue, rather than an economic, political, or moral one.” In an age of renascent populism, she claims, activists should galvanize action by talking up the economic benefits of robust climate policy for people who currently feel dependent on the fossil fuel industry for their livelihoods – green jobs, wealth redistribution, and so on. If conservatives actually use the rhetoric of denialism only instrumentally — gleefully changing their stance on “the science” depending on audience or context or what argument they’re trying to make — then perhaps the idea that climate change is “really” a scientific issue is, after all, a “red herring.”
Here is where I think some difficulties start to crop up. Taking a step back, it isn’t entirely clear what it means to say that climate change is or isn’t a “scientific issue,” or more specifically why thinking about climate change “scientifically” ought to imply political moderation at all. Aronoff herself, after all, is implicitly relying on a lot of science in her criticism of climate moderates who cast their position as “scientific.” She clearly believes that as a matter of fact, the market-based techno-fix approach will not be capable of achieving the emissions reductions necessary to avert catastrophic climate change. That is a (social and natural) scientific claim!
The problem here lies with the phrase “rather than”: scientific rather than political, economic, etc. Aronoff’s critique seems to simply invert this formulation rather than challenging its premise: that a social issue is apolitical to precisely the extent that scientific knowledge can be brought to bear on it, or put the other way, that scientific knowledge is irrelevant or even threatening to the processes of collective contestation and deliberation that surround genuinely political issues.
But Aronoff’s own analysis of climate change shows the limitations of this view. She supplies us, implicitly or explicitly, with answers to an instrumental question (what kind of social action would be required to prevent a specific climate nightmare scenario?); a normative-political question (what kind of social action ought we to take collectively in general?); a different instrumental question (how should climate activists communicate in order to bring about their desired program for social change?); and a descriptive-historical question (how profound has the commitment to “denialism” of key right-wing socio-political actors actually been?). To argue about whether an issue that raises a set of questions this rich and diverse is scientific “or” political seems quite useless to me.
All of these questions are distinct but complementary. That is to say, the answer to any one doesn’t determine the answer to any other, but none suffices on its own to give a complete analysis of “the climate issue.” It is impossible to think rationally about what we ought to do about climate change while remaining agnostic about what the real-world consequences of various courses of social action will be. But the inquiry that can help clarify those consequences does not emerge spontaneously. It requires deliberate effort: initiative formed within a specific horizon of conviction about what matters.
One comparison that might be useful for some readers is to the feminist political philosopher Nancy Fraser’s multidimensional theory of justice. Fraser claims that justice requires a commitment to what she calls “recognition,” the ability of all people to participate as peers in social interaction, and “redistribution,” the egalitarian provision of economic resources necessary to satisfy material needs (more recently she has added “representation,” the ability of all people to participate in political decision-making that concerns them, as well). Any political vision that addresses patterns of exclusion and marginalization without challenging structures of economic exploitation, or vice versa, is incomplete: in my phrasing, the two (or three) tasks are distinct but complementary.
This complementarity is due in no small part to the dialectical relationship in which recognition and redistribution stand. Social marginalization is often caused by patterns of economic maldistribution, but such patterns are often themselves parasitic on misrecognition: witness the historical dependence of American capitalism on free labor extracted from black people on cotton plantations and from women in middle-class households. We can accurately understand this dialectical process, however, only by distinguishing between misrecognition and maldistribution in the first place. Otherwise, for instance, we will think that the empowerment of women will necessarily dismantle capitalism, or that universalist programs for wealth redistribution will be sufficient to end American racism.
Now we can go back to science and politics: I want to claim that a similar dialectical relationship exists here, a relationship that we can also understand only if we are willing to draw a conceptual distinction between the two. In the scientific realm, by describing natural and social structures, we characterize the consequences of imagined programs of political action or inaction, orienting our practices with reference to consciously chosen political commitments. In the political realm, we reason together on the ends that we think justice compels us to pursue throughout society (including in scientific institutions), and we organize collectively to fight for programs of action that our best scientific knowledge tells us can bring about those ends. When this process functions productively, the social process is effectively guided toward the fulfillment of higher-order collective goals: what one might be so bold as to call “democracy.” When it is malfunctioning, we get the disarray, for instance, of contemporary climate politics, as illustrated (intentionally and unintentionally) by Aronoff’s analysis.
As Fraser insists, the practice of distinction-drawing doesn’t need to wind up creating hierarchies. It can also be an aid to critical reflection. Indeed, in the climate case, conceiving of science and politics as distinct but complementary domains, each with their own dignity and rationality but embedded in a dialectical relationship, helps short-circuit disputes about which category ought to be “on top,” disputes produced by thinking about them as competing claimants to the same “territory.” We can insist that such disputes are wrong: that to panic about “politicized” climate science (as if science ought to have nothing of relevance to say on “political” issues) on the one hand, or to suggest that criticism of nuclear power or geoengineering is “anti-scientific” (as if showing the existence of a particular technological capacity was sufficient to show the goodness of its unlimited usage in any social circumstance) on the other hand, is in both cases to fundamentally mistake the nature of science and politics. (And we can start to see technocracy and antiscience as two sides of the same coin.) We can move, as Marx put it, from describing the world to changing it: from arguing about whether climate change is scientific or political to acknowledging the magnitude of the collective choice that science has placed before us, a choice that it cannot make for us, but which we cannot escape from making.
Andreas Malm makes a similar argument in his new book, The Progress Of This Storm, about the distinction between nature and society. Making the appropriate substitutions, everything said above about the distinct but complementary, dialectically related nature of science and politics (and the usefulness of thinking about these categories this way) can be said of nature and society too. Natural structures brought about and continue to nurture the existence of human beings, who are capable of forming societies with their own internal relations not reducible to “deeper” natural processes. Human societies in turn reshape nature through processes of resource extraction and utilization necessary to satisfy metabolic needs. When this relationship is functioning productively, human societies can pursue higher-order, autonomously chosen projects without jeopardizing the underlying processes that sustain life: what one might be so bold as to call “sustainability.” When this relationship is malfunctioning, we get the disarray, for instance, of anthropogenic climate change.
Conceiving of nature and society this way helps us critique intellectual and political visions that efface or subordinate one or the other. We can say that it is fundamentally misguided to argue, as such strange ideological bedfellows as “sociobiologists” and the “new” or “vital materialists” are wont to do, that the role of human agency in producing social outcomes (like the nightmare of fossil capitalism) is small or nonexistent compared to the influence or “agency” of nature. And we can say that it is just as misguided to argue, as the free-market environmentalist Stewart Brand once famously put it, that “we are as gods,” and should not doubt the possibility of human ingenuity to attain whatever ends we set our minds to without having to consider the natural structures that may block our way. (And we can start to see naturalistic reductionism and techno-optimism as two sides of the same politically complacent coin.) We can move again from describing the world to changing it: to identifying precisely what about our world we have made, and therefore what precisely we can remake.
The distinction between nature and society as domains of reality doesn’t map on one-to-one to the distinction between science and politics as domains of human thought and activity. There are natural and social sciences alike, and the number of issues where political reflection can get away with thinking about society but not nature is not large. Still, it’s not surprising that the climate crisis underscores the salience of both distinctions. Both are different paths of approach into the distinction between the real and the rational, perhaps the most important distinction to draw in the midst of what the novelist Amitav Ghosh calls the Great Derangement. Now more than ever we need ways of putting our taken-for-granted practices into question, of insisting that a better world is not just possible but necessary.
I used to like the language of “coproduction,” developed by science studies scholars like Sheila Jasanoff and Bruno Latour, as a way to understand the relationship between science and politics. Now, for a variety of reasons that I’ve spelled out at much greater length elsewhere, I find that work less compelling. And I think this theme — the need to draw certain kinds of distinctions in order to critique social reality — is perhaps the most important cause for concern. Very briefly, “coproductionist” scholars envision “science” and “politics” (as well as “nature” and “society”) as competing discursive labels for the same underlying “stuff.” They take their task to be to describe the way that those categories get “stabilized” as the outcome of a game-like process of interaction between agents. There is no such thing as science or politics or nature or society as such; there are only things that come to be taken, at particular times and places, as scientific or political or natural or social.
This body of work blurs distinctions with gleeful abandon in theory: between science and politics, nature and society, discourse and material reality. But it is not always easy to know what to do with these theoretical moves in practice. Latour, in fact, has been explicit in his rejection of “critique.” In his book Reassembling the Social he inverts Marx: “Social scientists have transformed the world in various ways; the point, however, is to interpret it.” But such an ascetic refusal of normative judgments is easier said than done. When coproductionist scholars do make critical interventions despite themselves, they usually fit somewhere in the technocracy/antiscience or agency-minimizing pessimism/techno-optimism binaries sketched above. And they aren’t shy about picking up both ends of the stick. Latour, while warning about the threat of science working to prematurely shut down political deliberation, has simultaneously written for the Breakthrough Institute, a techno-optimist think tank inspired by the work of Stewart Brand.
This incoherence is the predictable consequence of a worldview that regards any confident invocation of the “scientific” or “political” (always in scare quotes) as a power grab in different garb, as a strategic move in a game (regular readers may notice some resonance with James Buchanan’s public choice theory, described in my last post). The only real sin is to attempt to short-circuit the endless social process that makes and unmakes claims to scientificity or sociality or whatever. And the only virtue is “openness” or “inclusion,” the expansion of restricted debates (particularly in science) to encompass as many perspectives and contributions as possible, no matter their source. To diffuse the threat of illegitimately arrogated authority conjured up by the labels of science and politics, each must be tamed — and made indistinguishable from one another in the process — by ensuring that every side of every argument must be taken into account at every point in time: and if that means that no consensus emerges, that no decisions of any real import are made, so be it (or all the better).
The slippery consequences of “open science” in practice are illustrated by another recent article, a piece in The Atlantic by James Somers titled “The Scientific Paper Is Obsolete.” That headline is a bit misleading, because the substance of the piece provides both less and more than it promises. Less, because Somers doesn’t provide any real argument against the journal article as such. More, because his real purpose turns out to be a defense of a specific vision for the entire scientific enterprise, above and beyond publishing.
Somers observes, accurately, a “computational” turn in a wide range of scientific disciplines. Computational science means, as the name suggests, the use of computer technology to pursue a particular approach to scientific problem solving that emphasizes simulation, the development of algorithms for handling complex computations, and the use of large data sets that not so long ago were less feasible to process. Somers makes two additional observations that I think are also correct: that the format of the traditional journal article is ill-suited for reporting on the practice of computational science, and that the computational turn has helped to bring science into increasingly close contact with private industry.
The problem is that, deprived of any normative framework for assessing scientific practice, Somers has no choice but to conclude that this is what science is now, that colonization of every scientific discipline (including the social sciences – of which more anon), the death of the scientific journal, and the exodus of scientists from universities into corporations are done-deal developments: the task is adaptation, not critique. (Notice any similarities to climate change politics?)
Somers draws heavily on the work of one of computational science’s most influential proselytizers, Stephen Wolfram — and his faith does seem to waver when he acknowledges that all of Wolfram’s evangelism does double duty as an advertisement for his own proprietary software system, the state of the art in scientific computation. But Somers’ conscience is salved by his discovery that Wolfram’s monopoly is not total, and an “open-source” alternative called Jupyter has recently gained traction. It is now used by ordinary-joe “musicians [and] teachers” as well as the big boys at “Google [and] Bloomberg.” Because it’s open-source, all those users can actually make modifications to improve the program, without waiting for the annoying kind of community review process enforced by obsolete journals. Thank God! Now it’s not only Ph.D. scientists who can help improve the tools tech companies use to accumulate profit: musicians and teachers can join the fun for free.
Philip Mirowski (one of the historians that Kate Aronoff cites) has shown that the function of “open-source” software as a back door to providing tech companies with free labor is, as the programmers would say, a feature, not a bug. He observes that Jimmy Wales, the founder of open-source paradigm Wikipedia, has strong right-wing libertarian views. Wales, in fact, credits the idea for Wikipedia to his reading of an essay by the neoliberal economic philosopher Friedrich Hayek called “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” In that essay Hayek has two objectives: he argues (a) that “planning” (his catch-all slur for democratic control over the economy) is a practical impossibility; because (b) “the market” is an unparalleled information processor, aggregating knowledge dispersed locally in a way that no individual or group attempting to take a “bird’s eye” view of society could ever rival. Wikipedia’s founding premise, then, is the indispensable economic significance of decentralized, minimally regulated institutions for aggregating all the knowledge that isolated individuals would otherwise keep to themselves.
The result, as Mirowski observes, is that all the uncompensated labor-hours of Wikipedia editors make search engine companies like Google billions: Wikipedia editors, by citing their sources through links to external webpages, provide Google’s optimization algorithm with a crucial aid for processing the reliability of different sites, and Google’s ability to provide a link to Wikipedia near the top of practically every search result enormously enhances its own reliability as an information source. It’s a more complex version of what we have all become hyper-attuned to with sites like Facebook and Twitter: our personal data, willfully surrendered for free, has become one of the most lucrative commodities on the planet. With Facebook there is no productive dialectic between science and politics, only a Blob-like monster growing and consuming everything in its path.
It is worth noting that the “computational” paradigm, at least when extended to the domain of the social sciences, helps to naturalize precisely this mode of economic organization. The favorite object of computational scientists is the “complex system,” one of Hayek’s own favorite concepts for characterizing his understanding of markets. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and so when computational scientists tackle societies or economies they tend to treat them like folding proteins or resonating crystal structures: reducible to the dynamic (even chaotic) interaction between individual “particles,” unaffected by history or power structures. Once again we are stuck at the level of flat description – unable to critique, predict, probe deep structures, or indeed say much of anything of political import. Somers quotes Wolfram: “Pick any field X, from archeology to zoology. There either is now a ‘computational X’ or there soon will be. And it’s widely viewed as the future of the field.” If that is true, it will be a major loss for many disciplines, and for society as a whole.
Unfortunately, the preference of many science studies scholars for flat description has restricted their ability to critique the developments that Somers identifies. And in some cases they’ve given it their explicit support. Helga Nowotny, for instance, a major figure in the European science studies community, issued precisely such an appreciation in her 2008 book Insatiable Curiosity, endorsed by other science studies luminaries such as Sheila Jasanoff. There Nowotny observed that “science increasingly counts on private and privatized means,” but argued that this development and calls for the “democratization” of science “are only seemingly opposites” (p. 22). Commodified science is also accountable science, ostensibly disciplined by consumers through the imperatives of the market. Furthermore, “research conducted by the sciences of complexity and chaos, self-organization, and networks” — computational science, in other words — can help to puncture the “illusory dream” of “susceptibility to planning” (p. 108) by redirecting attention to the uncertainties produced by the dependence of economic and social processes on “a multiplicity of subjective viewpoints and sites” (p. 118). Hayek himself could hardly have put it better.
Analysts of science — academics, but also journalists like Somers — don’t have to settle for this kind of complacency. There are alternatives. Feminist philosophy of science, for instance, has produced a host of important critical insights over the last several decades precisely by insisting on the possibility of subjecting science to normative evaluation. My account of a dialectical relationship between science and politics owes much to the work of Helen Longino, for instance. Longino has argued that when scientists don’t recognize the political horizon within which their work operates — when, in other words, they don’t subject their implicit political choices to critical scrutiny — they tend to just regurgitate the values of their surrounding societies (patriarchal as they often are) in naturalized garb. But when scientists do attain some critical distance, and make different kinds of political choices, their work can help provide a foundation for egalitarian political movements elsewhere in society.
Because, as feminists like Longino, Donna Haraway, and Sandra Harding have reminded us, scientists are not disembodied thinkers but always living and working within specific material contexts, it is also important to think about how to institutionalize such critical practice. It should go without saying that Mathematica (or Jupyter) computational notebooks are not up for the job. Old-fashioned sites of discursive communication (including the dreaded journal) may yet have a roll to play. I would also, building on what I wrote last time, argue for the importance of academic unionization and other movements that confront in a particular way the subordination of knowledge production to the accumulation of private property.
This, then, is what it really looks like to “democratize” science: not the transformation of science into a commodity, but the creation of institutions that force scientists to critically acknowledge their dialectical relationship with politics, and the rights and responsibilities that ought to come with it. It is precisely because science is so important in democratic societies, because so many pressing issues of public concern are simultaneously scientific and political, that we have to challenge the claims of those who would reduce science to a particular form of political centrism or an esoteric way of making money — to insist that science can be more, and better, than that.