Trust Me, I’m A Scientist

Scientific American published a fascinating article today in which they grade the four presidential candidates “on science” by crowdsourcing feedback on the candidates’ answers to twenty questions to their many bedoctorated readers. There is a lot to say here.

First, the results! They conclude that when it comes to “science,” the candidates can be ranked as follows: Hillary Clinton, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, Donald Trump. If you think that the readers of Scientific American would have compiled a different candidate hierarchy before reading their responses, I have a used car to sell you.

The point is not that the graders were reading their pre-existing political biases into their analysis of the candidates’ remarks on “science.” Rather, the point is that pretending that “science” is some area uniquely carved off from normal “politics,” where people with PhDs in biology can hold forth with unsoiled objectivity on the merits of the candidates’ points of view, is absurd.

As the scope of the questions — ranging from “innovation” to climate change to “the global economy” — suggests, there is not a single political question that can be discussed without reference to science and technology. And therefore it is impossible to talk about science and technology without also talking about the broader sociopolitical networks into which they have been assembled.

This is not a bad thing. Of course Scientific American posed questions that were inherently political: those are the questions people care about! The problem comes when the classification of certain questions as scientific masks the politics involved and restricts access to decision-making and debate.

Witness, for instance, Scientific American‘s dismissal of Jill Stein’s call for science policy that is “more responsive” to the “preferences and needs of average citizens.” They write that this “raises some concern because it could be a recipe for allowing anti-scientific beliefs to influence science policy.” The subtle tautology of this evaluation is remarkable: the scientists that Scientific American sets up as the ultimate authorities on questions of science policy conclude that scientists in fact ought to be the ultimate authorities on questions of science policy!

The article was thus logically fated from its conception to be, more than anything, an exercise in determining the candidates’ adherence to the liberal-technocratic paradigm for which “pro-science” often serves as shorthand (hence why one could have easily predicted how the candidates would ultimately rank without actually reading any of their answers).

So the democratization of science policy is rejected out of hand, even though it is wealthy, educated elites and not ordinary voters who are driving the Republican Party’s opposition to climate action. Stein’s preference for renewable energy over nuclear power is castigated by referencing “cost” and “political feasibility” even though these are highly debatable assertions. Comprehensive climate action will indeed be politically difficult. That is precisely why it is important for people who care about addressing climate change to admit that their agenda is a political project. We’ve tried to have science speak for itself on climate change. That strategy has unequivocally failed.

I’m voting for Clinton, not Jill Stein, even though my own views are far to the left of Clinton’s. I’m not afraid to admit that I am making a political choice, not simply voting the way “science” tells me I ought to. That kind of hatred of politics, that desire to wipe out messiness and disagreement in favor of someone speaking the authoritative truth, is what has actually driven many people to Stein, and, I think, to Donald Trump as well. I know firsthand that scientists wrestle with uncertainty, negotiation, strategy, and complexity more frequently than just about anyone. It is crucial for them to embrace those aspects of their experience in public.


The Dakota Access Pipeline: Two Lessons

In a major victory for the Native protestors who have been putting their time, energy, and bodies on the line this past week to oppose construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, the Obama administration announced this afternoon that the US government would temporarily halt work on the pipeline project.

This case is important for a variety of reasons, but first and foremost for the striking way that it challenges us to think about “human rights” and “environmental” issues as two sides of the same coin. After all, this one issue could be framed both ways: as a act of institutional violence against indigenous communities and as a massive engineering project designed to facilitate fossil fuel extraction. The point is that it is both at the same time. Because humans are inextricably embedded in their environmental surroundings, the way that we treat humans also affects non-humans and vice versa.

What does that mean for environmental politics? This is the second lesson of the #NODAP movement: environmentalists interested in decarbonizing American society need to make alliances with and amplify the voices of the real human beings (often already marginalized) that fossil fuel extraction hurts, and focus on challenging the powerful forces at the top of the carbonized economy rather than attempting to convince fossil fuel executives and conservative politicians that climate action is actually in their best interest. Because this is the unfortunate truth: serious action on climate change will come at the expense of the free-market society that conservatives hold dear. It will have a real cost in money and power for the kinds of people who are trying to use the DAP to improve access to crude oil and don’t care who gets in their way.

Today’s victory shows that it’s possible to achieve success with the confrontational, agonistic politics that this situation requires. Bottom-up action works, people! “Realism” and “pragmatism” are far too often held to be synonymous with moderation and capitulation. Environmentalists need to disabuse themselves of that notion ASAP.

N.B. The DAP issue is not permanently resolved with this decision. Keep the momentum up: donate to the legal relief fund for arrested protestors and keep the pressure up on the administration to turn this temporary hold into long-lasting policy change.



Science and politics: two recent mistakes

One common theme in science studies is that the traditional distinction between facts and values (or “is” and “ought,” or science and politics) ought to be abandoned. On the one hand, there is no such thing as “value-free” science; supposedly “extra-scientific” factors influence the course of science at every step from initial funding to final publication of results. On the other hand, pronouncements about values are never a “view from nowhere,” but instead are made by embodied actors living within and thinking about the world that the sciences also aim to describe.

Two items caught my eye in the New York Times this week that illustrate the potential pitfalls of clinging too closely to this dichotomy.

First, Ushma D. Upadhyay issues a clarion call for “abortion laws based on science.” What a perfect example of the technocratic dream: all we need to put one of the most contentious contemporary social debates to rest once and for all is an appropriate regimen of scientific studies. Where politics has failed, resulting in irrational anti-abortion legislation, science will succeed.

But, of course, this is pure fantasy. The distinction between clear-headed, rational science and muddled, irrational politics is a convenient fiction. Empirical evidence that restrictions on medicated abortion harm women’s health is undoubtedly useful, but it only matters once it is situated within a broader network of concerns that has already agreed upon “women’s health” as the salient criterion for deciding abortion policy. That value is not external to the scientific facts in question but rather constitutive. If there was an unshakable socio-political consensus that abortion is murder and thus ought to be banned ipso facto, Upadhyay’s PLOS Medicine study would likely never have even been conceived, much less shepherded all the way to publication. The transformation of a set of goings-on in the world into an actual scientific fact required a value judgment.

We do not have laws that restrict abortion access in the name of women’s health because conservative lawmakers are genuinely mistaken about the likely ramifications of those laws on women’s health. We have them because those lawmakers want to restriction abortion access and are willing to deploy any rhetorical strategy that they think will bring them closer to that goal. All the science in the world about the disastrous consequences of anti-abortion laws for women’s health will only make a difference — will only begin to function socially like “knowledge” — when pro-choice campaigners have found a way to ensure that the abortion debate is had on their terms.

In other news, New Journalism eminatus Tom Wolfe has a new book out that illustrates what can go wrong with conceptual models that have no room for unruly science, science that muddles the clear boundaries with which we like to try to circumscribe it.

Wolfe’s contention in The Kingdom of Speech is that the power of speech proves the ridiculousness of the Darwinian account of evolution. He is especially scornful of Noam Chomsky and his thesis that humans are all born with an innate biological capacity to use language consistent with the rules of a “universal grammar.” Plenty of other people have done the work of demolishing Wolfe on a content level, so I won’t rehash their arguments here. Instead, I just want to remark briefly on why Wolfe thought this screed was worth writing.

First, Wolfe seems to have an intuitive-aesthetic displeasure with the theory of evolution. Evolution looks to him like “a messy guess – baggy, boggy, soggy and leaking all over the place,” and thus nowhere near deserving of its preeminent place in intellectual culture. Second, Wolfe’s distaste of Chomsky in particular stems from his conviction that Chomsky almost singlehandedly unleashed a new generation of science professors overstepping their bounds to weigh in (usually from the left) on politics.

These objections seem quite distinct but they really come from the same image of science, the mirror image of Upadhyay’s technocracy but built on the same view of science and politics as easily separable enterprises. Wolfe is repulsed by “messy” science, the sort that “leaks all over the place,” especially into the political realm. Similarly, Upadhyay also wants to confine the sciences to their own neat boxes, where they can come up with pure facts to guide lawmaking in lieu of the process of political debate. Both of these visions bear no relation to the way that the sciences work in practice.

Science is always messy; if it is inappropriate to describe it as “leaking” that is only because it is inappropriate to suggest that there is ever a period (before the leaking) when scientific knowledge can gestate in isolation from the outside political world. It is certainly easier to pretend to live in a world without that messiness, where on the one hand Tom Wolfe can insist that scientists have no right to tell him that his own personal beliefs are mistaken and on the other hand Ushma Upadhyay can imagine that we are one research program away from securing reproductive justice. But it is also irresponsible.