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.

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