Is the Science March too political, or not political enough?

The Science March is today, bringing to a head months of debate about its merits.

On the one hand, “centrists” have tended to rail against the march for sullying the apparently hitherto pristine halls of Science with unnecessary politics. Geologist Robert Young described the march as a “terrible idea” on the grounds that it would just fuel the right-wing perception that science has become “politicized.” Similarly, psychologist Jonathan Haidt expressed tepid support for a march in the abstract, but condemned the real one on the grounds that organizers had the temerity to actually talk about science’s imbrication with salient political issues.

On the other hand, people like my Harvard colleague Andy Jewett have argued that the march is actually not political enough. As Andy writes:

Scientific input into policymaking is a good thing, and the lack of such input is alarming. But science is not inevitably and intrinsically humanitarian in its outcomes. Politically, science is deeply multivalent, comporting with a variety of interests and perspectives… Evidence-based policy is important, and science should certainly play a role in politics. Yet more and better data is hardly enough to ensure equality and justice. Societies employ science in accordance with their leading values, interests, and power structures.

It will come as no surprise that I think Andy is much closer to the mark than Jon Haidt. It is certainly crucial to move beyond the centrists’ visceral discomfort with “politicized science.” In fact, as I have written elsewhere, the ideology of a politics-free science is in fact the profoundly political ideology of the present administration — and in practice it is often an ideology of a fact-free science, preferring “Truth” in the abstract to what messy, “politicized” science actually comes up with.

But I want to add one wrinkle to the discussion, and it starts with this last observation. The entire debate — the March for Science, the “don’t politicize science” camp, and the “science is always political” camp alike — assumes a strangely Platonic, transhistorical conception of science. But “Science” is a bit of a chimera. Are we talking about the scientists themselves? Their conclusions? Their methods? Their institutions? You’re talking about a very different “politics of science” depending on which of these you have in mind.

And when you have them in mind. Andy notes that the meaning of scientific findings varies with political context. Which is, to be sure, a crucial point. Findings of lower average IQ scores among black Americans can fuel pre-existing racism and programs to naturalize social inequality, or they can prompt reflection about the limits of the IQ mechanism, psychometrics more broadly, issues of “averages” and the ability of statistical analysis to mislead, the relationship between structural racism and education in America, and so on. What is the “evidence-based conclusion”? Left-leaning defenders of the importance of “scientific” work on race and intelligence (whom I believe to be profoundly mistaken) typically only point out the second slate of interpretive possibilities, but ignore the fact that American political culture is structured in such a way to all but guarantee that it will be the former agenda that is furthered in practice.

But it’s important to move beyond just the level of scientific findings. Who is a scientist, where they do their work, and what their “scientific method” consists of are also profoundly political questions, and their answers have changed enormously throughout history. These issues are concealed by the calculus that scientific finding + political values = political outcomes. To continue to use the same example, the field of social psychology’s longtime lily-whiteness is surely implicated in the selection of race and IQ as a legitimate object of study in the first place. And as Stephen Jay Gould pointed out long ago in The Mismeasure of Man, issues of statistical models and their “reification” have gone hand in hand with the production of racist conclusions about intelligence.

Perhaps most importantly, “scientists” like Charles Murray responsible for promulgating those racist conclusions have found a platform since the early 1980s in large part thanks to the growing network of privately funded conservative think thanks that have supported their work. Jane Mayer’s excellent Dark Money provides a superb overview of this history for a popular audience; writers like Thomas Medvetz and Philip Mirowski have also tread similar territory in the academic sphere. And it’s not only race science. The same network of institutions have also supported “scientific” work with right-wing implications for climate change, financial regulation, urban policy, and more.

As a vast body of literature has documented, private funding for science from corporations and conservative philanthropists and foundations has also obstructed toxicology research and chemical regulation, pharmaceutical testing, and (thanks to the field of “litigation science”), torts seeking redress against corporate malfeasance once regulatory mechanisms have been successfully ground to a halt. Furthermore, this kind of work is no longer peripheral to science as a whole. Privately-financed research in think tanks, pharmaceutical labs, or corporate-funded “research institutes” within universities is, to a great extent, the name of the game in contemporary social and natural science.

The Science March needs to talk about this! Andy Jewett is right that it’s not enough to just say that leaders have to listen to science. But changing interpretive political “values” isn’t enough either. Those value changes have to take concrete form: by challenging the whiteness and maleness of science (something the March has consistently done, to its credit) and breaking the stranglehold of right-wing private financing on contemporary science (and, as outside analysts, paying detailed attention to how these broader, institutional-level factors are manifested at the level of scientific method).

These issues are bigger than Trump. They won’t be easy to address, because they will require scientists to bite the hand that feeds them. But in order to defend “science” as left-leaning marchers would like it to be, it is necessary to demand changes to science as it is right now, and to explicitly confront the right-wing political and financial infrastructure that stands in the way.