For the last week or so, I’ve been reading, and re-reading, an article called perspective: It’s not a war on science. The reason I’ve been doing this is because I noticed that a number of people seemed to regard it as an excellent article, and I’m trying to work out why. It’s not that I disagree with it specifically, it’s that I’m just not sure why it seems to be regarded as so good. I’ve also been – at times – rather dismissive of the sociology of science, and I’m wondering if maybe I’m missing something (which is entirely possible) and I thought I would use this article to try and see if I can work out if I am missing something and, if so, what it is (I’m hoping that my more informed commenters might help).
The article is very US-centric, but the basic presmise is essentially that
[w]hat appears to be a war on science by the current Congress and president is, in fact, no such thing. Fundamentally, it is a war on government.
I’m not entirely sure I quite see the distinction. I don’t think anyone regards the war on science as being driven simply by an intrinsic objection to the science; it’s because of what the science implies. So, why does that it is motivated by an objection to the government somehow make it not a war on science?
The article then says
To be more specific, it is a war on a form of government with which science has become deeply aligned and allied over the past century.
I realise that a great deal of research is now publicly funded, but I suspect many researchers would argue that this doesn’t imply that their research is somehow deeply aligned and allied with their governments. However, that governments utilise knowledge is not really a huge surprise. I’m not quite sure what the alternative is; be less well-informed so as to prevent governments from becoming too powerful?
The rest of the article is really just various ways in which science has influenced society, and seems to present an unduly negative perspective. Science has produced many benefits for society, even if some have benefitted more than others and even if, in retrospect, we would have done many things differently. We don’t have a control, so we can’t really say if the net effect of scientific knowledge is positive or negative; we can only really try to learn from what we regard as past mistakes and try not to make them again.
It was, however, the final two paragraphs that I had the biggest issues with (Victor, I think, also has some issues with this, so would be good if he could expand on his views).
Science is not some magic force for progress and democracy. It is a powerful agent of global social and environmental change. Our choices are stark and not entirely happy. We can continue to place the full burden of supporting social values on government, further centralizing power to regulate technology, industry, and society. Alternatively, we can reject the claims that modern technological enterprises are “too big to fail” and seek to dismantle them.
There is one other path. Much as we have sought over the past two decades to put sustainability at the heart of technology, business, and policy innovation, now is the time to do the same for social responsibility, and to redouble our efforts in support of both objectives. Science, business, and government have together made the modern world what it is. All three must step up to ensure that future societies are worth inhabiting—and they must do so in concert with global publics. None of the three can any longer pretend that they stand outside politics. Democracy depends on it. So does the future our children will inherit.
What is this actually suggesting? How do we dismantle modern technological enterprises? How do science, business, and government step up to ensure that future societies are worth inhabiting? I’m not even necessarily disagreeing with these as goals (the future societies are worth inhabiting especially) but I don’t know how this is meant to happen? Is it meant to happen within our current framework? If so, that would seem to require either convincing current governments to do what would be deemed necessary, or electing those that will do so. If not, then how is these goals meant to be ensured without violating important norms of democracy?
To be clear, I do think that science plays a big role in our societies, and that there are things we could do to try to ensure that scientific knowledge is used in a way that is optimally beneficial (however we might define that). I’m all for people getting involved in advocating for what they think would make society better, but I don’t really see how science, or scientists, have some special mandate to ensure this. However, as I said at the beginning, maybe I’m just not understanding what is really being presented here. If anyone has a better idea of what is being suggested (and aren’t put off by what has become a rather long and convoluted/confused post) feel free to elaborate in the comments.