The following tweet states a fact many historians of science attest:
Scientists were not all pleased. Tweetstorms rained. One involved me and MT. He argued that the bunny slogan was unhelpful – even if true, its interpretation could be damaging to the civilization. The exchange covered various aspects of human enquiry – reality, knowledge, meaning, the usual roundabout. I fired a multitude of points in disagreement. Instead of collating them here, I can afford to explicate my position.
Let’s start in classic dissertation style. “Science has always been political” invokes two concepts: Science and Politics. Politics can be characterized as the process of making decisions that apply to members of a group. Science, minimally at least, refers to the stuff scientists do, and scientists are those we consider so. Good enough for a stoopid slogan, and unnecessary for what follows.
As an aside, I recurse the same way for philosophy – it’s what philosophers do. Hard to say more: imagine you were in Kant’s time and had to define philosophy to comprise analytic philosophy, phenomenology, critical theory, experimental philosophy, gender studies. non-Western philosophy, neurophilosophy, substructural logics, all exotic fields unheard of in Königsberg back then but common nowadays. Philosophy changed even since I studied it, including Kant’s reception. By the same token, we have no idea what Science will look like in the near future. Many dispute its unity. Better to simply see it as a disciplined extension of (and not a replacement for) our common sense.
One could argue that the slogan’s truth depends upon its intended meaning. I contend that it matters little. Getting where Audra comes from is obvious enough – she studies the great scientific expansion during the Cold War. Many historians of science confirmed her take. A plethora of examples could be provided, ranging from Archimedes to Boyle. Maxwell’s discovery does not emerge from a political vacuum, but from many connections, circumstances, and institutions favored by the heydays of Victorian hegemony.
These historical considerations do not imply that scientific production targets something other than reality. It would be absurd to believe that science always has been political means atoms are. The POMO squirrel has no bite at all. In effect, the only way I see to reject the bunny sign would be to restrict science to a bag of equations or to a ménagerie of facts without their book or zoo keepers. Choosing between a myth that excludes everything political from science and a historical truth shouldn’t be that hard.
What seems harder is to recognize the merits of embracing the politics of science. Let’s turn to strategy first. Raising concerns about science slogans is a fool’s errand. There are many academics around the world. They occupy most of the conceptual niches. Coercing circular firing squads should be left to the Contrarian Matrix. Moreover, that specific slogan could be used to “normalize” political processes that have epistemic validity: deliberations.
Which leads to this tactical point. If we want to promote the idea that science is our best tool to dig reality, we need to get real over science politics. The Pure and Noble Scientist imagery only reinforces the High Expectation Father mode for scientific practices. Ted’s hammering of how ideology subduces climate science presumes the very myth that science should be value-free. The tobacco industry used the image of scientists in whitecoats in their ad campaigns:
Those who profit the most from the myth of Pure Science are technocrats. Nothing will avoid the attacks from Freedom Fighters, including Ted’s following.
There is too much crappiness going around to lose time defending purity. If science self-corrects, then there has been, actually is, and will be mistakes. We all have biases, interests, and imperfections. Science works despite of all this. Owning the political aspect of science goes hand in hand with making scientists look more humane. It’s a good thing in the long run, and more than prudent in the short run.
Raising concerns against “Science is political” leads to the following trap: (1) one recognizes that “science is political” is a truth from history of science; (2) one refuses to acknowledge it by opportunism; (3) no INTEGRITY ™. Prefering expediency to truth may not be the best way to defend science. Whatever you say in the ClimateBall court can and will be used against you. Absolute clarity won’t save you, neither will the purest of intent.
Finally, criticizing “science is political” involves recycling the unwanted framing. Teh Donald exploits the media’s megaphones by inducing them to amplify his untruths and his brand. George Lakoff suggests that we counter that kind of crap with a truth sandwich. First, what is held as true, then the crap, followed by some fact checking. Suppose you think that science is consilience, consistency, coherence, and conciseness, as Eli is wont to say, a slogan I rather like as far as general claims on Science-with-a-big-S is concerned. This frame contrains how you’ll criticize the Science is Political slogan. So much in fact it may not even make sense to criticize it in the first place.
There always has been great political pressure to minimize AGW. The power of the economic establishment is intensive. The MSM and the think tanks of the anglosphere constantly undermine its importance. Yet AGW persists. We have an international agreement. The IPCC will release its Sixth Assessment Report. There’s still lots of AGW research. AGW endorsement increases even among conservatives. Contrarian blogs wane. Here we are, contemplating ClimateBall. Progress has been made. New technologies are hitting the market every week. And so on. There is too much work ahead to lose hope.
A more deliberative democracy would be a Good Thing. Coincidentally, there are deliberative mechanisms in science. The IPCC has some. The validation of science’s findings operates by an intersubjective process that should be similar to any other (rational) deliberation. A deliberative democracy without an open science may not be possible. Considering that the US of A might be an oligarchy, we may need to work on the democracy part in the first place. Perhaps there’s no real democracy without deliberation too.
In any event, not only science has always been political, it may need to become more political than ever. Think about it: just like women are operating a sea change in politics this year, why not wish for more scientists? Hopefully, more scientists would mean science-based policies.