Since everyone else is writing about science having always been political, I thought I would have a go too. I will admit that this episode has made me think more about this, and there are aspects that I still find unclear, so this may not be as fully thought out as I would like.
These discussions often seems to originate from historians, or philosophers, of science who – when challenged – highlight their expertise and claim that this is well accepted within their disciplines. It seems a little ironic to appeal to authority, and suggest a consensus, in a discussion that is – essentially – challenging the authority of science. Another common theme seems to be a suggestion that it would be good if scientists recognised that science has always been political. Well, this is the bit that I wanted to focus on, because I don’t think that scientists don’t recognise this, I think they simply have a different perspective.
In my experience scientists are well aware that politics dominates decisions about what research areas to prioritise. They’re well aware that societal factors, and politics, influences who gets funded. They’re well aware that politics plays a huge role in big research projects. They’re well aware that people’s opinions, and biases, influence the peer-review process. They’re well aware that how one promotes one’s work can influence how it is received. They’re well aware that building a career is a combination of luck and networking, as well as doing good research. They’re well aware that subjective judgements determine what jobs might become available. They’re well aware that research can be used to further some people’s political goals. Essentially, I think scientists are well aware of the political/societal factors that influence the scientific process.
However, I think that most scientists still believe that, despite this, the overall scientific process is remarkably good at unconvering information about whatever it is that is being studied. Science tries to minimise the influence of politics by testing scientific ideas through collecting more data, making more observations, and developing better analysis methods and models. We also try to minimise it by not relying on individual people, or groups. Scientists also try, if possible, to consider multiple line of evidence; coherence, consilience, and consensus as Eli is wont to say. Of course, deciding if we’ve reached a position of coherence, consilience, and consensus still requires some judgement, but it is still a judgement that is weighted by the evidence, more than by opinion.
However, I’m not suggesting that science is some kind of perfect process in which we never go down dead ends, mis-interpret our results, or let our biases guide what we conclude. As this post by Philip Moriarty highlights, the day-to-day process of science can be very messy and the reality often doesn’t match the descriptions provided by many who comment on science. This doesn’t, however, mean that it still isn’t remarkably successful at developing our understanding of the world around us.
So, my overall point is those involved in the scientific process are well aware of the various political, and societal, factors that influence the practice of doing science. However, the reason they don’t immediately accept statements along the lines of all science is political is that it doesn’t really tell us how these factors actually influence our understanding, and it misrepresents the fundamental ability of the scientific process to uncover the nature of reality.