Some Thoughts on the Science March

In the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle cautions the reader: "The inquiry [into the political art of knowing what is good for men and cities]," he says, "would be adequately made if it should attain the clarity that accords with the subject matter. For one should not seek out precision in all arguments alike, just as one should not do so in the products of craftsmanship either. The noble and the just things, which the political art examines, admit of much dispute and variability, such that they are held to exist by law alone and not by nature" (1094b10). 

Scientists are planning to march on Washington this year on Earth Day. Why, and for what, seems to be a matter of some dispute. Jonathan Berman, who played a key role in generating the march, initially claimed that the protest is "not political." He wants to send the message that politicians should "listen to evidence." There has been a leftist response to this denatured view of the protest: "Science is political and always has been...The idea of objectivity in western intellectual traditions is problematic for many reasons, but one of the main crumbling pillars is: research will never be free of personal biases or reflect universal truths.  And to think there are universal truths perpetuates a particular kind of able bodied white cisgender male logic, a world where everything is measured in comparison to them as the ideal type of human that everyone else aberrates from." The process of reconciling varying visions of the project has apparently led to four revisions of the movement's diversity statement. The latest revision sheepishly acknowledges that "It was a mistake to ever imply that the March for Science is apolitical — while this march is explicitly non-partisan, it is political...[because] Politics and science are intertwined."

Both positions outlined above are, I think, deficient. I cannot pretend to have read everything that has been written about either; doubtless I am repeating what some others have said better. But here are some thoughts.

Leftist Critique

The leftist critique seems to go something like this: Individuals both hold biases and operate within particular contexts, contexts which are shaped by institutions and power relations that constrain the judgment and actions of individuals. The practice and the results of science, then, will necessarily reflect both individual biases and the biases of the society in which science is practiced: "...we have to interrogate the social, political, economic contexts of knowledge production and how it has been used as a justifying rationale to legitimate genocide, chattel enslavement, displacement, and dispossession over the course of modern history.  You are practicing science on stolen Indigenous land and a science built and funded by chattel enslavement of African peoples.  The science you practice has a long legacy of experimentation, torture, sterilization, and genocide." The social and political context may lead both to abuses of power in the practice of scientific inquiry as well as to absences in the body of accumulating scientific knowledge due to a lack of resourcing and representation. "We make the scientific community and the scientific community determines what constitutes science and science’s priorities at any given time."

  • This does not strike me as a persuasive critique of "science," although it may be a persuasive critique of "Science." Wikipedia has the former as "a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe," which seems as good a definition as any. Let's call "Science" the body of knowledge as it exists in our present moment. There is a kind of fetishization of the existing corpus of Scientific knowledge that misunderstands the underlying enterprise. When people say things like "Science says ___" they're usually making unitary and static something that fundamentally is not (and that is subject to all the maladies of individual judgment and circumstance identified by the leftist critique).
  • But science is a process. Consider Weber in "Science as a Vocation": "Contrast [art] with the realm of science, where we all know that what we have achieved will be obsolete in ten, twenty, or fifty years. That is the fate, indeed, that is the very meaning of scientific work. It is subject to and dedicated to this meaning in quite a specific sense, in contrast to every other element of culture of which the same might be said in general. Every scientific "fulfillment" gives birth to new "questions" and cries out to be surpassed and rendered obsolete...In principle this progress is infinite" (11). This understanding of little "s" science, the continual and progressive rationalization of the world, may lead to a number of undesirable consequences, from Weber's "disenchantment of the world," to closing off alternate ontologies
  • Nonetheless, pointing out episodes in the history of science that have involved violence is not a strong objection to the underlying practice of the application of reason to understanding the world around us in this systematic way, unless the scientific process intrinsically makes those abuses more likely (instead of, as discussed above, being a reflection of underlying social conditions and biases). Among the reasons we can point to episodes in the history of science that were (or are) particularly cruel and offensive (e.g. the "science of eugenics") is that the continued exercise of the scientific process has demonstrated the invalidity of those prior practices. 
  • It is absurd (and ahistorical) to claim that "to think there are universal truths perpetuates a particular kind of able bodied white cisgender male logic, a world where everything is measured in comparison to them as the ideal type of human that everyone else aberrates from." Treating scientific reasoning as a particularly or uniquely Western mode of thought obscures the history of scientific advancement, in which Muslim and Persian scientists played an enormous role, to say nothing of the ongoing absurdity of anachronistically considering Ancient Greek thinkers "white." 

Scientific Neutrality

The above is only responsive to one part of the concern, but to address the second -- i.e. that science cannot or should not be "neutral" -- it might be useful to bring in the nebulous, second position, initially articulated by Berman, but accentuated by critics of the march. In NPR: "A march for science itself is just simply a march for the mechanisms that find truth. And who is going to pay attention to that?" These critics generally, it seems, support "evidence based policy" (who could oppose that), but worry that a politicized march will infect  either the perception or actual practice of "objective" science. 

  • What kinds of concerns does "science" speak to? Or, to put it more pointedly: what is the scientific basis for claiming that politicians should "listen to evidence?" Presumably that doing so would lead to better policy outcomes. But better how? There must -- lurking somewhere -- be some conception of the public interest, and what values shape the public interest. The March for Science neglects to explore that question, because doing so would fracture the broad coalition it is trying to build. Instead, what it is aiming for seems to be -- to steal language from Rawls -- a "freestanding" conception of the basic interests of scientific inquiry broadly. 
  • But this is pretty unsatisfying. Lurking behind the desire for "evidence based policy," we might suspect, is a much more robust vision of what policy outcomes should be sought. When scientists gather and yearn for politicians to acknowledge the facts about global warming, they do not (I don't think) wish for those politicians to accept the extant scientific literature, and then decide that our best course is to maximize the well-being of those currently living by ramping up fossil fuel energy production in the developing world and relaxing regulations on fuel economy in the West. But noting the fact that CO2 emissions lead to a warming world tells us nothing about what to do about it. Leo Strauss, in "What is Political Philosophy," puts it this way in the context of social science: 

Generally speaking, it is impossible to understand thought or action or work without evaluating it. If we are unable to evaluate adequately, as we very frequently are, we have not yet succeeded in understanding adequately. The value judgments which are forbidden to enter through the front door of political science, sociology or economics, enter these disciplines through the back door; they come from that annex of present-day social science which is called psychopathology. Social scientists see themselves compelled to speak of unbalanced, neurotic, maladjusted people. But these value judgments are distinguished from those used by the great historians, not by greater clarity or certainty, but merely by their poverty: a slick operator is as well adjusted as, he may be better adjusted than, a good man or a good citizen. Finally, we must not overlook the invisible value judgments which are concealed from undiscerning eyes but nevertheless most powerfully present in allegedly purely descriptive concepts. For example, when social scientists distinguish between democratic and authoritarian habits or types of human beings, what they call "authoritarian" is in all cases known to me a caricature of everything of which they, as good democrats of a certain kind, disapprove (21).

  • Political and moral questions are harder than empirical questions concerning the natural world, because the subject matter -- how it is right for people to behave and treat each other given human interdependence, or who our friends and enemies are, or who gets what how -- admit of different answers, and may vary depending upon context. They are not "settled," and do not look like they will be settled anytime soon. But they cannot be avoided by ignoring them, and to the extent that scientists wish to have "evidence based policy" without engaging with those questions, they will fail (they might fail anyway, but one would hope that scientists would at least like to be clear on why they believe the things they do). 
  • In this sense, then, the "scientific neutrality" critics are right: there's not much political content to "marching for science," and insofar as the march becomes political, it won't be scientific. More to the good. Grappling with political questions -- how to apply what we know about the world in making policy -- is what's worth fighting over anyway.