Sunday, January 27, 2013

Should science be apolitical?

Read the other day in the magazine the Atlantic: “The danger of making science political”, by Puneet Opal, medical doctor and professor of neurology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Opal reflects on the relation between science and politics; he observes that, in the US, science is associated with the Democrat party, and he asks the question: why is it so?

Opal’s article is echoing another piece published recently in Nature, “Science must be seen to bridge the political divide”, by Daniel Sarewitz, from the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University. Sarewitz complains about a very US-centered situation, that is, the fact that most American scientists seem to side with the Democrats against the Republicans. He takes as an example the letter written by many Nobel laureates in support of Obama’s reelection in 2012. This bias, Sarewitz claims, is a bad thing for science. He writes:

“To prevent science from continuing its worrying slide towards politicization, here’s a New Year’s resolution for scientists, especially in the United States: gain the confidence of people and politicians across the political spectrum by demonstrating that science is bipartisan.”

This, according to Sarewitz, is the way to go if we want to secure funding by the politicians. I find it strange that, at the same time, Sarewitz criticizes science’s politicization (to the left), and offers as a remedy a very political trick (showcasing bipartisanship to tame the lawmakers). 

For Opal, the danger of politicization is greater than the loss of fundraising. The danger is to undermine the role of science! He stresses the risk of subjugating science to an ideology, and to illustrate this risk he brings in the infamous episode of lysenkoism in the USSR. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the agronomist Lysenko, backed by the Soviet government, denied the reality of Mendelian genetics and promoted a more Marx-compatible science, michurinism, which in essence declared the inheritance of acquired traits. Lysenko was put in charge of all agricultural research by the Soviet party, with catastrophic repercussions on the advance of biology in the USSR… (A great account of this story can be read in Jean Rostand’s “Science fausse et fausses sciences”.) 

Opal, as I understand him, says that science should be kept away from political ambiguity. He writes:

“We in democracies should make every effort to promote the objectivity of scientists so they can seek and communicate the best approximation of truth in the natural world, using their training and resources. […] Political choices can be made after the evidence is presented, but the evidence should stand for what it is. If the evidence itself is rejected by politicians -- as is currently going on -- then the ignorance of the political class should indeed be exposed, and all threats resisted. This should be the case regardless of where across the political spectrum the ignorance is coming from. This might seem to be a diatribe against conservatives. But really this criticism is aimed at all unscientific thinking.”

I endorse this. Science serves to produce knowledge, and this knowledge can inform us about our political decisions—not the other way round. Opal also writes:

“In other words, threats to scientific thinking can come from any quarter. What must be preserved is the pursuit of science away from irrational dogma. In that sense scientists should be completely nonpartisan.”

I agree with what Opal writes, although I have to say I have difficulties to see what exactly his response to Sarewitz is (is bipartisan equivalent to nonpartisan?). I also find the debate muddled by the indiscriminate use of the words “science” and “scientists” in these articles. The word “science” itself can mean different things, for instance the pursuit of science in order to gain knowledge or science as a social endeavor (the two somewhat overlap, since we don’t do science in the void, but I think it’s useful to make a distinction). In their article, Opal and Sarewitz use these terms (“science”, “scientists”) mostly as synonyms. But depending on how you define them, the meaning of what they say is changed. 

So, should science be apolitical? Yes, absolutely, if we are talking about science as a discipline (the pursuit of science). To mention again the Lysenko affair, there is no such thing as a Marxist science, because an ideology-driven science cannot work. It simply isn’t science anymore. But from this it does not follow that scientists have to be apolitical. Scientists are, well, human beings, and everyone has a political opinion. Even not expressing one’s opinion is a way of agreeing with the status quo. To sum up what I think: The pursuit of science must be apolitical, but the scientists cannot be and it is not desirable that they be. 

Opal concludes, in his article, with something that corresponds to my feeling:

“As citizens, those of us who care about science should encourage policies that promote education to increase the number of scientifically literate people. This includes supporting our currently embattled public research universities, and federal research agencies that fund science education. Slowly this will increase the numbers of a scientifically literate populace.”

I heartily agree, but this is, of course, a highly political stance. So Opal warns us against the politicization of science, and at the same time he defends a vision of science as an essential part of a government’s effort. In my opinion, this escapes contradiction only if one narrowly defines what is meant by science in both instances.  

I think that scientists’ involvement in public affairs is a great thing. Think of the Russell-Einstein manifesto! Probably what we need today is more scientific voices in politics, not less. The US situation seems pretty unique and, as far as I can tell, results from the decisions and policies of one party (when you elect representatives who believe that the Earth is 6,000 years old, you know that something is going awfully wrong.) 


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