Science is Political.

Science is political” is a tough statement for a lot of scientists to swallow. As people who are very concerned with truth, accuracy, and evidential standards, many of us find comfort in the idea that science is apolitical – that it represents fundamental truths about the world that can’t be swayed to political side-taking and embellishment. Politics affect the messy social world, but science is about stripping away bias and emotion, right? If science says it’s so, then the politics don’t matter.

But let’s break this down. Is it true that science is simply a neutral repository of knowledge? And is it true that knowledge is divorced from culture, political currents, and ideology? Maybe it’s worth considering just what is science, precisely. “Science” can be understood in different ways: either as the enterprise or institution of science, and science as the production and organization of the collective knowledge of a society. [1]

The enterprise of science – which currently includes universities, governmental institutes, and corporations – is certainly political! These institutions are shaped by financial incentives (Who pays us? What can we sell?) and internal hierarchies (Who runs this place? What do they want?). The interests of these institutions are to make money, and making money determines how the people doing the work are treated, and what science they’re allowed to do. “Is it grant-worthy?” and “Can we patent this?” are not so different questions than “How can we turn a profit?” and “How can we pay our technicians, staff, graduate workers, and postdoctoral fellows less?” When we say “science is political,” this is part of what we mean – the institutions of science are political entities.

However, though the stance that science is apolitical often implies that the enterprise of science is apolitical, what it also communicates is an abstract ideal of science as an impartial arbiter of truth. But as scientific workers, we understand that any single study or experiment, or even dominant lines of thought in a field, are subject to shift and change as more evidence is acquired. [2]

This is not to say that science is not a powerful tool for understanding the natural world, but rather understanding that science is just that – a tool. Science is not the discovery of truths by great thinkers, but rather a social endeavor of knowledge production and organization. It is not something an individual can do alone, but rather is a process engaged with by a community with a set of scientific norms [3]. Science here is something social – and the social is political. 

The community of science is not immune to social and political forces, and the way we do science as a community shapes the knowledge that we produce. Therefore, not only is our science fundamentally shaped by social and political influences, but our science has social and political ramifications in and of itself. If we think that science is an unbiased repository of truth, we will be unable to understand the ways that knowledge is something we construct to the best of our ability, but which is shaped by the context of the society we build it in. Think, for example, of the mainstream acceptance of eugenics in the 20th century, and how that can be related to ideologies of white supremacy and ableism, or the use of IQ tests in psychology to legitimate apartheid [4]. Consider as well the prevalence of addiction research in neuroscience, and how the emphasis on and form of it can be understood in the context of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration [5]. Our scientific knowledge shapes and is shaped by our understanding of things like gender and race, and likewise has immense power to frame our standards and beliefs about what is normal and abnormal, what is a difference or a pathology, what kind of knowledge is considered scientific, and what is even known about or studied as a science.

And likewise, knowledge doesn’t just affect belief and stay there. Rather, knowledge has applications: it has the ability to make ideologies seem natural and incontestable, and allow for technologies to be created and used. For instance, does our knowledge preferentially generate social technologies (such as the Haudenosaunee social technologies which later were incorporated in part into the U.S-ian notion of democracy), clean energy, or renewable agriculture? Or does it seem like maybe, all the money is in tools of surveillance and weapons of war? And when we do generate these technologies, are they free for everyone to use? Or, like pharmaceuticals and crops, are useful technologies IP-protected and kept for profit?

Ultimately, science has many political dimensions, both in how it is done and what it does – and maybe those questions aren’t as separable as one might think. As scientific workers, we have a responsibility to understand the political dimensions of our science, and be able to analyze it in terms of structure and content. We are aided in this way by our training in science, which we can use to think of science as a material endeavor – not something above, or separate from society, but something which is fundamentally a part of it.

Moreover, knowing that science isn’t perfect doesn’t have to lead to tragic disillusionment. Once we stop seeing science as infallible, we can finally engage with it fully. Treating science as a social technology in and of itself, we can stop shutting ourselves away and finally understand, fix, and correct the problems with the way we do it – and move towards more accurate, more intentional science that can be of and for the people it serves.

[1] Bogdanov, A. (1918). (F. Tompsett, Trans.) Science and the working class.Retrieved 14 June 2021 from https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Science_and_the_Working_Class

[2] Molteni, M. (2021). The 60-year old scientific screwup that helped covid kill. Wired. Retrieved 17 June 2021. https://www.wired.com/story/the-teeny-tiny-scientific-screwup-that-helped-covid-kill/

[3] Longino, Helen, “The Social Dimensions of Scientific Knowledge”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/scientific-knowledge-social/

[4] Colman, A. (1972). Psychology in the legitimation of apartheid. ‘Science for the People’ 4(3), p. 7 – 10. Retrieved 17 June 2021. https://archive.scienceforthepeople.org/vol-4/v4n3/psychology-in-the-legitimation-of-apartheid/ 

[5] Hart, C. L. (2020). Exaggerating harmful drug effects on the brain is killing Black people. Neuron 107, 1-4.

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