Science is Political: The Need for a Collective Response #ScienceMarch

Over recent years I’ve been dismayed at how polarized our societies and countries are becoming, even more so post-election. I’m dismayed because the more polarized mind-sets become, the less people are capable of rational discussions that avoid the most common pitfalls that prevent dialogue and action capable of motivating change. One of those pitfalls is blaming others.

The reasons blaming people is problematic are two-fold: (a) when we blame others, we also justify their practice of blaming. This habitual tendency is the practice by which we eventually also are forced to blame ourselves and suffer the consequences; (b) blaming a person or group of people in the attempt to address social problems closes minds so that the flawed nature of faulty systems can’t be rationally challenged even with facts.

It is undeniable, however, that all of us at times engage in speech and actions that are wrong, feeling justified by rationalizations based on our positionality in the complex systems we inhabit. The greater the power, the greater the potential for injury. Those with power have a greater responsibility to listen and respond.

Trump and the GOP, unfortunately, are very effective at closing minds and conversations. The fascist authoritarian government being installed is one in which people are discouraged from questioning because questioning may negatively effect their survival or the survival of the institutions they rely on. The threat is real, as Sally Yates’ recent experience demonstrated. However, the implied ‘safety’ of ‘doing your job’ without the ability to question is a delusion that leaves us, our lives, and our institutions hollowed out as these systems take more victims.

Neither closing minds, closing conversations, nor closing borders of our countries will be effective solutions to current economic and climate crises, and the resulting racial and religious tensions. The problems resulting from capitalism, institutional failings, and the climate crisis are COLLECTIVELY OURS regardless of individual attempts to escape responsibility through religious, institutional, and partisan affiliations. It is in this way I’d like to understand those that claim that science and, by extension, the Science March scheduled for Earth Day, April 22nd, is apolitical and non-partisan.

Yet to deny science is political is emblematic of narrow bandwidth thinking by which science and technology have contributed to the problems at hand. To deny science is political is to fail to recognize the extent to which science, the lives of scientists, and the lives affected by science are embedded in political, economic and social systems. To deny science is political is an attempt, to not only evade responsibility for the misuse of scientific results, but also to renounce control of recognition of those findings, what kinds of science might be pursued in the future, and how scientific findings will be used.

Our societies and ways of being are systems that indoctrinate us into “bandwidths” of thought, logic and emotion that are definitely too narrow for the complexity of the problems the world faces in our present day — an observation just as true for science as any other endeavor. When we are enmeshed in complex systems and cultures, and we nearly always are, it is easier not to see the ways capitalism, politics, religions, racism and sexism exert control. These interlocking systems affect mindsets, aims, design and critique of science, scientists and the scientific method.

The closest science can get to objectivity is by acquiring a diversity of input, recognizing the value of already existing contributions of minorities and women, and by including and increasing training in humanities and ethics — goals science, to date, has fallen short of. The tensions caused geo- and demo-graphically are often overlooked in favor of ‘modern’ western views. The science policy of the current administration threatens to make these shortfalls worse, not better.

To truly commit to objectivity, science and scientists must grow in their awareness of the egregious harms that have resulted from the misuse of science and technology and, as often as not, by the very scientists professing objectivity while embedded in complex systems whose processes shape their behavior and scientific pursuit and passion. Scientists must acknowledge that the narrowness of focus typically demanded by the scientific process today has precluded a God’s eye view. Scientists must acknowledge that many of the problems scientists are attempting to challenge remain embedded in scientific institutions and the education and accreditation process.

The past failings of science have permitted the rise of scientists and politicians like Trump. To imagine oneself and one’s institutions above historical atrocities is to permit a repetition of atrocity in a mutated form, evolved to fit within our current time. It not enough to claim ignorance or blame others, thereby seeming to absolve oneself of blame, but responsibility is not the same as blame. It is much easier and more productive to share responsibility than to shoulder blame.

“I knew that art and science were the instruments of this desire [for understanding], and this was their sole justification, though in the Western world where I lived I had seen art debauched to ornament and science prostituted to the multiplication of gadgets.”

“she had been confined by her people’s past and present to a kind of destiny that might have stunned its victims into an inability to examine it”

— Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon