Opinion: Science denialism is dangerous. But so is science imperialism.

Calls for strict science-based decision making on complex issues like GMOs and geoengineering can shortchange consideration of ethics and social impacts.

Ensia
Ensia
Aug 22, 2018 · 5 min read
Illustration by Sean Quinn

ByPhilip Loring for Ensia | @ensiamedia | @ConserveChange

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” — Jeff Goldblum as Ian Malcom in “Jurassic Park.”

In this struggle to ensure that science is not pushed out from its well-earned place in our polity by those with political or economic motivations to do so, there is a risk of coming on too strong. Indeed, some scientists and science advocates are responding to those who question or deny scientific advice with what can only be described as a haughty imperialism that embodies a mistaken assumption that social problems can or should be solved by science alone.

A growing cohort of science celebrities, such as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, prolific science communicator Bill Nye and climatologist Michael Mann, have mobilized in defense of science, leveraging their reputations to weigh in on many of the world’s trickiest policy debates. Tyson, for example, narrated the controversial genetically modified organism (GMO) advocacy film Food Evolution. He also argued that Earth needs a “Rationalia”: a society where policy is based solely on “the weight of evidence.”

It is not just high-profile figures who are rightly arguing for a more science-based approach to decision making. “Thinking like a scientist” and “evidence-based” decision making are frequently discussed in academic circles, and “knowledge mobilization” has emerged as a required component of research grants. The implication is that scientists have a mandate to figure out how to mobilize the knowledge that their research generates, in people’s behaviors and societies’ policy-making processes.

Robust — But Not Perfect

Knowledge mobilization is no doubt an essential social responsibility. Still, the many challenges that face our societies involve questions that science and scientists, alone, cannot answer. Western science — by which I refer to the observation- and hypothesis-based practices for generating knowledge about the world, as well as the societal edifices (e.g., universities) that enable and promote this endeavor — is a robust institution. It is efficient and reliable, and it plays important roles in society. But it is not perfect; science can be wrong or incomplete, and it is far more influenced by social circumstances and cultural myths than many of those within the walls of academia wish to admit. It is also frequently racist, sexist and colonial (see also here). Science is just one of many useful, but necessarily imperfect, ways of seeing the world, one that misses at least as much as it reveals.

Consider the issue of GMOs. Both Nye and Tyson, neither of whom is a plant biologist or medical researcher, put their names behind the notion that there is a consensus on their safety.

There is indeed a strong body of evidence that certain existing GMO foods are safe. But the scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs is exaggerated. There arguably can’t ever be such a consensus, because the GMO category is so broad with respect to the many kinds of technologies that it encompasses. Sharing broad decrees on the safety of GMOs, which at best is a weak inference based on existing science, is reckless. What’s more, it also ignores an extensive body of social science research on the negative societal impacts of GMOs, including for farmers’ security and sovereignty.

Elevated Questions

If we want to build a thriving society that makes the most of science, then questions about power, inequity and values, which often barely make the list of research priorities, need to be elevated.

All science- and technology-based solutions are necessarily embedded within social and political contexts. We need to be open to asking many questions: How will this policy or technology change how people relate with the natural world? With each other? Will it change how power is distributed? Will it influence who wins and who loses? Will it disrupt or replace inequitable aspects of society, such as racism, sexism and poverty, or will it reinforce and reproduce the systems by which a few people come to be the “haves” and the rest become the “have nots”? Finally, whose perspectives and knowledges ought to be involved in these discussions?

Indigenous ways of knowing, fisher and farmer knowledge, and religion and spirituality all offer important, yet diverse, views, values and information.

I want to be clear: Western science must be a central component of how we make decisions and social policies for a sustainable and just future. A mountain of evidence shows that climate change is real, caused by humans and an existential threat. We should act accordingly. Likewise, the evidence is clearthat vaccines are safe. Again, we should act accordingly.

Still, it is essential to have inclusive and earnest social deliberations about how to best address climate change, and whether to adopt specific technologies for medicine, food production or anything else.

It is also essential that these conversations consider how these technologies affect people’s lives, rights and values.

And it is essential that scientists be a bit humbler about how much we can, and should, lean on the best available science for making difficult societal decisions.

ensia.com | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn

Originally published at ensia.com on July 5, 2018.

Editor’s note: The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of Ensia. We present ​them to further discussion around important topics. ​We encourage you to respond with a comment below, following our commenting guidelines, which can be found on this page. ​In addition, you might consider​ ​submitting a Voices piece of your own. See Ensia’s Contact page for submission guidelines.

Ensia

Ensia is a solutions-focused nonprofit media outlet…

Ensia

Written by

Ensia

Ensia is a solutions-focused nonprofit media outlet reporting on our changing planet.

Ensia

Ensia

Ensia is a solutions-focused nonprofit media outlet reporting on our changing planet.

Ensia

Written by

Ensia

Ensia is a solutions-focused nonprofit media outlet reporting on our changing planet.

Ensia

Ensia

Ensia is a solutions-focused nonprofit media outlet reporting on our changing planet.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store