Five Myths about Science, Politics, and Social Movements

By Kelly Moore

1. If only political activists would stay out of science, scientific ideas could be used to make the right political decisions.  

Whether conceived of as a field of action, as an institution, or as a component of elite power, science is not, and has never been since its formation in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, separate from questions of power.  Who pays for science, how nature should be manipulated, who can participate in it, what counts as fact, and what questions are worth asking are shaped by political relationships.  Africans and women, for example, were excluded from its ranks for centuries, and biological ideas about these groups’ inferiority were built into science as a result.  These very same ideas are still used today to explain women’s underrepresentation in science.

That some scientific ideas are powerful and work well for many, if not most people does not mean that all claims best represent the natural world’s workings.  Scientific claims are provisional statements about the world, assumed to be true until falsified by scientists—and sometimes with the participation of activists—who uncover evidence or logic that persuades scientists that particular claims need to be rethought.  What ends up being counted as “politics” and as “science,” therefore, can be the end result of social movement politics.

So when should we worry about the intersection of science and politics? When claimants seek to shut down scientific or political logics—by turning science into a matter of “what works for me or my group”— which obscures the fact that scientific claims can have moral implications.

Creationists have been wildly successful getting school boards to treat evolution and creationism as equals.  I don’t want creationists to stay out of the debate, any more than I want women with cancer to keep their views about environmental causation out of scientific or political debates. Instead, I want understandings of science as a social process that gives us some falsifiable, but often nearly irrefutable, evidence to be more widely understood, and for more people, not fewer, to debate ideas.  Including sociological ideas.

2.  Scientists, including social scientists, should expect special protections and treatment when they participate in social movements or when they do politically sensitive research. 

Backed by oil companies and conservative think tanks, a small group of scientists without expertise in climate science went after climate scientists in order to discredit not only their claims, but also their entire scientific careers. One popularly circulated lesson from this episode is that scientists should not participate in public political debates about such hotly contested issues.  Here’s another perspective:  ferret out, as Naomi Oreskes did in Merchants of Doubt, who is doing the tarring and feathering, and counter them with political mobilizations and scientific knowledge.  After all, the era of climate change denial seems to be over. Why? A new administration not beholden to the climate deniers was elected, and groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists and researchers like Oreskes have exposed the connections between fundings, findings, and rhetorical strategies.

Some scientists have always and will always stay out of public political debates.  But some have built political projects into their work, seeking scientific methods to resolve problems.  Let’s encourage that, not tell them to hide from participating in social movements, and let’s also participate in hashing out what’s political, what’s scientific, and who wins and who loses in any given contest.

3.   Because science is transhistorical, intersections of science and social movements should be understood in terms of general covering laws and principles.

Not so.  Science as a system of ideas and practices has been conceptualized and used in very different ways by revolutionary and reformist movements.

In African countries and in Brazil in the 1950s and 1960s, calls for independence included calls for developing and taking advantage of indigenous knowledges about agriculture and medicine. Such popularization served the interests of countries attempting to throw off the yolk of colonialism.

Yet such populism is often roundly criticized by activists in other circumstances.  The common sense realism of fundamentalists who do not “believe in” evolution is but one example. New partnerships between toxics scientists and cancer survivors on the other hand, are often touted by the left as the “right” sort of populist engagement with science.

4.  Contested, heated contentious politics about scientific claims undermine respect for science and threaten democracy. 

As is typical in any kind of political contestation, activists can come to have a “seat at the table” of politics (and science), as Steven Epstein has argued occurred in the case of the AIDs movement.  This incorporation is double-edged. Activists who have organized to challenge government and corporate standards for the safety of toxics—using “bucket brigades,” “community monitoring,” and lawsuits—are now working with scientists on ongoing projects. We see this in many other areas of science, too, including the enthusiasm for voluntarism in field biology projects such as bird monitoring.  In Germany, scientists and citizens work together to create “public experiments” where they do not simply test theories, but plan to be surprised at their findings.

What is powerful about these partnerships is that they can leverage the special knowledge that people have by virtue of their experience and informal knowledge—or even more advanced knowledge—to generate scientific claims that are valuable for all parties.  Social movement activists who start by challenging science can end up working with scientists in mutually beneficial ways.

Yet such partnerships in social movements can be risky, particularly for groups who are underrepresented in the sciences and in terms of political representation. Contention can force results that might not be forthcoming via partnerships or other means.

Alondra Nelson’s research on the Black Panther Party and its challenges to biomedical science’s treatment of Black Americans is but one example; feminist health movements and anti-toxics movements to protect farmworkers have recently had successes. The modernization (or post modernization?) of knowledge politics that links new partners can be a powerful catalyst for change, but its routinization can also defang the power of citizens, especially those who are well outside the halls of scientific, economic, and political power.

5.  Scientific claims can definitively settle political struggles.

The expectation that fact can trump political interests is a remnant of Enlightenment idealism. Scientific ideas and standards can black-box moral and political claims in ways that exclude the participation of publics. And these same standards can stabilize ideas that promote democracy and the wellbeing of people and the planet.

Activists ranging from anti-GMO activists in Mexico, to participants in the environmental cancer movement in the U.S, to gay rights activists who have challenged the legality of “treatments” to turn homosexuals into heterosexuals have taken aim at standards and safety rulings.  And in turn, they have celebrated when improved standards are put in their place.

Yet even when these standards are re-established, they don’t always end political debate forever.  What they do, like laws, is to make a temporary set of alliances and exclusions that may, or may not, be challenged over time.

But if one set of inputs into political debates is scientific claims—the ability of scientists (including social scientists) to pursue research that may not support contemporary power relations—we should be concerned about the privatization of universities. The neoliberal move toward universities as knowledge factories, including the intense pressure for profitable, patentable, and grant-worthy research, limits what kind of scientific research gets produced.  Research from nonprofits makes up a very small component of all scientific research around the world.  The privatization of knowledge means that activists who are not themselves scientists or able to produce scientific claims may have more difficulty finding critical scientist allies and critical scientific claims.  As in the seventeenth century, what questions are asked, by whom, and for what purposes continue to be critical questions that shape how and why science works better for some groups than for others.

What’s happening now that might shift all the claims I’ve made above?

DIY scientific research by conservationists and other activists, using funds from Kickstarter and other sources are generating new knowledges made by trained scientists without university or NGO bases.

Through self-experimentation projects, many in the Bay Area are creating knowledge pools whose standards are “what works for people” rather than what tests scientific theory.

Contestations over toxics, health, sexuality, and environmental degradation continue to generate scientist-citizen alliances, and struggles over whose questions, whose standards, and whose answers will sway the actions of corporations, governments and citizens. As climate, economy and population collide, these contestations will only grow. Don’t look to science to provide the answers, but rather, to provide a set of inputs.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Politics of Science

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