The Problem of Science

There’s something about this piece from The American Interest that bothers me:

The scientists who banded together to draft the letter are concerned that policymakers are indulging the temptation to score political points and ignoring the science that undergirds the debate over genetically modified organisms—because, let’s face it, the science is firmly in the corner of those in the pro-GMO camp.

I’m not here to get into a discussion of genetically modified crops or not — I covered the matter for BridgeNews for a couple of years, got fairly deep into the policy (and even the science) part of it the matter. I’m not convinced by the panic of the Frankenfood folks, but I’m not entirely convinced by the pro-GMO camp either. (Though having covered enough protests, Frankenfood is a brilliant meme.)

No, what bothers me about this is the way science is used here. If science, all by itself, can dictate both the terms of political engagement and the end results, what is the point even of having a political process to begin with? Why make choices, or even consider the possibility of choice at all, if science and scientists (and very enlightened policy makers) have already determined what course of action, and what outcome, is best? (I found this discussion at Democracy Now from Wednesday, November 29, about Ebola quarantines similarly frustrating.)

Politics is about choices, and many things inform — and even sometimes dictate — our choices. Science is, or can be, one. During my graduate program at Georgetown, I took a class on the economics of energy. It was a course dominated by the economic language of minimizing costs and maximizing both efficiency and profits. I wrote a fairly lengthy paper on nuclear power in Europe, noting that while all of the numbers may point to nuclear power being both cheaper and more efficient (though that frequently depended on how you counted subsidies and waste disposal, which was usually done by governments), peoples and governments could make whatever valid choices they wanted to, knowing that all choices have costs and benefits. At the time, Sweden was in the midst of abandoning nuclear power following the Chernobyl disaster — a choice I defended in my paper even though most of the literature I consulted on the matter (written by neoliberal economists) was highly critical.

But science should hardly be the only thing informing political choices. Science may be “in the corner of those in the pro-GMO camp.” European governments can, for legitimate or even illegitimate reasons, ignore some or all of that science and craft policies that are responsive to popular will, rather than scientific consensus. Of course there will be consequences to any choice a government or a polity makes.

In this instance, and in many others, science plays a deeply pernicious role. It is undemocratic, in that those promoting a particular understanding of science are trying to use the power of science — and the story science tells in Modernity is a very powerful story, claiming, as it does, to be The Truth that trumps all other truths, the story that tells all other stories — to force or impose a particular arrangement of the world on a people who may not want or choose that arrangement if they were truly free to do so. (Economics frequently does the same thing.) Those supporting genetically modified agriculture or agitating for action against global climate change should consider false science like Social Darwinism and eugenics — things hailed as scientific truth in their day when they became the basis for concerted state action — and reflect with a little humility. Or better, consider the horrific swath the social sciences have cut across the world as they have been used to corral, control, and dominate people.

Science, here, is used to shut down any sort of public debate or even considerations about policy. It alienates people from political processes and erodes notions of state and governmental accountability. After all, who can argue with science? “We have science, you have superstition.” (In the 19th and early 20th centuries, “We have science, you have sentimentality.”) And in a scientific age, science is supposed to win. Always.

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For the record: I am not a denier of global climate change. In the early 1990s, I spent several afternoons doing a photo essay an The Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar Research Center and got some fairly in-depth tutoring on what was then the cutting edge of climate change science — examining the makeup of air samples taken from bubbles in ice cores as old as 400,000 years. The researchers were convinced they were seeing an unprecedented build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere in the last two centuries, and I trust their work. But I simply do not believe human beings are capable of addressing the problem in any meaningful way. We aren’t good enough, or wise enough, or capable of sustained, directed, purposeful organization in a way that would preserve our humanity. We’re not a hive mind or a hive soul.