Conference Notes Politics Science

On the Politicisation of Science… (FOO '06)

One talk from FOO Camp 06 started off fascinating me and end up driving me to distraction with frustration. Chris Csikszentmih√°lyi from the MIT Media Lab did a talk about the implicit politics that lies behind all technology. Initially I found this highly engaging – it reminded me a lot about the cultural studies work that I’d been involved with during my incomplete doctorate – only with a more practical bent. Specifically Emily Martin’s article The Egg and the Sperm: How Science has Constructed a Romance based on Stereotypical Male-Female roles leapt into my brain – an article that argued that scientific discourse was regularly distorted by cultural prejudices and explained how unexamined assumptions made a mockery of concepts like ‘good science’.

Csikszentmih√°lyi described his work as exploring the implicit assumptions of technological work and science – the difference between what the scientists think they’re doing and what actually happens. One of the interesting facts he revealed was that only 3%-5% of experiments in advanced science are ever reproven (ie. the experiments are successfully replicated) for a whole range of reasons. This is not because the science was wrong (necessarily) but simply because some of the experiments can only be performed using incredibly expensive equipment that might only be owned by one laboratory (CERN’s particle accelerators?) and that many of the experiments could only be replicated with the ‘tacit knowledge’ of the people who had performed the initial experiments – knowledge that often was not successfully captured in the write-ups of the experiments. He argued that, ‘scientific conflict is not resolved by individuals replicating stuff like that, it’s resolved in a remarkable social process’.

Anyway, so far so good. He then talked about tool neutrality and how where you received funding from – and the perspective from which you were viewing the research – inevitably revealed that all work was political, and that ideas like ‘tool neutrality’ (I’m making something neutral and it can be used for good or ill) and ‘technology is out of control’ were both missing the point and were completely irrelevant to the debate. That the politicised nature of science was indisputable, but did not necessarily result in anti-technological standpoints.

The parts that got difficult for me were when – accepting that there was no science that was not political – Csikszentmih√°lyi seemed to me to wander rapidly down into relativism, almost seeming to argue that there was no such thing as empirically ‘better’ or ‘worse’ science, but simply different political takes on the same field. I tried to get him to expand around this and challenged a few points that seemed to be logical extensions of this without much success at all, and left frustrated and irritated by the whole enterprise. It seems to me that the inevitable idea that science is politicised needs to be kept distinct from the quite abhorent concept that there is no qualitative difference between different theories, only perspectival ones. This seems to me to be an idea that’s seeped into the world from my old discipline to the good of precisely no one. It seems to me that there remains some way of arguing that a theory that was demonstrably disprovable was conceptually ‘worse’ than a theory that fitted the available data, and that this metric was implicated in and connected to but orthogonal to the inevitably politicised nature of the science itself. That is to say that the politicisation would inevitably exist and would always and inevitably obfuscate any model of a ‘real world’ that one might wish to posit as a useful mechanism to think against (subject to disproval, of course). But that while we accepted that, there were metrics that could often be used to measure practicality, utility, plausibility or whatever that could be a debased but functional analogue to ideas of ‘what makes good science’.

I have no sense of whether I managed to successfully challenge Chris on these theoretical issues, whether he simply did not get what I was trying to ask him or whether I was just evidencing my stupidity in public again. However, the whole thing did seem to reach a nasty point when I said that he seemed to be arguing for the death of logic itself, only for him to say that he believed in logic – as a fundamentally perspectival and human way of interpreting the world. At which point I could not help but feel he’d managed to destroy the platform on which he himself was talking – running hard into the wall between modernity and post-modernity that left feminism with no concept of a woman left to defend.

I’m still thinking around this talk, and would appreciate any insights anyone else might have on it out there in the world. From talking to many of my ex-colleagues in the humanities it seems that much of the sociological and philosophical frameworks for these kinds of the positions are being rapidly abandoned by community after community – but this is purely hearsay. Anyone got any thoughts?

13 replies on “On the Politicisation of Science… (FOO '06)”

From what you’ve said I find Csikszentmih√°lyi’s position utterly bizarre. I thought the whole point is that the scientific discipline is how you work out, rigorously, what isn’t true and what might be true. The policitical part comes in when you decide which issues are the ones that matter and, accordingly, which ones you invest effort and rigour in resolving rather than simply relying on culturally-inspired assumptions.
I’m a mathematician by training so I’m biased. But I’ve studied logic, philosophical logic and understand the boundary between that and those areas of philosophy where the logical underpinnings might be less “reliable”. But I don’t see any place for Csikszentmih√°lyi’s arguments.
If you consider the continuous spectrum of study from applied mathematics to theoretical physics, at what point does logic break downand politics take over according to Csikszentmih√°lyi?
Very odd.

The relativist challenge is corrosive and – on its own terms – unanswerable: any way of looking at things is, demonstrably, just another way of looking at things. The backstop for me is the point where you ask – as you asked Chris C. – OK, what’s my way of looking at things? I don’t think it’s either honest or coherent to say “I just happen to believe what I happen to believe” or “I’m a British left-wing white male and consequently I believe what British left-wing white males believe”; sooner or later you’ve got to say “I believe in things I believe to be true, judged by criteria I believe to be valid, on standards I believe to be adequate”. Then you can politicise to your heart’s content.

I would argue that there are elements of logic that are perspectival. These are the elements that will eventually be replaced by other, better elements that are non-perspectival when we’ve got our head around what we’re talking about.
To suggest that all of logic is entirely “perspectival and human” seems to me like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
I, like Phil above, think that relativism is all well and good, until you look around a realise that, at heart, the majority of people believe essentially the same stuff but quibble over the details. No-one’s out there trying to argue with me that the sun’s not going to come up tomorrow or that gravity’s a relative concept that might stop at any time.
Although I haven’t checked all of the US fundamentalist Christian websites where they might be arguing just that – it really wouldn’t surprise me.
I’m intrigued to see where this discussion ends up, thanks for starting it.

Ah, thanks so much for posting these notes, Tom–I’d wanted to attend that session, but didn’t.
I, too, had thought the relativist position had essentially been put to bed awhile ago by Bruno Latour, especially after Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, one of my most dog-eared and underlined and highlighted texts. Highly recommended reading on the topic of how to examine the fabrication of science as not relative, but nevertheless a social project created and maintained by human beings.

It would well be worth your while to pick up Steven Pinker’s “the blank slate” which delves into the damage that politics does/did to science, particularly with “Marxist science” of the 1970 and to a lesser degree a number of right-wing takes.
One thing he notes is the constant hypocrisy of scientist such as your sparring partner above, where they would assert one position (i.e. some variant of there’s no one discoverable truth, which they find politically convenient) but in private or in practice in their personal lives act very much as if there is a real discoverable universe that can be understood with appeals to logic.

>>It seems to me that the inevitable idea that science is politicised needs to be kept distinct from the quite abhorent concept that there is no qualitative difference between different theories, only perspectival ones.
Right on.

“I thought the whole point is that the scientific discipline is how you work out, rigorously, what isn’t true and what might be true.”
Just to comment on Paddy’s remark here – the example that sprang to my mind is the longstanding scientific feud between Gerard de Vaucouleurs and Allan Sandage over the value of the Hubble Constant. GdV’s group consistently measured a value of around 80 km/s/Mpc (young, rapidly expanding Universe); Sandage’s group produced values around 40 km/s/Mpc (older, more slowly expanding Universe). Both had valid scientific arguments to back up their value and neither agreed with the other. So we had, in the astronomy community, a debate that was as much political as it was scientific. Wikipedia has a brief summary.
I found it interesting, working on my doctorate in the early 90s, that the young Universe people would stick to their guns even after observations of the oldest stars in the Milky Way’s halo gave ages which were, apparently, older than the Universe.
I think it comes down to that phrase “what might be true.” Different groups can have different ideas of what might be true. Their arguments can go as much on personality and reputation as much as on available scientific evidence.

Science, at least most of the science that directly impacts human life, and perhaps all science, eventually has to answer to another human creative endeavor: engineering. If a scientific principle gives you control over your environment, if you depend on it for some aspect of your life, if you must build your houses and your vaccines and your food supply on it, then the relativist position breaks down. One way will help you survive and persevere, and others will not be optimal.
Of course, some science may never reach this stage, at least not in the near future. Much modern physics, and almost all cosmology, fits in this category, for example. But I wonder how far this principle can be taken?

Well, if only 3-5 percent of experiments in frontier science are repeatable, he is right that one theory is just as good as another, as there would be no real evidence for either. Any experimental result can after all be a fluke or an experimental error or something. It’s only by repeating experiments independently and getting the results your theory predicted that a theory can gain validity. (As you know Bob)

This story takes me back about ten years to my postgraduate days, when it seemed as though we were in the dog days of academic relativism. Like you, I’m surprised to hear of it out there in such naive form these days.
I always found the most meaningful responses to this kind of hardline relativism were:
1) Pointing out there own reliance on well-established but ‘inevitably politicised’ data, theories and modes of thinking. How can they make a meaningful assertion if the substrata of their argument are being called into question?
2) Not walking the walk. As a previous commenter suggested, even hardline relativists tend to behave as if their ‘radically undermined’ scientific reality is objectively there for them. As this is effectively an /ad hominem/ attack, it’s not very nice to deploy.
3) Acknowledging that this form of relativism is true, but trivially so. We don’t definitively know that we’re not all living in a simulation secretly built and deployed by Will Wright. But, given that the possibility doesn’t affect any experiments or anyone’s behaviour, that there is no conceivable experiment to prove or disprove it, and that it wouldn’t materially affect /anything/ we perceive as real if it /were/ true, we can reasonably divert our attention elsewhere and ignore it. Likewise, if politicisation is inevitable, acknowledge it and get on with the work more or less as you would have done before, because there’s nothing you can be expected to do differently. This is where relativism seriously loses against any particular political objection: it doesn’t offer a better way.
The analogue in the humanities (my field) was Derrida’s infinite play of signification (AKA differance). To grotesquely simplify, Derrida observed that any sign can point to any object or concept, so language is infinitely slippery, so any piece of text is constantly undermining itself in its attempts to corral language to its (politicised) purposes. After a while of mucking around in this field, most people seem to realise that although Derrida isn’t wrong, he’s only trivially right, and no significant results follow. Everyone gets on with writing exactly as they did before. It’s worth remembering that post-structuralists like Derrida came after practioners of ‘slippery’ writing like Joyce, not vice versa, and Joyce really did know what he wanted to say, however playfully. The fact that practice continues after radical relativism is the strongest argument that radical relativism didn’t manage to change anything significant.

Martin: “It’s only by repeating experiments independently and getting the results your theory predicted that a theory can gain validity.”
That’s not true.
Hypotheses make predictions, experiments test them. Theories gain validity when their predictions are *not contradicted* by other observations. Karl Popper’s definition of a good theory is one that makes the most controversial and falsifiable claims – a good example from this thread is the Hubble’s Constant debate from Jim’s comment. The larger value limits the age of the universe, and appears to be contradicted by *other* experiments that find objects older than the theory allows for. Assuming that the halo observations are accurate and correct, the young universe theory has been invalidated, end of story.
Who sticks to their guns, and for what reason, is irrelevant in the long run. I’m sure there are stubborn people alive now who believe in phlogiston or a flat earth. Would Chris C argue that these people are a politically repressed minority, whose beliefs are valid from a particular viewpoint?

Taking the problem of “there being no qualitative difference between different theories, only perspectival ones”: a lot of people tend to misread Kuhn as endorsing this particular viewpoint. What he really seems to be getting at is that scientists working on the same fundamental problem may not understand one another conceptually between different paradigms, but it’s quite clear that this does not mean there is no possibility of an objective standard of comparison between theories.
The great irony is that The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was one of the prime catalysts for the emergence of postmodern themes in humanities and social science departments in the early 1970’s and beyond. First, there was a rush for various borderline disciplines wanting to be seen as legitimate sciences, to get their own slice of paradigm pie. Then came the relativist reaction against science and any kind of objectivity altogether, perhaps due in part to Kuhn’s work being recycled and read by people making no reference to previous work by Popper and other important philosophers of science.
As Jon and others mention, part of the reason for the more recent abandonment of these views is their utter triviality – that such a large volume of scholarship from the 80’s and 90’s has added so little value to our understanding of science and culture. It’s a shame that not everyone has learnt from these lessons.

I think the lecturer was on to something. I recently dropped out of a PhD program in embedded computing because all of the projects that my lab worked on were bought and paid for by the US Department of Defense and were slotted for military use. Now, our sister lab (situated in northern California) eschewed projects applicable to the military. In the last year that I attended school, my lab received 10 times the funding that our sister lab did. And, our sister lab did much better science. They published more papers, created better software, and were generally held in higher esteem in scientific circles.
So, what’s the point. My example of funding shows that science is political because, at least in the USA, science is funded by politicians. But, on a deeper level, I believe all science must be political because science is a human endeavor and humans are political to our core.

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