Science, Politics & Marches

Marching is much in the air of late. After the “Women’s March”, that engaged many millions and was motivated in part by misogynistic statements and proposed policies from various politicians, we find ourselves faced with a range of anti-science behaviors, remarks, and proposed policy changes that have encouraged a similar March for Science.  The March for Science has garnered the support of a wide range of scientific organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and a range of more march-logospecialized professional science organizations, including the Public Library of Science (PLoS).  There have been a number of arguments for and against marching for science, summarized in this PLoS On Science blog post, so I will not repeat them here.  What is clear is that science does not exist independently of humanity, and this implies a complex interaction between scientific observations and ideas, the scientific enterprise, politics, economics, and personal belief systems: it seems evident that not nearly enough effort is spent in our educational systems to help people understand these interactions (see PLoS SciEd post: From the Science March to the Classroom: Recognizing science in politics and politics in science).

What I want to do here is to present some reflections on the relationship between science and politics, by which I include various belief systems (ideologies).

The mystic Giordano Bruno, burnt at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church as a heretic in 1600, is sometimes put forward as a patron saint of science, mistakenly in my view.  Bruno was a mystic, whose ideas were at best loosely grounded in the observable and in no way scientific as we understand the term. His type of magical thinking is similar to that of modern anti-vaccination-ists who claim vaccination can cause autism (it does not)(1) or that GMOs are somehow innately “unhealthy” and more dangerous than “natural” organisms (see: The GMO safety debate is over).  A better model, particularly in the context of current political controversies, would be the many Soviet geneticists who suffered exile and often death (the famed geneticist N.I. Vavilov starved to death in a Soviet gulag in 1943) as a result of the state/party-driven politicization of science, specifically genetics, carried out by Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) and the Communist party/state of the Soviet Union (see: The tragic story of Soviet genetics shows the folly of political meddling in science). In response to the  implications of genetic and evolutionary mechanisms, Stalin favored Lamarckism (inheritance of acquired traits) posited by Ivan Michurin (1855–1935) and Trofim Lysenko (1898–1976)[see link]. Communist ideology required (or rather demanded) that traits, including human traits, be seen as malleable, that the “nature” of plants and people could be altered permanently with appropriate manipulations (vernalization for plants, political re-education for people)[see: The consequences of political dictatorship for Russian science).  No need to wait for the messy, multi-generational processes associated with conventional plant breeding (and Darwinian evolution).  In both cases, the unforgiving realities of the natural world intervened, but not without intense human suffering and starvation associated with both efforts.russion march for science

It is worth noting explicitly that there are, and likely always will be, pressures to politicize science, due in large measure to science’s success in explaining the natural world and providing the basis for its technology-based manipulation. Giordano Bruno was an early martyr in the evolution of a highly ideological world view (illustrated by the house arrest of Galileo and the suppression of heliocentric models of the solar system)(2). Eventually such forms of natural theology were replaced by the apolitical and empirical ideals implicit in Enlightenment science. Aspects of ideological (racist) influences can be seen in 19th century science, most dramatically illustrated by Gould (Morton’s ranking of races by cranial capacity. Unconscious manipulation of data may be a scientific norm)(see link). How racist policies were initially embraced, and then rejected by American geneticists during the course of the 20th century is described by Provine (Geneticists and the Biology of Race Crossing).

More recent events remind us of the pressures to politicize science.  A number of states (Kentucky in 1976, Mississippi in 2006,  Louisiana in 2008, and Tennessee in 2012) have passed bills that allow teachers to present non-scientific ideas to students (think intelligent design creationism and climate change denial).  Such bills continue to come up with depressing frequency.  Most recently an admitted creationist has been appointed to lead a federal  higher education reform task force in the United States [see link]. Is creationism simply alt-science? a position explicitly or tacitly supported by both the religiously orthodox and those of a post-modernist persuasion, such as left-leaning college instructors, who claim that science is a social construct [see: Is Science ‘Forever Tentative’ and ‘Socially Constructed’?].

While such recent anti-science/alt-science attitudes have not had quite the draconian effects found in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany or eugenist America), I would argue that they have a role in eroding the public’s faith in the scientific understanding of complex processes, a faith that is largely justified even in the face of the so-called “reproducibility crises”, which in a sense is no crises at all, but an expected outcome from the size, complexity, and competing forces acting on scientists and  the scientific enterprise. That said, laws and various forms of coercion dictating right-wing/religious or left-wing/political correctness in science threaten to impact the education of a generation of students. Predictions of climate changed based on human-driven (anthropogenic) increases in atmospheric CO2 levels or the effects of lead in public water systems on human health [link] cannot simply be discarded or discounted based on ideological positions on the role of government in protecting the public interest, a role that neither unfettered capitalism or fundampolitics + science cartoonentalist communism seems particularly good at addressing. Similarly the lack of any demonstrable connection between autism and vaccination (see above), the physicochemical impossibility of homeopathic treatments (or various versions of “Christian Science”), and the lack of evidence for the therapeutic claims made for the rather startling array of nutritional supplements serve to inject a political, ideological, and economic  dimension into scientific discourse.  In fact science is constantly under pressure to distort its message.  Consider the European response to GMOs in favor of the “organic” (non-GMO); most GMOs have been banned from the EU for what appears to be ideological (non-scientific) reasons, even though the same organisms have been found safe and are grown in the US and most of Asia (see this Economist essay).

It is clear that the rejection of scientific observations is wide-spread on both the left and the right, basically whenever scientific observations, ideas, or models lead to disturbing or  discomforting conclusions or implications (link). Consider the violent response when Charles Murray was invited to speak at Middlebury College (see Andrew Sullivan’s Is intersectionality a religion?). That human populations might (and in fact can be expected to) display genetic differences, the result of their migration history and subsequent evolutionary processes, both adaptive and non-adaptive (see Henn et al., The great human expansion), is labelled racist and by implication beyond the pale of scientific discourse, even though it is tacitly recognized by the scientific community to be well established (no one, I think, gets particularly upset at the suggestion that noses are shaped by evolutionary processes and reflect genetic differences between populations (see Climate shaped the human nose) or that nose shape might play a role in human sexual selection (see Facial Attractiveness and Sexual Selection; and sexual dimorphism).  One might even speculate that studies of the role of nose shape in mate selection could form the basis of an interesting research project (see Beauty and the beast: mechanisms of sexual selection in humans.

What often goes undiscussed is whether differences in specific traits (different alleles and allele frequencies) between populations have any meaningful significance in the context f public policy – I would argue that they do not).  What is clear is that in a pre-genomic era recognizing such differences can be of practical value, for example in the treatment of diseases (see Ethnic Differences in Cardiovascular Drug Response). That said, the era of genomics-based personalized diagnosis and treatment is rapidly making such population-based considerations obsolete (see: Genetic tests for disease risks and ethical debate on personal genome testing), while at the same time raising serious issues of privacy and discrimination based on the presence of the “wrong” alleles (see: genome sequencing–ethical issues). In a world of facile genomic engineering the dangers of unfettered technological manipulations move more and more rapidly from science fiction to the boutique (intelligent?) design of people (see: CRISPR gene-editing and human evolution).

So back (about time, you may be thinking) to the original question – if we “march for science”, what exactly are we marching for [link]?  Are we marching to defend the apolitical nature of science and the need to maintain economic support (increased public funding levels) for the scientific enterprise, or are we conflating support for science with a range of social and political positions?  Are we affirming our commitment to a politically independent (skeptical) community of practitioners who serve to produce, reproduce, critically examine, and extend empirical observations and explanatory (predictive) models?

This is not to ignore the various pressures acting on scientists as they carry out their work. These pressures act to tempt (and sometimes reward) practitioners to exaggerate (if not fabricate) the significance of their observations and ideas in order to capture the resources (funds and people) needed to carry out modern science, as well as the public’s attention. Since resources are limited, extra-scientific forces have an increasing impact on the scientific enterprise – enticing scientists to make exaggerated claims and to put forth extra-scientific arguments and various semi-hysterical scenarios based on their observations and models.  In the context of an inherently political event (a march) the apolitical ideals of science can seem too bland to command attention and stir action, not to mention the damage that politicizing science does to the integrity of science.

At the end of the day my decision is not to march, because I believe that science must be protected from the politPearl quote - aegisical and the partisan(see: The pernicious effects of disrespecting the constraints of science); that the ultimate working nature (as opposed to delivered truth) of scientific observations and conclusions must be respected, something rarely seen in any political movement and certainly not on display in the Lysenkoist, climate change, anti-vaccination, or eugenics movements (see this provocative essay: The Disgraceful Episode Of Lysenkoism Brings Us Global Warming Theory.)

 


Thanks and footnotes
:

Thanks for help on this post from Glenn Branch @ National Center for Science Education.   Of course all opinions are mine alone.

(1) While there is not doubt that vaccinations can, like all drugs and medical interventions, lead to side effects in certain individuals, there is unambiguous evidence against any link between autism and vaccination.

(2) It is worth noting that as originally proposed the Copernican (Sun-centered) model of the solar system was more complex than the Ptolemaic (Earth-centered) system it was meant to replace. It was Kepler’s elliptical, rather than circular, orbits that made the heliocentric model dramatically simpler, more accurate, and more aesthetically compelling.