What are the goalposts for science, and why should we care?

I recently ran across this analysis by Dan Hind in Al Jazeera. It’s a delighfully cogent summary of the main drivers of the scientific enterprise: unaccountable power in the form of national and corporate investment, which determines to a large extent what kinds of projects are pursue and by whom.

In the decades since the Second World War states and their corporate lieutenants have made science into a valuable instrument for the pursuit of their interests. In the process they have denied the rest of us important opportunities to shape the world in which we live…

For the most part the self-declared champions of science pay little attention to [its] state and corporate domination. Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and many others have had tremendous fun warning us that the light-filled city built by reason is under siege from the armies of darkness.

An unlikely alliance of the New Age and the Old Testament, in Francis Wheen’s phrase, is out to get us, they tell us, repeatedly. It is all very JRR Tolkien and, like Tolkien, appeals to a certain kind of male adolescent imagination.

But while, despite Peter Jackson’s recent efforts, I remain very fond of The Hobbit, it is not a particularly helpful model for understanding the threats to reason in the real world. The present constitution of science is riddled with conflicts of interest, corruption and abuse. The enemies of free inquiry that really matter, in other words, are already inside the gates.

I think his analysis is spot-on regarding the implicitly political nature of the scientific enterprise. Further, this is something that should concern us as citizens precisely because the reality of scientific practice stands in stark contrast with the idealized narrative of objectivity and disinterested authority so commonly trotted out as an explanation of “how science works” (I spent four years in undergrad passionately nodding along to this story).

However, I don’t think his recommendation goes quite far enough:

Though the details of particular processes may be beyond the understanding of the public, we have every right to a say in setting the objectives of science. In order to do that we must exercise some direct control over how funds are distributed. Even quite small sums could have an important effect, through creating new opportunities for scientists to do work that does not meet with state or corporate approval.

His point that the general public ought to be involved in setting the objectives of science, I think, is right. It isn’t an entirely new idea, either, which is to say that it has historical credibility: Nietzsche noted both the importance of this task and the importance of it being accomplished not only by scientists themselves as long ago as the late 1880s, and, more recently, Donald Stokes made this a central theme of his book Pasteur’s Quadrant.

I say Hind doesn’t quite go far enough with this idea, however, because of that last sentence: the importance of public involvement in governing science is related to setting the stage for scientists to be able to pursue their work unimpeded by political concerns, especially when that work is politically or culturally unorthodox.

But isn’t this still making the public subservient to the interests of science, or scientists? In other words, the public should be involved in setting the goals of science, but the actual projects pursued should be determined by scientists, and those decisions should be politically unimpeded, because some of that work is liable to prove disruptive to dominant power holders?

Alternatively, I would argue that science is not only a subversive endeavor; and really, this shouldn’t be its primary motive. To take a stab at it: the ultimate objective for science ought to be serving the needs, interests, and (most importantly) wellbeing of the public, without assuming or imposing upon them a pre-conceived idea of what those needs and interests ought to be. If in the course of meeting this goal scientific work happens to subvert the status quo, great. But placing the subversive value of scientific work ahead of its responsibility toward the public is, I think, putting the cart before the horse – which, of course, runs the risk of the horse becoming increasingly irritated with the unwieldy thing to which it’s hitched blocking its way.

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