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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

In Defense of Science

From evolution to stem cell research to climate change, science has always scuttled established power structures – religious and secular. Science is therefore by no means apolitical and the conduct of science is a political act.

However, any reference to science as a political act almost often raises the ire of scientist. We always want to think of our trade as dispassionate and driven primarily by evidence gained through reason, careful observation and painstaking experimentation.

Michael Foucault, the French postmodernist uses the term ‘power/knowledge’ to signify that power is constituted through accepted forms of knowledge, scientific understanding and ‘truth. According to Foucault, each society has its general regime of truth, a general politics of truth; the types of discourse, which it privileges as true, the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth and the status of those charged with proclaiming what counts as true.

The regimes and general politics of truth are the progeny of scientific discourse and institutions and are reinforced and validated through the education system, the media and the dominant or state sanctioned political and economic ideologies. The battle for the truth is seldom about the quest for absolute truth but a battle about the status of the truth and the socio-economic and political role it signifies. Truth is about the interests enabled or constrained.

If we assume that scientific method is a reliable method of creating the truth and the essential knowledge base as well as the power it confers. As Francis Bacon put it “power and knowledge go hand in hand”. Since science opens new vistas of knowledge, it pushes as to question old paradigms and disrupts existing order, and that is always political.

In a new book, Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, Shawn Lawrence Otto argues that the politics of science is not new. Every time a scientist makes a factual assertion such as the earth goes around the sun, there is such a thing as evolution, or that human are causing climate change somebody’s vested interests are either enabled or constrained.

Lawrence Shawn Otto further argues that the reasons the church went to absurd lengths to deal with Galileo are the same reasons we fight political battles over climate change today. According to Otto, the practice of science cannot be apolitical. The essence of the scientific process is to question long-held assumptions and to build knowledge that is independent of our beliefs or assumptions.

Hence a scientifically testable claim can be shown to be most probably true or utterly flawed, regardless of who makes it – president or pope or peasant. Science is therefore inherently egalitarian, annihilating hierarchical power structures.

Otto posits that the challenge to authority that science presents is one of many reasons why it has flourished in free, democratic societies. Otto further suggests that the scientific revolution has been led largely by the liberal democracies of Europe and North America. Of significance is the observation by Otto that the prevailing political climate in the US has hampered US policy makers’ capacity to respond to many and urgent science policy issues.

In her widely acclaimed book “The Age of American Unreason” American writer Susan Jacoby observes;
It remains to be seen, as the current presidential campaign unfolds, whether Americans are willing to consider what the flight from reason has cost us as a people and whether any candidate has the will or the courage to talk about ignorance as a political issue affecting everything from scientific research to decisions about war and peace."

In his book “The Assault on Reason” Al Gore asks "Why do reason, logic and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way America now makes important decisions?" Al Gore offers that the persistent and sustained reliance on falsehoods as the basis of policy, even in the face of massive and well-understood evidence to the contrary has reached levels previously imagined.

Thomas Jefferson believed that without a well-informed voter/citizenry, the very exercise of democracy becomes removed from the problems it is charged with solving. One might think Jefferson was referring to the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street. There is no debate or discussion in empty chambers of the Senate or the House of Representatives. The US Congress is silent, dysfunctional.

Without the anchor provided by enlightened opinion of the citizenry and their representatives, society may become paralyzed or worse, corrupted and besieged by powerful interests seeking to perpetuate and preserve existing hierarchical power structures.

Lawrence Shawn Otto asks if American-style democracy beholden to the Tea Party, the Birthers, and Occupy Wall Street will be able to compete in the age of reason–; complex, science driven global economy – where nations like China are run by engineers and scientists.

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