Science Is Political: Get Over It & Lead with Your Ethics

The “controversy” around scientists getting political on the march of horrors out of D.C. makes my eyes bug. How did science get this dangerous rep for ideological purity?

Do people think the upheavals of  Galileo and Oppenheimer can’t happen again? That political forces won’t use science (or perceptions of science) for gain? That scientists are immune to social influence? Perhaps it’s a misunderstanding about the power of the scientific method to eliminate bias. Or a positivist belief in an “objective reality” with a “true truth,” that scientists uncover. Or a crappy educational system, where sixth graders are taught that science is “about facts.”

Whatever the reasons, if we continue to reject science as intrinsically and inescapably political, we will continue to see science turned against the greater good by political forces.

Scientists live in political contexts. The scientific method can reduce bias in analysis, but doesn’t target the cultural norms scientists breathe like air–and don’t notice, like air. Secretly infecting people with fatal diseases was recent scientific practice, and it wasn’t the “objectivity” of scientists that put an end to it. It was shifts in cultural space.

Political contexts influence the focus of science. A decade ago, federal reviewers scoffed at including autistic adults in research, so autistic adults got involved in federal policy. Reviews got more respectful and funding opportunities increased; however this ground could be lost just as it was gained. (More on knowledge/power see Foucault, Lukes.)

Science is a driver of political/policy change. Scientific data is used to justify policy. People who aren’t counted are politically invisible. The resources go where the impact is perceived to be. (Here I go on about this at length.)

The dynamic between science and politics affects the world.
The political choice to fund rocketry during the cold war has given us Curiosity, Rosetta, and possible annihilation.

Awareness of the relationship between science and politics means examining the long-term socio-ecological consequences of our choices and our responsibilities as scientists. What is the most ethical act, given the political forces at play, and how do we contribute, directly and indirectly, to a political environment where science serves a greater good? Because the greedy ones care little about ideological purity.

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