On the evening of April 14th, following the 2nd Annual March for Science, the NYC chapter of Science for the People hosted a panel titled “Gender, Race & Science” with participation from the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) and NYC for Abortion Rights (NYCFAR) and opening remarks from Clifford Conner, author of A People’s History of Science. Built out of the day’s rally and march, the event was organized to critique the myth of scientific neutrality, providing testimony and analysis of science for the benefit of the 1%, at the expense of society’s oppressed.
GENDER, RACE & SCIENCE APRIL 14, 2018 @ VERSO BOOKS,BROOKLYN Moderator: Taylor Lampe BYP100: Seshat Mack NYCFAR: Emily Brooks SftP: Andrea Hektor
Audio from the panel is available above and below we reproduce Clifford Conner’s opening remarks.
For a Critical & Self-Reflective Science | Clifford Conner
“When science speaks, let no dog bark.”
Taylor [the moderator of the panel discussion] spoke of a precedent of Science for the People in the 1970s and ’80s. I’m going to talk about a much earlier precedent, in the 1640s and ’50s. But first, back to today . . .
There’s something surreal about having to “march for science.” Defending the legitimacy of science was obviously important during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. But today? In the twenty-first century? It just seems bizarre and absurd.
Even so, the march today was a necessary expression of resistance to the outrageous, corrupt, depraved, and dangerous anti-science agenda of the current administration.
But if you think about it, the marchers’ main concerns weren’t about science per se. What the demonstration was really protesting is the effect Trump’s science policies are going to have on the air we breathe, the water we drink, our health, our children’s education . . . in short, on every aspect of the public wellbeing.
Trump, of course, is just the front man for the campaign. The offensive against science is driven by billionaire donors who finance rightwing think tanks, politicians, and media giants. Their single-minded goal is to lower their taxes to zero and roll back governmental regulation of their businesses, especially with regard to environmental and public health protection.
Their crusade against federal regulatory powers has brought them into conflict with empirical reality, rationality, knowledge, and evidence-based policy—in short, they’ve declared war against science. And that’s what we’re fighting back against. What we’re up against are powerful economic and political forces that are out to destroy the public sphere by privatizing everything they can get their hands on.
The economic interests at stake make it clear that this struggle over science is a manifestation of what some social philosophers have called “the class struggle.” Our panelists here this evening are going to discuss how debates over science often involve race issues and gender issues. Well, science is also a class issue. Even the definition of science is a class issue. And the struggle usually expresses itself in a very different way from what we’re currently experiencing with Trump and his people.
The big irony is that today we were marching against know-nothings who want to deny the authority of science altogether. But at the same time, we can’t afford to ignore the opposite problem of crediting science with too much authority. That’s where the race, gender, and class issues come in. The eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin observed that if you put science on a pedestal as “a kind of universal truth,” you fall into the trap of thinking that “once the truth about nature is revealed, one must accept the facts of life. When science speaks, let no dog bark.”
Lewontin went on to say that this idealized view of science as unchallengeable truth results from assuming that “the methods and institutions of science are . . . above ordinary human relations.”
And indeed, that is the essence of the traditional ideology of modern science. Philosopher of science Sandra Harding explained how that ideology has become so all-pervasive in our culture:
“All of us grew up on a well-known story about the birth of modern science,” she says. According to this heroic narrative, science was created as a “value-free” form of knowledge, completely untainted by moral, political, or social values. We should think of this creation myth, she says, as we do the Iliad, the Odyssey, the book of Genesis, and fourth-grade histories of the American Revolution.
This ideology of “value-free” science originated in Europe in the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But something else was going on at that time that had a decisive influence in shaping that ideology.
“In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.”
– Anatole France
At the same time that Isaac Newton was working out revolutionary ideas about mathematics and astronomy and physics, another kind of revolution was taking place in England—a great social revolution that turned the world upside down, that destroyed the old regime of aristocratic privilege based on land ownership, and replaced it with a new social order that raised the people with money—businessmen, manufacturers, bankers—to the top. That was the English Revolution of the 1640s and ’50s, a forerunner of the American and French Revolutions of the following century.
All of these great revolutions were powerful engines of social progress, but they left a great deal to be accomplished. The American Revolution represented a giant step forward by producing the first major nation with a republican form of government, but it maintained an economy based on the enslavement of Africans.
The English and French Revolutions began with radical demands for both legal and economic equality, but when the dust settled, only legal equality had been won. The limitations of legal equality have been parodied in a famous line you’ve probably heard before: “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.”
During the English Revolution, a major movement that called itself “the Levellers” demanded economic justice that would level the distinctions between the rich and the poor. The most forceful wing of this movement called themselves “the True Levellers.”
But there was also a more moderate wing of the movement. The moderates wanted to overthrow the repressive monarchy, but they definitely did not want social and economic equality.
So . . . there were two simultaneous class struggles going on—one between the monarchy and the revolutionary movement as a whole, and one within the revolutionary movement, between the True Levellers, on one side, and the moderates, on the other. In the end, the moderates won and established legal equality in England, while maintaining the deep division between rich and poor.
It was in this battle that the traditional ideology of modern science as a “value-free” form of knowledge originated. They didn’t use the word “science” then, they called it “natural philosophy.” The True Levellers believed that natural philosophy should above all be used to benefit the many, not the few. That was the original “Science for the People” movement. But the moderates had a very different view of what they wanted natural philosophy to be and to do.
Natural philosophy was then in the process of institutionalizing, of becoming a profession. The driving force behind the institutionalization of science was a group of gentleman scientists who founded the Royal Society just after the end of the Revolution. The Royal Society was the first professional organization of science in England, and it set the pattern for the institutionalization of science in other countries as well.
The founders of the Royal Society were among the better-off people who had supported the Revolution, but who hadn’t wanted it to go any further. There were still plenty of radical “levelers” around, though, who thought the Revolution hadn’t gone far enough.
And that’s why there were seriously conflicting views about the meaning of science. For the levelers, science was not neutral; it did not exclude social concerns. The gentleman scientists, like Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, were bitterly opposed to that idea. The last thing they wanted was a “science for the people” movement. What they wanted was ideological tranquility, and a science that promoted social peace.
Because of that, the Royal Society leaders explicitly ruled controversy over political and social issues to be outside the bounds of the new science. Anybody who demanded an activist role for science was barred from membership. In other words, those who shared the “science for the people” outlook were denied official recognition as professional scientists. And that’s how the organization of science as a profession was consciously tailored to fit comfortably into the new bourgeois social order that was forming in England.
“a critical and self-reflective social science should be the model for all science.”
– Sandra Harding
I cited the philosopher Sandra Harding earlier. She has made a strong case for understanding science as a reflection of the power relationships of society as a whole. The values, content, and methods of modern science, she says, are an integral part of male-dominated Western culture and were created and maintained as a means of subjugating women and the peoples of the colonial world. This assertion is worth careful consideration.
A few years ago, the feminist movement put forward the slogan “Biology is not women’s destiny” in response to geneticists and sociobiologists—always male—who bolster their reactionary views about the place of women in society by appealing to the prestige of modern science. We’ve also seen prominent scientists like James Watson and William Shockley proclaiming that people of African descent are inherently inferior to people of European descent. These are prime examples of how the vaunted objectivity of modern science has been invoked for reactionary ideological purposes.
Sandra Harding also explained that the whole idea of “value-free” science is based on “the assumption that physics should be the paradigm of scientific knowledge-seeking.” But what physicists do is not typical of what most other scientists do. The methodologies of biology, anthropology, ecology, psychology, and sociology have very little in common with the abstractions of theoretical physics, and yet physics is held up as the model science that all other sciences should strive to emulate.
The problem with using physics as the model for all science is that in physics, objectivity is equated with neutrality. That is the central premise of “value-free” science, which demands that all scientists be neutral and dispassionate with regard to the subject of their inquiries.
Neutrality may be generally workable in physics, but in sciences that are closer to social concerns—such as medicine, sociology, or economics—the appeal to neutrality operates to support the status quo, which is often underpinned by racist, sexist, or class-based assumptions of which the scientists themselves are often unaware. In recent years, for example, the feminist movement has exposed the antifemale bias imbedded in the traditional wisdom of medical science, which for centuries has been highly detrimental to the health of women.
So . . . if neutrality isn’t an adequate basis for scientific objectivity, what is? One possible answer (offered by Sandra Harding) is that instead of physics, “a critical and self-reflective social science should be the model for all science.” How would that work? What would a “critical and self-reflective” scientific method look like? To examine that insight would require a much longer discussion, and my time is just about up, so I’ll just make two quick points:
- To be self-reflective, a science’s practitioners would have to be willing to continuously analyze their own practices in an effort to keep their individual biases from influencing their scientific judgment.
- But that can only be useful if science is recognized as a social activity that requires the collective, collaborative efforts of many researchers. That understanding is reflected in the process of peer review, and that’s where the critical part comes in. (At the march today, I heard a chant I never expected to hear at a demonstration: “Whatta we want? Peer review! When do we want it? Now!”) Well, peer review alone can’t guarantee objectivity, but it’s a necessary element of a critical science that approaches the ideal of objectivity
* * *
In closing, I just want to say that as ludicrous and contemptible as Donald Trump and his minions are, they are a symptom, not the cause, of the current tragedy of American science. The roots of that tragedy can be summed up in two words: corporatization and militarization.
The almost total control that private corporate interests now wield over American science has thoroughly undermined its integrity and credibility. And the Pentagon’s dominance of federal research has turned science from a creative force for the benefit of humanity into a destructive force concerned only with perfecting the technology of death.
The struggle continues.
- The source of the quotations from Richard Lewontin: Biology as Ideology.
- The source of the quotations from Sandra Harding: The Science Question in Feminism.
- The line “When Science speaks, let no dog bark” is a paraphrase of an ironic line from Shakespeare: “I am Sir Oracle, and when I open my lips, let no dog bark.”