Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for April 24th, 2017

The March for Science, coinciding with Earth Day, took place last Saturday in about 600 cities around the world.

American scientists involved in the march said they were anxious about political rejection and public ignorance of established science. The biggest enemy of science was the “post-truth” White House, and the practice of science had to be protected from proposed government budget cuts and threats to global treaties such as the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Defending the Paris Agreement and exposing lies should indeed be on every citizen’s agenda, scientist or not. But many like myself who share the concern for promoting scientific research and evidence-based policymaking, are also skeptical about the arrogant “master narrative” of science that is as harmful for human wellbeing as widespread scientific ignorance. The marchers presented to the world a naïve, politically sanitized view of science as a value-free collection of “objective facts”, along with the bizarre implication that before Brexit and Trump truth was commonplace in politics and public life.

The danger with the March for Science is that it distracts us from paying attention to other reasons for public disenchantment with science- reasons that lie at the heart of the scientific establishment itself. In recent years, several cases of fraud and lack of reproducibility in mainstream scientific research have emerged. These are encouraged by an academic culture that places greater emphasis on publication metrics than the quality and relevance of research. In other words, where and how much you publish is more important than what you publish.

I suggest that the greatest threats to science lie within scientists themselves, just as the greatest threats to Christianity lie in the behavior of Christian leaders rather than in atheists or Muslims.

(1) The great majority of practising scientists have little understanding of the history and philosophy of their discipline. And, given the fragmentation of science into numerous arcane sub-specialities, very few scientists can converse meaningfully among their colleagues in their own broad disciplines, let alone with social scientists, philosophers and theologians. When combined with competition for funding, this narrowness of vision leads to scientists often making exaggerated claims for the superiority of their own sub-speciality.

For instance, in theoretical physics, superstring theory has attracted a massively disproportionate amount of research funding and elite university positions since the 1980s, because of its glamorous self-presentation as the “foundational theory” of science. The gulf between promise and fulfilment has been enormous: to date, the theory has not made a single experimentally verifiable prediction (unlike, say, the standard model in particle physics).

Walk into any major bookstore in a Western city and you will be assailed by books of a popular nature written by prominent physicists, biologists or computer scientists which aim, not simply to inform the public about their respective scientific disciplines, but to make philosophical claims that go well beyond the writer’s field of expertise. Anybody familiar with cosmology knows that the “matter” (a difficult concept in itself!) that we have hitherto investigated as physicists comprises only 4 per cent of the universe. Yet this doesn’t prevent some physicists from pontificating in popular media about the nature of “reality” and even of human persons. Metaphysical speculation about “multiverses” masquerades as physics, while all teleology is ruled out as “religious” and therefore unscientific.

Such all-pervasive “explanations” are crudely reductionistic. Their popular appeal trades on the prestige the writer has acquired in a narrow area of scientific research and which he exploits for self-marketing.

A gifted but prejudiced popularizer like Richard Dawkins poses a greater danger to science than to Christianity. For by marrying Darwinian evolution exclusively to an atheist agenda, he has reinforced the “creationism” prevalent in fundamentalist church circles and discouraged young Christians from pursuing a vocation in biology. If the perception of science in religious communities is to be corrected, and the latter encouraged to embrace scientific exploration, we need more humble and boadbased understandings of science among scientists themselves. The postmodern critique of science, for instance, should not be dismissed as mere “relativism”.

(2) So much scientific research is imprisoned within corporate and military interests. Very few scientists ask, “Who is funding my research and for what aims?” or “How am I reinforcing the existing asymmetries of information and power?”

Take cancer research, an area of personal interest to me since my wife is a cancer patient. Given that cancer research is heavily subsidized by governments, charities and individual donors- and new targeted drugs have successful trials involving far fewer people than used to be the case- why are cancer drugs produced by Big Pharma prohibitively expensive? In the US, cancer bills are the leading cause of personal bankruptcy. Imagine how it is for those of us who live in poorer countries. (Many cancer researchers in drug companies and research centres in North America and Europe come from some of the poorer countries of the world). Why don’t ethically responsible researchers demand control of their discoveries and collaborate with smaller biotech companies to cap the price of the drug on the market once it is licensed?

Science is now part of Big Business. And, as the Nobel prize-winning economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller argue in their book Phishing for Phools, ruthlessly competitive market economies tend to encourage unethical behavior such as withholding information from consumers and exploiting our weaknesses for bigger profit margins.

Globally aware citizens need to move beyond defending science from its detractors and initiate a critical dialogue about science as a socio-political practice as well as a worldview. Local populations need to be given access to relevant scientific knowledge and technical expertise; but they must also be given space to shape the questions that we ask of science itself.


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