In the midst of rising overt fascism scientists have come together to organize a march on Washington in defense of science. Science has been championed as the way forward but I caution that such a claim cannot ignore the importance of the larger history of science which reveals how science has and continues to be utilized to institutionalize and justify systemic injustice. This conversation aims to look at the contributions that science, knowledge, and technology studies has to offer and the ethical responsibilities scientists have to those marginalized within the field as well as the commons outside of the scientific community.
“One could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered, and starved.” – WEB Du Bois
“The generation of knowledge must be made more democratic in two ways: First, science should open its doors to all the presently excluded or discouraged, so that it really represents a mobilization of the world’s creativity for human ends. This means more than allowing “them” in. It also means respecting the specificity of their insights as informed by their experience and allowing these to redirect science. The other pathway toward democracy is the partial deprofessionalization of science based on the idea that all people have the detailed, intimate, and local knowledge that males them experts on their own situation, and that all people can learn to understand the complexity of the world.” – Richard Levins in “Toward the Renewal of Science” (1990:124)
“A humanistic science is one in which scientists as people take responsibility for their explanations of a universe (biological or otherwise) in which humans influence their own affairs. Such a science assumes, therefore, that its practitioners and the rest of society share responsibility for the world they help create.” – Michael Blakey in “Beyond European enlightenment: Toward A Critical and Humanistic Human Biology” (1998:396)
“As a product of human activity, science reflects the conditions of its production and the viewpoints of its producers or owners. The agenda of science, the recruitment and training of some and the exclusion of others from being scientists, the strategies of research, the physical instruments of investigation, the intellectual framework in which problems are formulated and results interpreted, the criteria for a successful solution to a problem, and the conditions of the application of scientific results are all very much a product of the history of the sciences and associated technologies and of the societies that form and own them.” – Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins in Biology Under The Influence: Dialectical Essays on the Coevolution of Nature and Society (2010:89)
I stood in front of a lecture hall filled with 400 “Sociology 100” students. The topic was “Race/ism, Science, and Medicine”. It also was the day after the election. I looked on with frustration, anger, and rage as I asked myself “where have all the scientists been at?” A short recent genealogy of this problem: when they came for the unarmed people of African descent and Indigenous peoples you were silent, when they came for immigrants you were silent, when they came for LGBTQ* folks you were silent, when they came for women you were silent, when they came for Muslims you were silent, and then they came for ‘science’ and you answered the call. For a long while many scientists were calm, cool, objective, and detached while unarmed Black citizens were murdered in the streets by militarized police, Indigenous people fought to defend their people and land, and more immigrants were being deported than before. These social problems have been here, and are what Donna Haraway referred to as “the world-changing products of specific, but very large and durable, histories. The same is true of science” (1989:8). But I must ask the scientists who have jumped up to start and support the Science March on D.C.: “where have you been?” So upon hearing about a march on Washington to defend science I was excited to consider the potential mass mobilization of scientists while also rightfully concerned.
My concerns were confirmed upon coming across the words of Dr. Johnathan Berman, a postdoctoral fellow at University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and the lead organizer of the march. In an interview with The New York Times, Dr. Berman is quoted saying “Yes, this is a protest, but it’s not a political protest. The people making decisions are in Washington, and they are the people we are trying to reach with the message: You should listen to evidence.” How exactly is the Science March not political? How can scientists attempt to get involved and address larger social problems that are directly and indirectly impacting their work? How can scientists claim that their work makes the world a better place while believing that their protest is somehow ‘apolitical’? Science is political and always has been. Science is a method, process, institution, and practice designed by and for humans. Human problems are political and so are their solutions. I suggest that we extend Dr. Berman’s point; you should listen to evidence, that evidence includes what has been presented by historians and social scientists.
SCIENCE HAS ALWAYS BEEN POLITICAL
Championing science as the objective way forward under a fascist regime while simultaneously claiming to be apolitical is to abandon the most vulnerable among us. This dedication that many have to objectivity rather than ethics, contextual accuracy, and validity is not only wrong but also dangerous. There is no such thing as value-free science; something that the history of science itself reveals. The scientific revolution or European enlightenment began around the 1500s and continued into the 1800s. During that same time that Europe was having a time of scientific discovery and enlightenment they reigned terror upon the rest of the world. The scientific advancement of Europe was financed by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, resource colonialism, and settler colonialism across the globe. The idea of objectivity in western intellectual traditions is problematic for many reasons, but one of the main crumbling pillars is: research will never be free of personal biases or reflect universal truths. And to think there are universal truths perpetuates a particular kind of able bodied white cisgender male logic, a world where everything is measured in comparison to them as the ideal type of human that everyone else aberrates from. As stated by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, “…research is not an innocent or distant academic exercise but an activity that has something at stake that occurs in a set of political and social conditions” (2012:5). Thus, we cannot separate knowledge from the contextual connected histories and conditions from which it is produced.
As a scholar studying the relationships between science, technology, and society I am constantly looking for better ways to apply what I have learned from my work to a better understanding of human action with the aim of helping address social problems. That means we have to interrogate the social, political, economic contexts of knowledge production and how it has been used as a justifying rationale to legitimate genocide, chattel enslavement, displacement, and dispossession over the course of modern history. You are practicing science on stolen Indigenous land and a science built and funded by chattel enslavement of African peoples. The science you practice has a long legacy of experimentation, torture, sterilization, and genocide. We cannot deny this as the context of the work we do and the world we do it in. I have never been afforded the luxury of thinking that what I do is outside of the public. As a scientist and scholar I am also a community member, I’m a human and I have a responsibility to push forward a vision of the world that uses the struggles, tactics, and strategies of history to build better futures and possibilities. I am part of a long intellectual tradition of other colonized peoples speaking up and out, of other critical scholars who demand a better world. One of the major responsibilities that we have is to recognize the roles we have all played in getting us to this current moment. As humans, as family members, community members, as workers, and as scholars. Such reflection brings us closer to understanding the ways we have supported oppressive regimes in our everyday actions and also gives us an opportunity to do better by one another and ourselves by disrupting the very behaviors this society has come to repeatedly support as an acceptable rule about behavior and the idea that certain people’s humanity is negotiable.
Science has always been political and to act as if it isn’t welcomes disaster. You will draw a line. It should have already been drawn. The very knowledge we produce and the tools on the markets that we theorize about are being used to shed blood. We can no longer afford to willingly transform political problems into technical ones for private corporations nor state institutions. Ignoring history hasn’t been working and it will never work. If we forget the history of this nation, we won’t understand this contemporary moment as a continuation of imperialism and colonialisms. The mobilization of scientists to defend the practice of their work is something to look forward to and to celebrate yes but let’s not do so naively. Why are we mobilizing? Let’s look at the conditions: control over the production of your scientific work, threat to federal funding of scientific research, and threats to the public reporting on scientific research relating to the environment and climate change. These threats are real, but to refer to them as apolitical would be a mistake. And ignoring the fact that lives have been at stake prior to November 8th, 2016 with little pushback from the academy and science community would also be a mistake. What the Science March on D.C. (and the satellite marches being organized elsewhere) needs is a justice based ethics and to get that it needs the rest of science, the rest of the study of life and human knowledge: social science and humanities. I can’t believe what scientists say because I see what scientists do and have in common with the regime leader they claim to resist. Marginalized scholars need to know that those organizing this march are dedicated to resisting abuse IN academe. Marginalized communities need to know that scientists won’t abandon them as soon as we get our funding guaranteed. Ethical guidelines must be drawn and marginalized scientists need to have a seat at the table in shaping the demands that scientists have of those in public office who have only recently started failing some among us who now call themselves resisters.
A scientific practice that gives in to the will of fascists is not a science I am willing to march for. ‘Professionalism’ and abiding by the boundaries of ‘disciplines’ isn’t any less value oriented nor political than standing against injustice. If you as a scientist/scholar have had the privilege of believing that ‘objective’ work exists and is untarnished by the context and contingencies of human history; the time for that delusion is over. Science is supposed to be practiced ethically. As philosopher Anthony Weston (2013) puts it, ethical practice means we take care of the basic needs and legitimate expectations of one another as well as ourselves. Knowledge should serve the purpose of contributing to developing the well-being of the people within society not generating the profit motives of a few. What is required of us is a public mission as well as a scholarly one. We have loads of research showing that the problems we face are structural not individual, political not technical. Scientists cannot be on the right side of history if we don’t know history. Michel Foucault argued that history is filled with struggles, tactics, and strategies. But scientists can make no use of that understanding of human action if they continue to be unaware of the social and institutional histories of their fields. The organizers of the Science March on D.C. then cannot simply write a diversity statement and think that somehow it will suffice even amidst the ramped white supremacist racist, patriarchal, and ableist violence we know is perpetuated in departments, labs, and on university campuses.
APPLIED STS TOWARD A HUMANISTIC SCIENCE
I say this because as we march we need to also understand that there are some things that are simply not negotiable: human lives. Scientists should not attempt to negotiate with a regime leader while not having humanistic ethics and principles vehemently rejecting that of him and his administration. This is but another event within the larger series of human struggles and it is important for the experts among us to take that expertise and learn to utilize it in service of an ethical vision informed by the needs of vulnerable communities and not the interest of leaving violent relations unaddressed.
At such a moment like this I look to the work of Sociologist Ruha Benjamin (2016) titled “Informed Refusal: Toward a Justice-based Bioethics” as a way to envision scientific practice for the people. Drawing on the work of Indigenous scholars Audra Simpson and Kim TallBear on the concept of “informed refusal”, Ruha Benjamin interrogates the politics of biological citizenship in cases where marginalized populations resist what she refers to as “technoscientific conscription”. Benjamin argues that these ‘biodefectors’ resist the terms upon which institutions try to make claims to as well as define the political, social, and economic meaning of their biological data. Benjamin’s analysis investigates the agency of marginalized peoples through looking at how the public speaks back to scientific authority. Refusal signifies self-determination by the establishment of a boundary where research participants chose if and when to participate and/or stop. These silences created by refusal are political decisions and acts that signify the agency of research participants.
Benjamin’s analysis encompasses not only research participants and patients but also the general public or what she refers to as third hand refusals where people speak out on behalf of those who suffer severe penalty for refusal like deportation. This reveals a wide spectrum of agency of marginalized people with respect to technoscience and reveals that the pressures of hegemony also create a number of scenarios where people defy authority. The case studies that Benjamin reviews includes where patients refused therapeutic treatment and refused the framing of medical treatment to communicate racial bias within western medical systems. In cases like these patients and research participants have ways to subvert technoscience and biomedical institutions’ demands for biological data and framing of treatment as well as meanings of their biological information. Such informed refusal questions the dichotomy of the expert-lay relation (because the ‘lay’ is an expertise) and also provides challenges to the notion that scientists and science isn’t impacted by human biases and subjectivities. This provides an opportunity for us as scientists to not only engage in our own forms of informed refusal as we strategically defy the violation of human rights of historically marginalized peoples. Informed refusal also provides a useful framework for intellectuals to understand the importance of the public communication of their work: communities can use that knowledge and information to better organize and defend themselves.
This is a time for organized strategic action not only at the march but in academic departments, administrative offices, in classrooms, on campuses, with and in service to grassroots community resistance. One of the ways forward is for us to collectively as experts take a look at what Frickel et al. refer to as “undone science”: “areas of research that are left unfunded, incomplete, or generally ignored but that social movements or civil society organizations often identify as worthy of more research (2010:444). In their paper, “Undone Science: Charting Social Movement and Civil Society Challenges to Research Agenda Setting”, Frickel et al. (2010) argue that the contribution of the new political sociology of science expands analysis to meso- and macro-sociological analysis of the organization of scientific knowledge and science policy. This opens up room for scientists to create precedence in their departments and at their institutions at large to reach across disciplinary lines to address the problems communities are facing, amplifying voices that often go ignored, and push for the production of scientific knowledge in service of grassroots social movements. This is the time for us to make room for undone science to be done.
So what does this look like? How do we make justice based ethics actionable? Be reflexive, understand your social, political, and economic positions and how they shape your circumstances and experiences. Begin learning about the history of science and your specific discipline and how it has impacted society. Learning about the history of human actions and knowledge production is a great opportunity for building relationships with social scientists and humanities scholars. Organize working and reading groups aimed towards applied science, advancing science communication, and how to be of assistance to local grassroots movements. Organize a panel on applied science for solving social problems, find out how you can contribute to the local community organizations with workshops, or organize “meet a scientist” events at your local library to introduce children to different kinds of scientists. Make yourself available to other scholars across disciplines, to the many people outside of academe in local communities, build relationships and direct resources and information across these channels. It is in those small interactions and programs that we work together to plan and facilitate that we can ensure that we are informed as well as our fellow community members. The pursuit of scientific knowledge and awareness of human history allows us to build trust and solidarity among one another in the interest of taking care of the basic needs and legitimate expectations of ourselves and others.
We are in need of scholars to organize knowledge in service of social justice movements. Shouldn’t we practice science (social and natural) that values all human existence in an equitable fashion? Shouldn’t we develop and practice sciences that thinks people are more important than profits? Shouldn’t we practice science that is critical, historical, justice-based, and a source “…of systematic societal criticism, rather than apology” (Blakey 1998:389). What will be left for us to study if we allow people to constantly be harmed? Our scholarship should serve the needs of public as well as intellectual curiosities. Justice-based ethical sciences should have four main purposes: (1) contextually accurate assessments and analyses of social problems, (2) mitigation of harm, (3) prevention of harm, and (4) positive strategic action/application. These goals can assist in ensuring knowledge contributes to improving the human condition in an equitable fashion. “Ours is a study of the people, by the people, and for the people principally concerned” (Blakey 1998:402). But this also requires that we be critical and honest with ourselves about our own role and place in these problems or better put opportunities for improvement. What kind of society do we want to live in? One that is more concerned with the products and quantity of profit that produces? Or one that’s concerned with the quality of human lives it produces?
Benjamin, Ruha. 2016. “Informed Refusal. Toward a Justice-based Bioethics.” Science, Technology & Human Values. doi:10.1177/0162243916656059.
Blakey, Michael L. 1998. “Beyond European enlightenment: Toward A Critical and Humanistic Human Biology.” Pp. 379-405 in Building a new biocultural synthesis: Political-economic perspectives on human biology, edited by Alan Goodman and Thomas Leatherman. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Frickel, S., S. Gibbon, J. Howard, J. Kempner, G. Ottinger, and D. J. Hess. 2010. “Undone Science: Charting Social Movement and Civil Society Challenges to Research Agenda Setting.” Science, Technology & Human Values 35(4):444–73. doi:10.1177/0162243909345836.
Gaudry, Adam JP. 2011. “Insurgent Research.” Wicazo Sa Review 26(1):113-36.
Haraway, Donna. 1989. Primate visions: Gender, race, and nature in the world of modern science. New York, NY: Routledge.
Levins, Richard. 1990. “Toward the Renewal of Science.” Rethinking Marxism: A Journal of Economics, Culture & Society 3(3-4):100–25.
Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk interruptus: Political life across the borders of settler states. Durham: Duke University Press.
Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 2012. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. New York: Zed Books.
TallBear, Kimberly. 2013. Native American DNA: Tribal belonging and the false promise of genetic science. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Weston, Anthony. 2013. A 21st century ethical toolbox. New York: Oxford University Press.
‘Listen to Evidence’: March for Science Plans Washington Rally on Earth Day by Nicholar St.Fleur https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/01/science/march-for-science-washington-date.html?_r=2
“Race, History, & the #ScienceMarch” by Christopher F. Petrella http://www.aaihs.org/race-history-and-the-sciencemarch/
“We Need Decolonial Scientists” by Shay-Akil McLean https://decolonizeallthethings.com/2016/11/10/we-need-decolonial-scientists/