SCIENCE & SOCIETY
“Who else but intellectuals are capable of discerning the role in history of explicit history-making decisions? Who else is in a position to understand that now fate itself must be made a political issue.” – C. Wright Mills The Politics of Responsibility (1969)
Science has played a prominent role in the tool kit of the powerful and in the exploitation of historically marginalized groups. Intimately tied to the stories of innovation and intellectual curiosity are the human lives, societies, environments, and ecologies destroyed in the legendary tales of Euro-western colonialisms. These are the facts of history, to attempt to escape those facts only contributes to reproducing our current political moment with more willful ignorance and inaction amongst injustice.
The conditions that have brought about this recent mobilization of scientists should not be ignored. We must also understand that the very conditions threatening the funding of scientific scholarship has also been systematically targeting the lives of the historically vulnerable. The marginalization of colonized peoples, women, LGBTQ*, and disabled scientists within the field, industry, and by fellow scientists are just some arenas where we can see the dynamics of science and social problems play out. These problems will not go away if we simply add woman, Black, Queer and then stir. These political problems within the science community and industry at large require that we as scientists take an internal (self-reflexive) look and re-evaluate the role(s) we have played historically and presently in society for us to prevent the same mistakes.
“Because nothing is less neutral, in the world of society, than the authoritative utterance of Being; the findings of science inevitably exert a political effect, which may not be that which the scholar intended.” – Pierre Bourdieu, Inaugural lecture at the College de France, 1982
Science is a method, a tool, a practice, an industry, a giant idea machine and can be dangerous if not guided by ethical principles. The history of science and technology reveals human struggles, strategies, and actions for us to collectively reflect on in the aim of preventing further disaster via the weaponization of scientific works for achieving unethical ends. It is only in facing our history that we can develop ethics, contextual accuracy, and validity is not only wrong but also dangerous. Such work has to constantly be done and re-done, its meaning is constituted in its doing. This is work that is never complete if we are to ensure that our actions are contributing to the social reproduction systems of communally based relations between people and institutions. While this is tiresome, it is worth the harmful actions that it prevents.
“But an action which wants to serve man ought to be careful not to forget him on the way.” – Simone de Beauvoir in The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947)
As a method and tool we must use science to learn how to better listen and observe. Part of that work is the very public and communal sharing of knowledge. Our society cannot change if we have an education system that sells children’s education for profit. All humans are intellectuals and engage in thought, and part of the way forward in pushing against domination is teaching skills of critical thought. We cannot achieve the work of facing problems if we don’t know how to respect the expertise of experience of others.
HISTORY & ETHICS IN GUIDING SCIENTIFIC PRACTICE
“It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live & our reasons for acting.” – Simone de Beauvoir in The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947)
Highlighting the history of science and the role of scientific institutions and scientists in the perpetuation of the power of settler state capitalism is not for the purpose of simply telling a daunting story. History is made up of struggles, tactics, and strategies. History is a record of coordinated human actions, how we tell that story very much informs what we do now and how we envision the possibilities that lay before us. We cannot begin to do the work of confronting today’s social problems without setting the record straight with regards to how we got to this moment in the first place. I point to the connected history of science to that of bourgeois revolution to underscore possibility and alternatives. Science is a tool, a method of inquiry and investigation and it can be used to build possibilities of equity and justice just like it has been used to cause harm in the world and generate profit for a few. Applying a scientific analysis to how this happened reveals possible pathways to other ways of being. Science (theoretical, natural, applied, social) is a useful tool for bringing those other ways of being into existence. Hence, what matters is HOW we use science, as well as WHO has access to it, and for WHOM science is done in service of.
A CALL TO ACTION
“Social Revolution must therefore have, standing firmly behind it, an intellectual revolution, a revolution in which our thinking and philosophy are directed towards the redemption of our society. … This requires two aims: first, the restitution of the egalitarianism of human society, and, second, the logistic mobilization of all our resources towards the attainment of that restitution.” – Kwame Nkrumah in Consciencism (1964:78)
An intellectual revolution would then bring about a questioning of the typical ways in which things have been done and a radical transformation of research agendas. Research agendas rely on the resources of those who control the regimes of truth creating a general tendency for elites to set research agendas as well as penalization of scholars who do ‘undone’ scientific work. Instead of research agendas being driven by market needs and the interests of elites, we then would turn our attentions to meeting the needs of colonized peoples and their larger struggles for self-determination. This means thinking about how our work, even if only theoretical contributes to the world of human knowledge and how we can work to share that with local communities while also being involved with combatting settler domination. Decolonial scientists have a particular kind of ethical vision that science should be practiced with humans in mind. Not helping the state maintain sovereignty over the land and the resources and the bodies on the land. It means that when we go to apply for that grant we consider what that research would be contributing to. It means that we think about the things we engineer and who they would impact the most. It means we consider the ways in which science can contribute to the confrontation of injustice and meeting the basic needs and legitimate expectations of others as well as ourselves. Structures of domination can be transformed by organized (coordinated) human action. When we speak of systems and institutions we speak of people and none of these harmful institutions and systems can work if we COLLECTIVELY REFUSE harmful protocols, procedures, and inhumane expectations about behavior. To speak of systems and institutions then is to speak of coordinated collective human action driven by a particular set of logics and ideologies.
“A society does not change its ethics merely by changing its rules. To alter its ethics, its principles must be different. Thus, if a capitalist society can become a socialist society, then a capitalist society will have changed its ethics. Any change of ethics constitutes a revolutionary change.” – Kwame Nkrumah in Consciencism (1964:95)
As Simone de Beauvior argues, as long as a problem exists there is a need for ethics. Ethics shape the philosophical grounds of what we find as acceptable and unacceptable in society. Norms are defined as acceptable rules about behavior. If we seek to reshape our norms then we need a new ethics. By that I mean we need a new way of thinking in a long term way. Ethics asks us to pay attention to something beyond ourselves and beyond the present moment (to look into the history of a thing as well as understand it as a process and in relation to other things). Ethics then gives us a way to consider others as well as ourselves, our family members, neighbors, friends, co-workers, community members, ultimately society. This attentive form of thought helps us recognize what our responsibilities are to ourselves and others given our specific role/place in society as well as the more general responsibilities we have just as community members.
“The man of action, in order to make a decision, will not wait for a perfect knowledge to prove to him the necessity of a certain choice; he must first choose and thus help fashion history. A choice of this kind is no more arbitrary than a hypothesis; it excludes neither reflection nor even method; but it is also free, and it implies risks that must be assumed as such.” – Simone de Beauvoir in The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947)
A transformative praxis makes room for new acceptable rules about behavior to be established, but such a practice is a process, it is solidified through critical thought (thinking about how you think and how you act, the practice of self-reflection) as well as consistent conscientious action. If we pay attention to the details of an issue in order for us to learn to better take care of ourselves and those around us, we are engaging in a form of ethical thought. But the thought should not end there. Ethics refers to the process and practice of taking care of and meeting the basic needs and legitimate expectations of others as well as our own. Taking care is then not only ethical but it requires research and it also requires attention to whose needs and expectations are relevant. When we care for something, we look into it, we investigate it. When we take care of something we are “conscientious about it…when we’re “careful” of it. In part, then, ethical thinking & action, in the broadest sense, is an attempt to acknowledge the others around and next to us” (Weston 2013:5). This form of taking care also means to sustain and further the thing we care for. When we care for one another, we do what we can to meet one another’s needs to ensure that we are part of the future.
“The cardinal ethical principle of philosophical consciencism is to treat each man as an end in himself and not merely as a means.” – Kwame Nkrumah in Consciencism (1964:95)
Families of Ethics taken from “A 21st Century Ethical Toolbox” by Anthony Weston (2013:88-89):
(1) THE ETHICS OF THE PERSON: affirms that persons are special, precious, and have a dignity that demands respect. No one is to be reduced to a mere means to others’ ends. Social relations require fairness, justice, and equality. Human and civil rights are essential too: they secure the space in which each person is recognized and can flourish.
(2) THE ETHICS OF EQUITY/WELL-BEING: Ethical thinking in this family of values is quantitative and economic, concerned with trade-offs and the distribution of goods, maximizing tangible social benefits.
(3) THE ETHICS OF RELATIONSHIP: encompasses those moral values concerned with our connections to others, from families to larger human communities. We are social beings as well as individuals: we grow up in families, take on traditions and heritages, and live within and depend upon human & also ecological communities. Recognizing how deeply our many communities make us who we are calls forth not only gratefulness but also a responsibility to care for and participate in them.
THE BELMONT REPORT
The Belmont Report (published in 1979) outlines three guidelines for ethical conduct of research involving human subjects which later became the common rule. These ethics can also be said to extend beyond humans to understanding the larger systems of ecological relations between humans and non-humans which contribute to the shaping of the worlds humans live in with non-humans.
- RESPECT FOR PERSONS
FIND THE BELMONT REPORT HERE: https://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/regulations-and-policy/belmont-report/index.html
THE SELF-REFLECTIVE SCIENTIST: THE ART OF ASKING BETTER QUESTIONS
Transforming the ways in which we do our work first requires a transformation in thought. The pursuit of a transformation in thought requires that we learn how to ask questions differently. Asking questions requires intuition as well as creativity. These extend beyond the traditional approaches of strictly disciplinary based approaches. Instead see each theory/concept and discipline as a set of tools, a viewpoint through which you can try to see an ‘object’ or ‘subject’ and then compare it to human practice (who does it include? who does it exclude?; etc.).
Another helpful thought exercise that is useful for asking better questions lies in understanding where we stand in relation to a problem. In that sense, our ethical principles as well as the context of our understandings of the world around us and how we are situated in it can present new ways for us to ask better questions as scientists. Where is your scholarship/discipline/industry in the larger ecology of the production of knowledge, technology, and other products? What are your innovations used for? Who funds the majority of the research in your industry? These kinds of questions can help us situate our positions in these larger chains of production to look at what our labor is contributing to and its larger connection to the social problems that exist in our local communities, states, nations, and internationally. Below are some questions to consider as you think about your research agenda:
- What does ‘knowledge’ mean to me?
- What kind of knowledge do I prioritize?
- Questions about your learning process & experiences: How did I come to know what I know? (How did I learn? How did I come to know what I know?)
- Consider others whose knowledge you regard as “like” your own, or whose knowledge you aspire to – did they follow a similar trajectory or a different one? And if they followed a different one (which they most likely did because human beings are – surprise! – different sometimes), how might you view those trajectories if you didn’t know they were the ones your idols or peers followed?
- How do I handle unknowing? What is my response to uncertainty?
- Am I someone who engages others in that process directly (through conversation and collaboration) or indirectly (through reading or gathering existing data)? Or do I rely solely upon my own pre-established knowledge base as “fact?”
- Where do I (or my organization) allow myself/ourselves to be challenged?
- Where can I (we) make space for being challenged more often? Who might I (we) invite into that experience?
- How can we engage other ways of knowing into our practice?
- Who matters in my research?
- What matters to whom?
- Whose interests are served by my research?
- What is my relationship to my research topic (what I’m studying)? How can I located myself in this with integrity?
- How can research participants be meaningfully involved? How does language influence this (who can access my research)?
- Who determines what is & is not ‘valid’ research?
- Personal: What do you value in research relationships?
- Professional: What are your responsibilities in protecting the rights of research participants? How are you meeting/struggling to meet those responsibilities?
- Organizational: What is your professional organization’s responsibilities to research participants & local communities? How are they meeting/struggling to meet these responsibilities?
- Who funds my research?
- How does my research spending impact local economies?
- Are my research assistants in the field being provided a living wage?
The scientific method is a means of investigation through systematic observation, data collection, and analysis. This method extends to the analysis of human social, political, and economic life. If we are to come to find ways to exist amongst one another freely then that means we are in need of experts dedicated to that work in their expertise as well as in their interactions with others in their local community outside of that professional work. This cannot be efficiently done in isolation, it requires a coordinated and organized network of experts specializing in a wide variety of fields coming together to provide insights to understanding problems, to coordinate resources, to provide support to one another as workers in their professions, and provide expertise as well as learn from local grassroots movements. This is possible but it requires our coordinated work and everyday dedication to make it PROBABLE.
This does require that lines be drawn, but the lines drawn are based on scientifically, ethically, and historically informed analysis. But we must not forget that these forms of analysis and these approaches have practical applied goals and without action/execution they are merely ideas. We must start somewhere, and the first start to understanding a problem is to seek to understand how it developed overtime and how it relates to other things.
Start working groups in your labs, coordinate with scholars across the disciplines, build new relationships on as well as off your campuses. See what community programs already exist, ask yourself how you can offer your expertise via a workshop, donate books, give your time if you have it and if not that offer other donations. Carry out actions that center an understanding of social need rather than solely thinking and acting in capitalist understandings to interact with and build relationships with others. Ultimately learning to practice a science that unsettles, we must also engage in actions that question and move beyond convention thought and seek to honor the self-governance of all.
This reading list is compiled with the names of texts that are useful for helping one understand the relationships between science and society. This list is in no way exhaustive and was made to provide a starting point. In order for solutions to be offered we must seek to first understand our problem. The problems we face have histories, different scales of actors involved, across institutions and communities. The reading list below is comprised of a reading list with texts I’ve outlined as useful for learning about human history, how to organize, as well as texts on better understanding the relationships between the state, science (as a method, tool, and industry), and society. Feel free to couple this reading list with other learning tools. This reading list can be a used to guide individuals as well as reading groups, I encourage all to read and search for meaning in these texts in the hope that our communities, classrooms, and labs become spaces seeking to respect the self-determination of selves and others.
SUPPLEMENTARY READING LIST:
Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Linda Tuhiwai Smith
Research As Resistance: Critical, indigenous and anti-oppressive approaches by Leslie Allison Brown & Susan Strega
Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-politics, & Modernity by Timothy Mitchell
The Will To Improve: Governmentality, Development, & the Practice of Politics by Tania Li
White Logic, White Methods: Racism and Methodology by Tukufu Zuberi & Eduardo Bonilla-Silva
Science Studies: An Advanced Introduction by David J. Hess
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.
Angel-Ajani, Asale. 2006. “Expert Witness: Notes toward Revisiting the Politics of Listening.” pp.76-89 in Engaged Observer: Anthropology, Advocacy, & Activism, edited by Victoria Sanford & Asale Angel-Ajani. Piscataway: Rutgers University Press.
Davis, Dana-Ain. 2006. “Knowledge in the Service of a Vision: Politically Engaged Anthropology.” pp. 228-238 in Engaged Observer: Anthropology, Advocacy, & Activism, edited by Victoria Sanford & Asale Angel-Ajani. Piscataway: Rutgers University Press.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn
The New Political Sociology of Science: Institutions, Networks, & Power edited by Scott Frickel & Kelly Moore
States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science & Social Order edited by Sheila Jasanoff
A Fragile Power: Scientists and the State by Chandra Mukerji
Science, Colonialism, & Indigenous Peoples: The Cultural Politics of Law & Knowledge by Laurelyn Whitt
Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture by Britt Rusert
The Postcolonial Science & Technology Studies Reader edited by Sandra Harding
The Handbook of Science & Technology Studies edited by Edward J. Hackett, Olga Amstermanska, Michael Lynch, & Judy Wajcman
The Science of Science Policy: A Handbook edited by Kaye Husbands Fealing, Julia I. Lane, John H. Marburger III, & Stephanie S. Shipp
KEEP AN EYE ON THIS UPCOMING BOOK:
Benjamin, Ruha. 2016. “Informed Refusal. Toward a Justice-based Bioethics.” Science, Technology & Human Values. doi:10.1177/0162243916656059.
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.
Mukerji, Chandra. 2003. “Intelligent Uses of Engineering and the Legitimacy of State Power.” Technology and Culture 44(4):655–76. doi:10.1353/tech.2003.0175.
Shay-Akil McLean is a PhD student in Sociology studying bioethics, STS (science & technology studies), & human evolutionary biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is also the founder of decolonizeallthethings.com and decolonizeallthescience.com.
Natasha Thomas is the Clinical Coordinator of Music Therapy at Loyola University, a PhD student in Expressive Arts Therapies at Lesley University, and Southeast Regional representative for the Diversity & Multiculturalism Committee of the American Music Therapy Association.
Ogadinma Kingsley Okakpu is an undergraduate Biochemistry major and conducts undergraduate research as a RISE scholar at San Jose State University. He is also a member of Iota Phi Theta Fraternity Inc.
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