The March for Science Has Kicked Off a Big, Important Conversation About Scientific ‘Objectivity’

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Photo: Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

There’s been a lot of heated online debate about the upcoming March for Science in Washington, an event that is billed as a response to the election of Donald Trump and “the first step of a global movement to defend the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies, and governments.” As is often the case with heated online debates, people are doing a lot of yelling and talking past one another. But beyond all that noise is an important, complicated conversation about science, politics, and social justice — a conversation worth having.

Maybe the best place to start is with an exchange that neatly captures what’s being debated here — a quote and an essay that was written (partly) in response to that quote. The quote is from Dr. Jonathan Berman, a postdoctoral fellow at University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and the lead organizer of the march, and the response to it from Shay Akil McLean, a Ph.D. student University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who studies, among other things, the intersection between science and social justice.

In an article published February 1, Berman told the New York Times that the march, which is scheduled for Earth Day (April 22) and which is being promoted as a response to the Trump administration’s seeming hostility to various politically inconvenient scientific endeavors, foremost among them climate-change research, isn’t “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.” To which McLean, who has a 20,000-strong following on Twitter, where he goes by @Hood_Biologist, responded incredulously. In an essay posted in early March entitled “The People’s Science: A Call for Justice Based Ethics for the March for Science & Beyond,” McLean takes strong exception to this idea. It’s not only ignorant to view science as apolitical, he argues — it’s dangerous.

“How can scientists attempt to get involved and address larger social problems that are directly and indirectly impacting their work?” he asks. “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.”

He continues:

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.

If you read that paragraph carefully, you’ll notice there’s a huge pivot about halfway through. The first half has to do with the way science is conducted in the real world — McLean is arguing, more or less, that it’s silly to claim the practice of science is apolitical when certain prevailing power structures in place make it impossible for anyone to adopt a true stance of neutrality. Politics and bias and power determine which research projects get funded and taken seriously, and which don’t. These structures allow some questions to be asked while suppressing others.

But then, he switches to a critique of the very idea of science or objectivity as a meaningful designation worth pursuing. This, he argues, is simply a tool of the powerful against the marginalized. “[T]o 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.” This is a very, very different argument.

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This debate over what the March for Science is or should be — and therefore over what science itself is or should be — has been going on for a big chunk of 2017. It is a debate mostly occurring between people who view themselves as left-of-center and sympathetic to the idea of a pro-science march, and at root there are two sides: One side believes that science is generally a separate enterprise from politics and should stay that way, even if the politics in question feel good and right and important to us. The other side disagrees strongly: Its members argue that science without a strong social-justice bedrock — that is, without politics — is a myth, and that embracing this myth will only led to hardship and oppression, as history has shown repeatedly.

One of the key flashpoints in this debate came late in January, when the March for Science’s organizers tweeted language arguing that “colonization, racism, immigration, native rights, sexism, ableism, queer-, trans-, intersex-phobia, & econ justice are scientific issues.” This alarmed some onlookers, including a particularly big-name one in Steven Pinker.

The March for Science’s tweet has since been yanked down, and the March’s current diversity language is pretty mild by any reasonable standard. Still, though, there has been some aggressive public disagreement on this debate, particularly on social media. There seems to be rather massive disagreement over what science is, and what its responsibilities are:

Lurking beneath this generally hostile and dysfunctional conversation playing out on social media are two important truths: Science is a human enterprise that has been frequently used for abusive and oppressive ends; but that fact notwithstanding, there is something uniquely important about the scientific method and empiricism in general.

The first statement should be self-evidently true to anyone with even a passing familiarity with science. Ever since there has been science, after all, there have been “scientific” claims which have been used to justify everything from slavery to Nazi atrocities to a thousand subtler and less spectacular injustices. Science is a human institution, subject to human biases and bigotries. “Systems of privilege influence who becomes a part of the science community, what topics we study, and how we apply our work in creating new technologies and crafting policy,” write the March’s organizers, and it’s hard to argue with this. The practice of science can never be “neutral,” or fully “apolitical,” because even the act of choosing a hypothesis to pose and investigate contains embedded in it all sorts of societal, well, stuff.

One way to soften science’s hardest biases is to make it more diverse. If you have people from many different backgrounds, the thinking goes, they’ll be better equipped to identify blind spots, pursue science that can help oppressed people, and so on. This isn’t just a feel-good claim — there’s some evidence, particularly from organizational psychology, suggesting that as social groups get more diverse, they become better at problem-solving. That’s because diverse groups, at least at first, often have slightly more social tension, meaning their members exhibit less groupthink and more of a willingness to challenge one another. When it’s no longer a group of backslapping white guys, people are more likely to call out one another on their shoddy or illogical thinking.

So why are scientists griping about the “politicization” of the March, when that politicization is a reaction to some very real problems within science, some of which linger today? Some scientists are, unfortunately, simply skeptical of all this social-justice talk — they deny there’s a problem at all. But that’s not the whole story here — not all the researchers who are griping about the march’s “politicization” are so myopic. Some of them are responding to something else.

For decades now, some academics within critical studies, postcolonial studies, and various branches of feminist analysis have promoted the argument that there’s nothing unique or particularly important about the scientific method — the system of (in-theory) careful hypothesis-testing and observation and theorizing that underpins good science. In this view, the scientific method is just another way of learning about the world and human experience, and it’s unfair to privilege it over others. Some of these arguments claim that the scientific method may disguise itself as an apolitical ideal, but is really just a tool of Western conquest and white/masculine domination, and should be seen as such. It’s important to realize that this is a very different, bigger argument than “Science has a troubled history, and bias often infects the scientific method.” Rather, the argument here is that the scientific method itself isn’t really worth defending or saving in its own right. It’s just another subjective human invention, after all, and one frequently used to oppress. When McLean attempts to link the idea of “universal truths” with the powerful, that’s a pretty straightforward example of this sort of thinking.

What this view neglects, of course, is that for a certain category of questions, the scientific method is often the only way to get close to the right answer. If you want to know how much warmer the Earth is going to get in the years to come, the only way to even come close is to use the tools of the scientific method. There’s no other way. And, of course, if you’re interested in meaningful social-justice reforms, you need the scientific method for those too. That’s how you show that kids in low-income neighborhoods really would benefit from increased access to mental-health services; that’s how you show that if global warming continues apace, it really will threaten countless innocent people in Bangladesh. Scientific claims about these subjects are privileged above anecdotal ones because, in theory at least, the authors of those claims have followed a certain rigorous process to get there, and because we know that other ways of knowing are often far more susceptible to human bias than carefully controlled observation and experimentation.

It’s important to point out that in the grand scheme of things, postcolonial and critical studies theorists who question science don’t have a great deal of societal power. There’s a risk of overreacting to the zany fringe — should we be more worried about billionaire oil magnates scrubbing climate-change data, or struggling adjuncts writing papers no one reads? But on the other hand, these attempts to kneecap the idea of objectivity have been around for a while, now, and it really does have a stranglehold on certain corners of academia. So part of what’s going on is that when the Pinkers of the world see language that is often used in these corners — frequent mentions of colonialism, for example — they worry about appeals to this sort of epistemic relativism.

In addition to being damaging to many social-justice causes — why should we fund climate change research if there’s no such thing as a universal truth about global warming? — many of these arguments about the supposed social construction of objectivity seriously misread the history of science. Let’s go back to McLean’s essay, for example, to the claim that “to think there are universal truths perpetuates a particular kind of able bodied white cisgender male logic.” This is absurd. Long before the Enlightenment and the rise of recent European empires, humans from just about every culture imaginable have sought to better understand what can only be called “universal truths,” whether or not they would have described them as such at the time. During the golden age of Islamic astronomy, for example — apologies for borrowing from Wikipedia — the astronomer Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi published a work “contain[ing] tables for the movements of the sun, the moon and the five planets known at the time.” All this insight, of course, came from careful, scientific observation of the sky and the mysteries swirling there.

Thousands of miles away, about half a millennium later, the Mayans had taken their own interest in astronomy. According to National Geographic, back then “Ancient Mesoamericans used two interlocking yet unrelated calendar cycles. The 365-day solar calendar, called the haab, tracked the movement of the sun, while a second ceremonial one called the tzolkin followed a 260-day track linked to ceremonies and celebrations. Think of it like the days of the week, if a week lasted 260 days and each day had its own cultural significance.” Here’s a photo of pages from the Dresden codex — so-called because it was rediscovered there — a pre-Columbian Mayan text which, among other things, “provided ancient skygazers with a correction tool for their calendars.”

This is, by the standards of the time and in light of the technology and know-how the Mayans had access to, sophisticated science that long predates white science-bros. Now, obviously the motivations behind and applications of Mayan astronomy weren’t, by modern standards, entirely sophisticated — that same Nat Geo article notes that “for the ancient Maya, the brilliant light of Venus was an omen of war that guided ritual activity, prompted great battles, and was even used as shorthand for ‘total destruction.’” But the point is that cultures from all over the world have sought out their own versions of “universal” or “objective” truths: If you mix these chemicals together, the resulting powder will, if ignited, explode violently; if you look at the sky on this date, you will see a cool thing. A boat built in this manner will almost always survive a sudden thunderstorm in open sea. And so on.

None of this is a “white” or “cis” or “male” phenomenon — that point needs to be hammered home forever — and were this notion to catch on it would be profoundly damaging to the important ongoing attempts to diversify science. Fascination with the universe is, well, universal. We are curious creatures trying to understand the giant swirling confusing existence we’ve been dropped into. We want to understand phenomena that exist in predictable ways regardless of the identity of the observer, and there are countless such phenomena. I know exactly when the sun will rise tomorrow, and that truth really does exist independent of my identity or language or level of privilege. And it matters! Especially in an era when, in theory at least, humanity has access to scientific knowledge that could save or improve countless lives — assuming that science is funded and disseminated and respected.

Lest you think McLean is an outlier in arguing that the idea of objective truth doesn’t really matter, you should familiarize yourself with some other research in this general space. Give a read, for example, to a paper published in Progress in Human Geography last year called “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research.” It’s a telling example of the deep holes that academics inevitably dig for themselves when they embrace this gobbledygook — and how counterproductive this line of thinking is for those of us who care deeply about making the world a better place.

The article, authored by Mark Carey, M. Jackson, Alessandro Antonello, and Jaclyn Rushing, is framed in part as a response to the geophysicist Henry Pollack’s argument that “Ice asks no questions, presents no arguments, reads no newspapers, listens to no debates. It is not burdened by ideology and carries no political baggage as it crosses the threshold from solid to liquid.” “This perspective,” write the authors, is problematic, and it “contrasts sharply” with the work of other researchers, who take more holistic approaches to understanding glaciers.

After some genuinely interesting, entertaining history about the extent to which glaciology and arctic exploration in general have always been framed as “manly,” risky pursuits, the authors lay out the goals of feminist glaciology. This field, they argue, is partly a response to the prevailing view that modern glaciology should be about analyzing and measuring glaciers in ways that can be quantified, measurement and quantification — this will sound familiar after reading McLean’s essay — being the purview of the Western male colonizers.

Feminist glaciology, they write, recognizes that “whereas glaciologists may try to measure glaciers and understand ice physics by studying the glacial ice itself, indigenous accounts do not portray the ice as passive, to be measured and mastered in a stereotypically masculinist sense.” It “reveals how people across the planet have been living with glaciers for centuries and have produced wide ranges of glaciological knowledge — folk glaciology — that is rarely recognized within the scientific discipline of modern glaciology.” Folk glaciology includes, to take one example from a writer the authors quote who spoke with indigenous people about how they viewed glaciers, the idea that glaciers “are willful, capricious, easily excited by human intemperance, but equally placated by quick-witted human responses. Proper behavior is deferential. I was warned, for instance, about firm taboos against ‘cooking with grease’ near glaciers that are offended by such smells … Cooked food, especially fat, might grow into a glacier overnight if improperly handled.”

Eventually the authors explain where they’re going with all this:

[T]he feminist glaciology framework asks that researchers accept a plurality of knowledges and recognize embedded systems of domination. The goal is neither to force glaciologists to believe that glaciers listen nor to make indigenous peoples put their full faith in scientists’ mathematical equations and computer-generated models (devoid of meaning, spirituality, and reciprocal human-nature relationships). Rather, the goal is to understand that environmental knowledge is always based in systems of power discrepancies and unequal social relations, and overcoming these disparities requires accepting that multiple knowledges exist and are valid within their own contexts.

Setting aside the claim that there’s something “masculinist” about wanting to measure phenomena to better understand them (there are probably a lot of women scientists who disagree with that assessment) it’s striking how much work those final five words — valid within their own contexts — are doing. At no point, of course, do the authors suggest that indigenous accounts of glaciers are more useful than “Western” or “masculinist” ones for answering the specific questions modern glaciologists are trying to answer.

Carey and his colleagues seem to think it’s unwarranted for glaciologists to privilege Western conceptions of glaciology, despite the fact that these conceptions benefit from all sorts of tools and techniques indigenous conceptions don’t have access to. In this view, the theory that glaciers recede or advance based on their moods should be elevated relative to the theory that they do so because of “ground water, friction, and the laws of physics.” And on making this argument, the authors dance around what feels like a very obvious conclusion: There are different sorts of knowledge that matter for different sorts of end goals. Indigenous glaciology may be fascinating and worth studying and exploring for many reasons, but is far inferior to Western glaciology for the specific task of understanding glaciers in a material sense and making scientific predictions about them.

This isn’t a particularly difficult distinction to make! The Biblical view of creation, for example, is fascinating and worth studying and preserving as an ethnographic artifact and source of inspiration for many people, but it offers effectively zero helpful insight for anyone trying to study how life actually first slopped its way out of the primordial ooze. A Biblical scholar is unlikely to view the modern study of speciation as particularly relevant to their understanding of Old Testament creationism. Those in Carey’s camp, though, would seem compelled, if they’re going to be consistent, to argue that Western evolutionary biologists shouldn’t privilege scientific accounts of creation over faith-based ones — and in this way there’s a revealing convergence between far-left theorizing and far-right dogma. But again: Once you deny that objectivity or universal truths are worth pursuing within a scientific framework, this is where you find yourself.

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Fans of the scientific method hold it as a unique and particularly wonderful way to try to gain and process knowledge. That’s because, in theory, it’s self-correcting: Someone else can come along and tell you your theory sucks, and that their theory rules, and baked into the rules of the scientific method are ways for the two of you to hash out which theory is better. This is often a very messy and human process, of course — the truth is a bendy concept that opportunists can and do abuse. Still, there’s something beautiful about this idea of a systematized process for determining what’s true and what isn’t. And it has a better track record, by a wide margin, than any other system for answering the sorts of questions that have quantifiable answers, or which lend themselves easily to this sort of analysis.

One thing science generally can’t do, however, is answer questions of values. Sound science doesn’t make us better, necessarily — it makes us more effective. It can make us more effective at sucking oil from the Earth, or curing babies of diseases that would kill them, or rounding up ethnic and religious minorities into camps and killing them. Just about any action we want to take, science can make us better at. From this angle, science, at its core, really is apolitical. Science itself can’t answer the question of what science should be used for, or which subjects should be studied scientifically.

But with enough public pressure, governments can be convinced to take the most important issues seriously — that’s part of the point of the March for Science. And if you actually want to solve those problems, to understand the complicated universal truths that drive inequality and climate change and every other challenge humanity faces, you need science. Science isn’t perfect and it isn’t immune from human biases and greed and bigotry, but it’s necessary.

The Science March Sparked a Big Argument About Objectivity