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The Political Ends of Pure Science

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For those who believe that science is apolitical, allow me to present Exhibit A: rare photographs from Hiroshima.

I’m not saying the relationship between politics and science is inherently good or bad. But it is and scientists need to accept and act upon this fact.

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  • Njorl

    Scientists should consider the ethics of their work, not the politics. While some politics is unavoidable, it should be minimized. Political considerations in science make it suspect, which is universally detrimental.

    • DivGuy

      That seems to entirely beg the question. Distinguish ethics from politics, and you have an argument.

      An argument, for what it’s worth, that I expect I would completely disagree with. Ethics are always already political. The way I live my life can never be abstracted from the relations of power – governmental, economic, racial, sexual – in relation to which my life is situated.

      There are indeed risks run by science which is consciously political – it can indeed produce bad science, which is bad. But science which pretends to be apolitical runs the risk not only of producing bad science (lying about the political nature of human action is a problematic place to start), but of producing bad politics – which as the above photos mean to demonstrate, is a lot worse.

      There are fields of basic science where the political ends aren’t clear beyond the expansion of human knowledge, and it’s certainly true that some fields of science, some projects and some experiments, are more or less politically fraught than others. But it’s something that scientists need to be engaging with, and thinking critically about, rather than disavowing entirely.

      I do think that the climate change debate has shown a lot of people working in science today that they can’t pretend to live in a space separate from politics. That’s overall a good thing.

      • Njorl

        Distinguish ethics from politics, and you have an argument.

        The difference between ethical and political considerations in science:

        A political dilemma is one in which my science may be used by society as a whole in a way I find harmful.

        An ethical dilemma is one in which individuals or small, unresponsive entities may use my science in a way I find harmful.

        I must recognize my ethical fallibility, and defer to society in exchange for the trust society places in me. If I am not willing to do that, then my work can not be trusted as a whole. Individuals who are not placed in a similar position of trust do not have the same sanction placed upon them. They have not made an implicit pact with society on scientific matters.

        An example:
        If I find evidence which argues against global warming amidst other evidence which supports it, I must not suppress it. If I do, no one can trust the evidence which supports it. Society as a whole must be allowed to make its own decisions.

        If I find a means to make dangerous bioweapons cheaply and easily in my basement, I should suppress that information. Society would not be making any decisions about this. Individuals would become empowered to make mass life and death decisions on their own without societal input.

        There is a vast grey area, in which nuclear weapons reside. While it takes the effort of a nation to make them, the decisions to use them are made by as few as a handful of people.

        • burritoboy

          Your distinction is not plausible. Everything (or everything of any importance) will end up falling into the grey area, as you put it.

          • Njorl

            No it won’t.

            See, I can do it too.

  • brent

    scientists need to accept and act upon this fact.

    Act how exactly? Maybe this is something that you have written about elsewhere but I am curious to know what precisely you have in mind here.

    My own opinion is that science is a highly effective method of gaining knowledge about the world and sometimes, often even, that knowledge can be dangerous. Really, the consequences of learning a lot about anything can be grave but to the extent that technology represents science – and that is not such a simple correlation – then the negative effects can be very visible.

    But what exactly is the alternative to the enthusiastic pursuit of knowledge that science represents? What should be the considered political approach to science?

    • To start with, realize that your findings may well be politicized by people who intentionally distort your efforts and act aggressively to defend what they really mean.

      • Njorl

        The success or failure of any political message is much more dependent on what people want to hear than it is on the efforts of the messenger.

        Consider your Hiroshima example. If scientists argued persuasively to the American people in 1945 that using the atomic bomb would kill about 100,000 Japanese civilians and cause birth defects and cancer for decades, they would heartily have approved.

        People don’t disbelieve global warming because they believe the deniers. They disbelieve it because they want to. They don’t want to pay $7.00 for a gallon of gas. They don’t want a smaller house in a denser neighborhood. They would prefer that the equator becomes uninhabitable.

        Getting people to accept global warming isn’t about making them accept the science. It is about getting them to accept the consequences.

        • rea

          The Manhattan Project was of course, “political” in a broad sense, and was seen as such by the participants. They built the bomb to win the war, not because they wanted to break new ground in nuclear physics.

          • Ben

            I think you can say the MP was created out of political considerations (duh), but there are a bunch of quotes from scientists working on it that they wanted to break new ground in nuclear physics.

            Oppenheimer said something like “Some things are technically so sweet you just have to do them and worry about justifications later.” There’s an ok book called Atomic Fragments where interviews with the scientists make it pretty clear that a fraternal atmosphere fueled by group work tackling interesting challenges kept a lot of them from thinking about what they were doing on a political/ethical level.

            • Anonymous

              “they wanted to break new ground in nuclear physics”

              This is over simplified to the point of distortion. Of course nuclear physicists were excited about breaking new ground in physics, but they were doing so in the context of winning a war against a dread and dangerous enemy. There was nothing abstract about the work under those circumstances. What’s more, many of them had escaped from the clutches of the enemy themselves — they knew the risks of failure personally. So they were driven to succeed by more than a love of science or some sweet technicality.
              There’s a difference between fighting for your life and doing research. For a time the MP obscured the difference.

              • Ben

                After the German nuclear program collapsed in 1944, which was the biggest reason a lot of the scientists joined the program, I think only one stopped working on it.

                The rest were too caught up in what they were doing, working on incredible challenges with a world-class group of people and unlimited funding, to consider the political/ethical dimensions of their work.

                It’s not like we have to infer from the circumstances how they thought about this stuff. They told us.

      • Jon H

        “To start with, realize that your findings may well be politicized by people who intentionally distort your efforts and act aggressively to defend what they really mean.”

        This doesn’t seem terribly useful, as it applies to fields of study far beyond weapons research. Virtually any field of research can be latched onto and distorted to further *some* political goal.

  • Allin58

    Brent, I agree completely. Just stating that scientists need to act doesn’t touch on the how. Science allows us to better understand the natural world. What to do with that knowledge can be a big political question that an individual scientist is no better at understanding than you or me. A good example is this new flu virus that was developed. That has major world-wide health ramifications. Scientists need to work with politicians to come to an agreement on that, but the individual scientist can’t just stop investigating because surly someone else will keep going. We are in some very tricky times here and openness and availability to the best information is the only way that politicians can make decisions.

  • Science is apolitical. To say otherwise is to suggest that the laws of physics vary according to beliefs. I hope you do not really think that the fact that non-scientists have done bad things with scientific discoveries means that science is magic.

    • Is science an objective thing or a series of human actions and decisions based around attempts to understand nature? The answer is obviously the latter but I suspect you all believe it is the former. Note that this does not mean that there are not “laws of physics” that may be objective fact in the same way that it is an objective fact that George Washington became president in 1789.

      • Murc

        Is science an objective thing or a series of human actions and decisions based around attempts to understand nature? The answer is obviously the latter but I suspect you all believe it is the former.

        Three things. First of all, and I say this with all due respect, you are wrong.

        Second of all, you present a false choice. The answer is ‘both’. Science is an objective thing AND a series of human actions and decisions based around attempts to understand nature. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.

        Third, some of us are still modernists, and proud of it. Pretending that we don’t exist won’t make us go away.

        • Your eugenicist forebearers would like a word with you about the pure objectivity of science.

          • Murc

            I have no idea what you’re trying to say with that comment.

            That’s not snark. I literally do not understand your point. This could be because of a complete comprehension failure on my part (not uncommon.)

            • That eugenics was a completely accepted branch of science and that they truly believed they were conducting pure science and being completely objective. And of course it was totally bogus. That just because one believes in a truly objective science does not mean that a purely objective science is possible.

              This is also a good time to mention the evidence that corporate-funded scientific research tends to find the answers corporations want.

              • Murc

                That eugenics was a completely accepted branch of science and that they truly believed they were conducting pure science and being completely objective. And of course it was totally bogus.

                Okay. That makes them… wrong. People are wrong. That happens! I’m not sure what that has to do with the objectivity of lack thereof of science.

                That just because one believes in a truly objective science does not mean that a purely objective science is possible.

                It also doesn’t mean its NOT possible, and even granting the point that it might not be, that doesn’t mean you throw up your hands and give up. There’s objective scientific truth out there, and your job as a scientist to get as close to it as possible.

                This is also a good time to mention the evidence that corporate-funded scientific research tends to find the answers corporations want.

                Uh… yes? People take bribes to say things that aren’t true. This, again, has no bearing on the objectivity or lack thereof of science.

                • “Uh… yes? People take bribes to say things that aren’t true. This, again, has no bearing on the objectivity or lack thereof of science.”

                  Does not this mean that you are defining science as something not connected with human actions? I mean, if you want to define it that, fine, we can probably agree on that more or less but it’s a really academic definition since it can only be interpreted through human actions, which is what really matters.

                • Murc

                  Does not this mean that you are defining science as something not connected with human actions?

                  To an extent, but ONLY to an extent. I’m going to unpack my viewpoint a little bit just to make sure we’re on the same page.

                  The laws of thermodynamics exist as things which are not connected to human actions, short of there being a heretofore unknown way to change the physical laws of the universe. Nothing humans do or fail to do can alter them in any way. They are OBJECTIVE.

                  But. It takes human action to suss those laws out, to discover that they exist, what their nature is, and to codify and lock down that nature in a way that humans can understand and make use of. As a PRACTICAL matter, the laws don’t matter until humans discover them. They have the same objective existence as, say, oil, but no practical use until someone pumps them out of the metaphorical ground and refines them.

                  Now, suppose there’s a group of people who, for one reason or another, would prefer that the laws of thermodynamics were something different. They propose their own set of… let’s call them the unlaws of thermodynamics.

                  These unlaws do not have an objective existence. They were made up. They’re not REAL. The only way to get people to accept they are real is through lies, trickery, and deceit. The unlaws are not real. They are not science. They have no objective existence.

                  It may be possible to convince people that the unlaws are valid, that they exist. This in no way, shape, or form discredits legitimate science, or causes the actual laws to cease to exist. And because the unlaws do not have an objective existence, it is possible to legitimately disprove them using the laws, because the laws are real and reality beats unreality.

                  (I’ve met postmodernists who would at this point interject by saying that if everyone believes something is real, it BECOMES real. I can’t stress enough how much I disagree with that statement.)

                  it’s a really academic definition since it [science] can only be interpreted through human actions, which is what really matters.

                  In a strictly practical sense, yes, you are correct. What humans believe and how they act on it is what really matters. But the actual objective substance of those beliefs also exist, and that matters too. It matters a LOT.

                  You keep presenting this as a binary choice, and I don’t think that’s true at all.

                • I don’t fundamentally have any problem with any of this. I don’t think I am presenting it as a binary at all, but this may well be my own poor communication skills. Do I really believe that these laws have an objective existence? I don’t know. Do I think we might have totally rejected them in 500 years? It’s entirely possible. I just have seen to many things that are “true” be completely repudiated in the past.

                  Of course, I always hated math because of the entire idea of the “given” so there’s probably a reason I’m in the humanities.

                • Steve LaBonne

                  burritoboy, I stand by what I said. Everybody on your list has more to contribute to an understanding of what science is about than either of Kuhn or Rorty (along with a lot of wrongheaded stuff as well). I am particularly sympathetic to Feyerabend, as I don’t believe in any such thing as a “scientific Method” on which philosophers are entitled to lecture scientists.

                • Murc

                  I don’t think I am presenting it as a binary at all, but this may well be my own poor communication skills.

                  I don’t want to say this is true, because lord knows your communications skills are superior to mine. But maybe its something to consider.

                  I seem to recall we’ve had this discussion at least once before; you made a post in which you said something along the lines of ‘history isn’t objective’ and a lot of people (myself included) jumped down your throat. But when we unpacked things it turned out you were making the fairly banal point that you have to strive for objectivity while simultaneously acknowledging that it was a near-unattainable ideal.

                  (I wish I had the link.)

                  Do I really believe that these laws have an objective existence? I don’t know. Do I think we might have totally rejected them in 500 years? It’s entirely possible. I just have seen to many things that are “true” be completely repudiated in the past.

                  This is a healthy and skeptical standpoint to have, and one that I largely share with you. But I also believe that there are objective truths, and that if we fail to discern them properly (or lack the tools to do so) the fault is in ourselves, not in the stars.

                  Of course, I always hated math because of the entire idea of the “given” so there’s probably a reason I’m in the humanities.

                  I do believe this is the not-so-secret viewpoint of half the people in the humanities. People think of math as this grand settled science, but it has deep philosophical underpinnings and contradictions within it that provoke bitter feuds and long philosophical debate.

              • L2P

                Whoa there. Your definition of “politics” here is now getting mangled up with “objectivity.”

                If your point is that all of human observation is always less than 100% objective, well, OK then. Agreed. That’s why we have the scientific method, after all, is to make it as objective as possible. But if your point is that science is inevitably tainted by the political ideology of the scientists? You’re not going to have a lot of buyers.

                The fact that you can point to the outlier of Eugenics (and to the atrocity of Stalin’s scientific programs) as examples of “political” science shows that we have an incredibly vast body of apolitical scientific work out there. They stand out like a sore thumb.

            • jeer9

              Murc,
              Read some Rorty on the scientific method, or Thomas Kuhn. Even if one dislikes the idea of mob psychology being applied to such a cherished and clearly objective discipline, politics and history are inextricably connected to the resolution of problematic anomalies and scientific crises. Persuasion takes years, sometimes decades. Unfortunately, the corporate media has taken this relativist position and turned it to its own nefarious advantage. You may think the genie has not escaped but it has – and it’s not going back into the bottle any time soon.

              • Steve LaBonne

                Two of the most useless authors for understanding science. Kuhn has passed his sell-by date; he is still in vogue among certain social scientists but rightly gets little respect nowadays from philosophers and historians of science. Rorty is just irrelevant in this context.

                • burritoboy

                  Steve,

                  Don’t be this obnoxious. Jeer just as easily could have named Bruno Latour, Imre Lakatos, Paul Feyerabend, Stephen Toulmin or at least a dozen other figures.

      • JozefAL

        In all fairness, it’s NOT really “an objective fact” that Washington became President in 1789. The main objection to the “objective fact” lies in the dating. Sure, you’re using a calendar, but humans have relied on a number of different calendars over time (the old Roman calendar, used in the time of Julius Caesar, began with the purported founding of Rome; the Jewish calendar–still in use–is well into the 5700s, having been set at the creation of Earth; the calendar used as a LEGAL system in many Muslim countries is only into the 1400s, being set at the time of the Hegira) and even scientists don’t use the Gregorian as an absolute calendar.

        Because you use one specific calendar means that you’re technically making a “subjective” fact (the fact is *subject* to that specific calendrical system). It’s similar to the “objective fact” that Washington was born on Feb 22. Not really. In the year he was born, the British Empire followed the Julian Calendar which was about 10 or 11 days behind the Gregorian (this brings up another interesting “objective” fact–that Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the “same” day; the calendar date of their deaths might be the same but England used the Julian Calendar while Spain used the Gregorian) so Washington’s ACTUAL birthday was Feb 11 in 1732. Sometimes those “objective” facts aren’t quite so cut and dried. (Even the idea that Washington was the “first” President is only an “objective” fact by specifying that he was the first UNDER THE CONSTITUTION. The US had several Presidents dating back to the time of the Revolution. The head of the Continental Congress was titled “President.”)

        • Fair enough. Great points all around.

        • rea

          You haven’t shown any subjective elements in whether Washington became president in 1789. What you’ve shown is that the objective facts are far more complicated than that plain statement about Wahington becoming president in 1789 indicates.

          • Mike Schilling

            Exactly. Washington was president 222 years ago, regardless of which calendar you favor.

            • ajay

              Washington was president 222 years ago, regardless of which calendar you favor.

              No, he wasn’t, and 1.4 billion Muslims would agree with me on this one, because the Muslim calendar year is 355 days long. 1789 AD is 1203 AH. And we’re now in 1433 AH. So, in fact, Washington was president 230 years ago.

              • Mike Schilling

                And if you call the amount of time it takes to make a pastrami sandwich a “year”, it was billions of them. Tell me another one.

                • ajay

                  Well, if there was a billion-strong religious group that worked on the Pastrami Calendar, you might actually have a point worth making there.

            • ScipioSE

              But what is this “year” you speak of? If you measured time in units of the typical lifespan of the domesticated turkey, you’d get a totally different number. Nothing objective about that!

        • John

          Oh, come on. All we have to do to resolve this “problem” is rephrase the statement to “Washington became president in the year 1789 AD of the Gregorian Calendar.”

      • Wow. I hadn’t expected all that growth. My point was that science is the study of laws which are per se unchangeable. Apart from postmodernist cranks, no one holds otherwise. If you type “eugenics” in Google, you will notice that the first autocomplete is “eugenics movement.” If anything is a movement, it isn’t science. Evolution is a science, artificial selection is an activity.

  • Njorl

    So scientists should lie about global warming because addressing it hurts the economy?

    That’s scientists being political.

    • No, scientists should openly attack Republicans who distort their research. Call out the Republican Party for lying. They need a lobbying wing of their organizations that is in Washington and all over the media on these issues. Instead, so many seem genuinely shocked when their research is distorted for political ends.

      • Murc

        As I said in a comment below, this is an example of calling for scientists to be politically aware and savvy. (Which I support 100%, balls-out.)

        It is not an example of science itself being political.

        • Lee

          It is an example of scientists being political because by defending their findings against those that would distort their research, scientists are taking a political position. They might not like this fact but defending research on climate change is taking a political position on it.

          • Steve LaBonne

            You just re-stated what Murc said, you know.

            • Lee

              No, Murc maintains that there is a meaningful distinction between scientists being politically savy and scientists being political. I’m struggling to find any meaningful distinction though.

              What Murc might mean is that when scientists are political, they are using science to advance a particular political ideology like the Njorl’s exmaple of Lysenko bellow. In comparison politically savy scientists simply realize that they might take steps to avoid distortion of their findings by those that want to.

              IMO, the distinction between scientists being political and political savy is non-existent. If a climate change scientists fights against distortion of her findings than she has selected a side in a political fight. This means that she is being political eventhough she might only see herself as defending her findings. Scientists that go directly into advocating particular policies based on their findings are being even more political.

              • Steve LaBonne

                You’re not making sense. The scientists did not arrive at those findings out of political commitments, and the findings would not stand up to criticism if they had. It happens all the time in science that people are forced to acknowledge the truth of conclusions that go completely agansnt their own preconceptions. To put it mildly, that is not characteristic of politics.

              • Murc

                No, Murc maintains that there is a meaningful distinction between scientists being politically savy and scientists being political.

                I maintain no such thing.

                I maintain there’s a distinction between scientists being politically savvy and SCIENCE being political.

                • jeer9

                  All real scientists stand upon an Archimedean point that allows them to view evidence objectively and avoid circular argument. And only real scientists grasp the truth; other disciplines are engaged in mere rhetoric.

                • Steve LaBonne

                  We’re impressed that you can live up to your screen name. Now, do you actually have anything to say?

                • Murc

                  All real scientists stand upon an Archimedean point that allows them to view evidence objectively and avoid circular argument.

                  jeer is being snarky, but, well, yes. This is the ideal. It’s unattainable except briefly and fleetingly, but its what you’re meant to be striving for.

                • Steve LaBonne

                  And anyone who doesn’t grasp that ideal, also has no ground on which to stand in order to object when conservatives claim that burning fossil fuels isn’t changing the world’s climate or that abortion causes cancer. Relativism has migrated from left to right and come back to haunt us.

                • Ben

                  Buh?

                  I guess you can think of things operating on a rhetorical level and on a philosophical level.

                  On the rhetorical level, it doesn’t matter if you say “you’re ignoring the objective reality of the climate” or “you’re ignoring the best we’ve been able to come up with about the climate”, because either way the Heartland Institute fucks are disputing the conclusion, and they’ll do so whether or not you say you have “objective truth” or “pragmatic predictive power”.

                  On a philosophical level, it doesn’t matter, because whether you say “this process has resulted in our knowing the objective reality of how climate operates” or “this process has resulted in our best guess of how climate operates”, the HIFs will dispute the process that got to the conclusion.

                  I just don’t see what precious advantage is gained by holding onto this scientific realist ideal. Whether or not it’s stuck to, we’ll still have HIFs criticizing the conclusion and the process that got us there.

                • Steve LaBonne

                  What matters is that the best guess is really a best, painstakingly supported, good-faith guess and not just an opinion pulled out of somebody’s ass. There’s a big difference: practically, rhetorically, philosphically, every way. What we’re seeing on the right is the consequences of losing our grip on that idea.

                • Steve LaBonne

                  And by the way, no, metaphysical realism isn’t necessary for this, or for a robust notion of objectivity (understood as always provisional and subject to correction). Many varieties of pragmatism (but not Rorty’s degraded version) will do just fine.

                • Ben

                  Ah, that clarification makes sense.

                  Is there really a wide-spread idea that straight-from-the-ass opinion is just as valid as results based on data, experimentation and some kind of logical method? If anything, it seems like there’s more of the opposite: wide-spread adoption of ideas that seem like they have a scientific basis, but do not (esp. ideas gussied up to look like social science).

                  Also this is really tangential, but: why wouldn’t Rorty’s pragmatism fit all the criteria you want? I’ve always understood it to allow stuff like “thinking arguments from method are better than arguments from opinion” and “believing something is true (although understood as always provisional and subject to correction)”, which it seems like are your main concerns.

                • Steve LaBonne

                  The short answer is that Rorty lacks the intellectual seriousness of eg. Peirce, and flirts all too often with a lazy relativism.

      • Njorl

        I agree that scientists should be more aggressive and effective in countering distortions of science, but your original terminology was very unfortunate. Right wingers are going to find this post and compare you to Lysenko.

        This has become one of their go-to strategies when scientists become more politically active in the global warming debate. It is important to rigorously maintain the distinction between politically active scientists and science being political.

        • Linnaeus

          Right wingers are going to find this post and compare you to Lysenko.

          The irony here is that right-wing climate change denialists are really arguing for a kind of Lysenkoism themselves.

          • Njorl

            Rovian irony.

  • Murc

    I’d like to make the point that while science is, and should be, apolitical, there’s a real need for scientists to be politically aware and savvy, which is entirely a different thing.

    • Steve LaBonne

      This.

    • Bill Murray

      there is a need for people of every description to be more politically active

    • jeer9

      When evidence about a theory remains highly contested, decisions by vested arbiters about its “truth value” will inevitably be political or, worse yet, aesthetic. As our winters become increasingly milder and our summers hotter, pragmatic issues will eventually temper the persuasive power of the relativist corporatist Right, though it might prove too late.

  • UserGoogol

    I wouldn’t really call the Manhattan Project “pure” science. It was an engineering project. Scientists should be aware of the ethical ramifications of their work, but science is about constructing theories which accurately explain how the world works. Once you’ve moved to actually doing things with knowledge it’s something else.

    • UserGoogol

      I mean, it’s not exactly not science, but it’s applied science. The ethics of applied science and the ethics of pure science have fairly different frameworks.

      • Murc

        What User said. Engineering is science. It’s applied science, but engineers are scientists. In some ways, they’re the greatest scientists.

        (I attend a school whose name ends in “Institute of Technology”, and the engineering disciplines tend to be looked down upon by the mathematicians and physics majors and other “pure” sciences. I’m not any of those things, but it drives me insane.)

      • Fairly different frameworks, but sometimes they overlap.

        Take cloning, for example. Genetic engineering can be good, but as Monsanto shows, it can be pure evil.

        The “pure science” research to figure out how to clone seed corn is amoral, to be sure, but the negative ethical implications are pretty obvious. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realize that GM corn would eventually overwhelm nature’s bounty.

        Likewise, once atomic scientists at Fermilab realized the amount of energy they could release (a quick perusal of Einstein’s theory would have been more than sufficient), they had to, HAD TO, know it would be used to kill people.

        To say they should have shrugged their shoulders and thrown it over the transom is to ignore a human element.

        • Steve LaBonne

          “Overwhelm nature’s bounty” is wooly-headed bullshit. (There’s nothing natural about plain old corn, by the way; even as grain crops go it’s exceptionally far from its wild ancestor teosinte, a triumph of genetic engineering the old-fashioned way.) The real problem with GM crops is their devastating economic impact on developing-world farmers. If you want your critiques to have force they need to be well-informed and focused.

  • That’s a fairly broad definition of “political” you’re employing there. War can be political, usually is to be sure, but science in and of itself does not have to be.

    To say that science is used for war is a no-brainer, and its also true that most important science has its roots in war or conflict of some nature or other and then gets ported to more benign and useful structures.

    Lemme put it in Sting’s words:

    I never saw no miracle of science
    That didn’t go from a blessing to a curse
    I never saw no military solution
    That didn’t always end up as something worse,

    Meaning that science creates, but politicians dictate.

  • Alex

    Not sure why weapons research and design should be considered proof that “pure science” is political.

    People use technology for political and economic ends, but that much is obvious.

    And the bombing of Hiroshima was merely one of many, many attacks that killed tens of thousands of lives in that war. Its immediate impact differed very little from incindiary attacks on Tokyo delivered by larger fleets of bombers. It was a technological improvement on existing methods of mass killings.

  • Pacifist Viking

    Is the distinction here that the intent and method of scientific inquiry must be apolitical, but that scientists may be political about the results of that inquiry? (and “be political” may simply mean being aware that the results will be politicized and to be aggressively vocal about the results being accurately conveyed and perhaps used).

  • Ben

    This blog is fucking awesome. I demand more testy philosophy of science threads. Popper v. Lakatos!
    Bennett and Hacker v. Searle and Dennett! Feyerabend v. Everybody! Let’s get it on

    • Malaclypse

      Needs more Foucault.

      • Murc

        I call ‘No Derrida.’ That’s my veto.

      • elm

        If we’re going to include a Frenchy in the debate, can it be Ferdinand de Saussure instead?

        • Ferdinand de Saussure

          Ah’m Swiss, not a Frenchy!

          • elm

            I’m going to maintain that I made this error on purpose. I identified Saussure by his language as a tweak on Saussure’s position that language is inherently arbitrary. (I’ll let you decide whether I’m lying or not. Or what lying even means.)

            • Hogan

              Or what lying even means.

              According to Umberto Eco, it’s the defining characteristic of language, as opposed to communication among other animals. Only humans can lie.

              • ajay

                He’s wrong; there are recorded cases of animals giving unjustified alarm calls in order to scare rivals away.

        • Malaclypse

          Well, let’s define our terms, gentlemen. Are we talking about redistricting signifiers or are we talking about reapportionment the signified?

  • Turkle

    I have a similar argument with my brother often enough. My point is always that science, like religion, is a truth claim. Facts may be objective and apolitical, but truth most certainly is not: truth is produced when someone makes a statement, backs it up, and endorses or fights for what it means. Truth is necessarily political.

    Trying to think of science as some wholly objective fact-producing process is entirely analogous to Christianity’s claims to truth, peace, and justice. Say whatever you want about the “pure” science or religion, but science gave us eugenics, biological racism, and WMDs; while religion gave us the Crusades and various other massacres…

    All of which, it seems to me, is part of a broader apolitical movement in modern life. The struggle to depoliticize science (or religion) is an attempt to deny that truth claims must be fought for, against an enemy that is mobilized against exactly those truth claims. The Liberal imagination has always believed that facts speak for themselves and carry their own force. It’s high time we realize that truth is something that needs to be fought for, and that there exist large, well-organized enemies of truth.

  • joe from Lowell

    Iranian nuclear scientists.

  • Dave

    So, to summarise, science isn’t objective, but scientists must fight tooth and nail to prevent it being distorted by people that they disagree with?

    Glad we sorted that out.

  • DrDick

    I think that I fall into the “science is not itself political, but the uses of it are or may be” camp. I also agree that scientists need to do more to fight misinformation and the misapplication/misrepresentation of scientific research and findings.

  • JustMe

    This is a poor example. It’s not like some scientists were harmlessly experimenting with atomic explosions and it got picked up by the military and used by Hiroshima. The US government convened a specific project to create an atom bomb. None of the scientists were there to “do pure science.” They all took the job because they knew it involved creating a weapon of mass destruction. They never claimed that what they were doing was “neutral.”

  • strannix

    So Erik’s actual point is that climate scientists should be more proactive in defending their work against politically motivated distortion.

    I agree … but that has fuck-all to do with Hiroshima. Little wonder no one understood what you meant there, Erik.

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