This post is a response to reflections that Lee Vinsel posted on Saturday on the AmericanScience blog. His post was about science and politics rather than about the symmetry principle, and it is the latter that I am scrutinising in my current series of posts. But I take issue with Lee's post for the same reasons I take issue with Vanessa Heggie's earlier one on the symmetry principle. It seems to me that the effect of both posts (though perhaps not the intention) is to endorse one side of a confusing and controversial issue, present the opposing view as a vulgar error, and use the wisdom of STS to confound the distinctions that could have prevented the confusion from arising in the first place. The occasion for Lee's post is a bill called the “High Quality Research Act (HQRA)” that has been drafted by the Republican Congressman Lamar Smith. The Huffington Post obtained a draft copy of Smith's proposal and published this article on the topic last week. The bill concerns the National Science Foundation (NSF), which is described in the Huffington Post article as “one of the most successful scientific research promoters in history.” If passed into law the bill would require the NSF to certify to Congress that all of the work it funds is of “the finest quality, is ground breaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large.” The Huffington Post seemed to criticise the bill on the grounds that it would “politicize” the decisions made by the NSF. The main point of Lee's post is to discredit this line of argument. (The AmericanScience blog contains two other useful articles on other aspects of the bill). Lee gives a number of interesting objections to the “rhetoric of politicization,” as he calls it, but to make things simple I will focus on two of those objections. I agree with the first of these objections but have a dim view of the second, as you will see in a moment. Lee's first point is that democracy requires that the general public have at least some say in the “research priorities” (his term) of the scientists they fund through their taxes. Lee does not make this point explicit in the post, but it does underlie his penultimate paragraph, where he briefly considers some ways in which science could be incorporated into the democratic process. In my view this is a good objection to those who imply (through their use of the term) that “politicization” is always a bad thing. Granted, there is much room for debate about how, and to what degree, the research priorities of scientists could be brought into line with the values of the people who pay for the research. But presumably there should be at least some such democratic oversight. And even if you think (as David Colquhoun seems to) that there should be no such oversight, you must agree that the simple equation of oversight with “politicization” is a poor argument for your view. Lee's second objection is that, as he puts it, “science is always political.” To support this bold assertion he gives a number of examples of the political character of science, such as the role of the Cold War in shaping science, the imperfections of the peer review process, and the fact that scientists use their epistemic authority for political ends. But this is old news:
The consensus was established a long time ago: there's no use in trying to separate science from politics, even rhetorically, and, moreover, attempts to make that separation are themselves political. Science, like everything else, is human and screwed up.The “consensus” to which Lee refers is the alleged agreement among people working in STS that “science is always political.” Lee says that the STS consensus on the topic has existed for nearly thirty years, and wonders what we can do to get our ideas across to the general public. I believe that Lee's approach illustrates precisely what we should not do if we want to bring STS to the masses, which is to replace one simplification with the opposite simplification. This seems to be what Lee has done by rejecting the view that science is never political in favour of the equally implausible view that it is always so. Granted, there are lots of ways in which science is, has been and should be political. But surely there are also lots of ways in which science is not, has not been, and should not be political. Denying the latter claim, as Lee seems to do, is no better than denying the former. Lee writes that “[p]op writers...are still falling back on the too easy, too simple trope of politicization.” If this is fair, then it is also fair to say that Lee is falling back on the too easy, too simple trope of the inseparability of science and politics. To insist that “science is always political” is not only an error, but one that undermines Lee's more specific argument against the “rhetoric of politicization.” One reason for this is the pragmatic one that a bad argument for a position makes that position look bad, no matter how many other good arguments one can muster in favour of the position. But a more interesting reason is that Lee's specific argument relies on a distinction that we are likely to ignore if we blithely maintain that “science is always political.” This is the distinction between the use of political values to set research priorites and the use of those values as evidence for scientific theories. (I owe this distinction to my perusal of this book by the philosopher of science Heather Douglas.) An example of the former would be a policy that channelled UK public money into research on tropical diseases on the grounds that the health of poor people in the Third World is just as important as that of rich people in the West. An example of the latter would be someone who argued that women and men must be equally intelligent on the grounds that the alternative would violate the political value of gender equality. Granted, one could argue that the social consequences of believing the alternative (ie. sex-based differences in IQ) would be so bad that we should discourage research into the topic, or even that we should discourage that belief no matter what the evidence says. But I take it that very few people would argue that the harmfulness of the belief that men are more intelligent than women (or vice versa) raises the likelihood that that belief is false. Now, Lee's specific objection to the “rhetoric of politicization” is persuasive because it is explicitly restricted to political interventions in research priorities. His objection would have been much less plausible if he had dropped this restriction and claimed that political values should also be deployed as evidence for and against scientific theories. But his assertion that “science is always political” conflates the distinction between the two cases and thereby weakens the force of his specific (and in my view well-grounded) objection. That conflation also does an injustice to those who use “politicization” as a term of abuse. There is nothing naïve or wrong-headed about criticizing those who treat political values as evidence for scientific claims. Nor is there anything wrong with the related practice of criticizing those who mislead the public about the evidence for the health risks of smoking or the reality of climate change—to use two of the cases studied by Naomi Oreskes, one of the “pop writers” targeted in Lee's post. The irony is that the conflation encouraged by the claim "science is always political" is also present in the sources that Lee criticizes. One of those sources is the Huffington Post article, which is followed by a picture gallery advertising the scientific errors of US politicians. This form of ridicule, if it works at all, only works against Smith's proposal that politicians assess the technical merit of NSF-funded work. Unless I am missing something, it does not work very well against his proposal that politicians assess the social benefit of NSF-funded work. The other source that Lee quotes is a letter written to Smith by the Texan Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson. Like the author of the Huffington Post article, Johnson implies that politicians lack the technical expertise to carry out “peer review” of scientific papers. Again, this argument is far more effective against political assessment of “technical merit” than of “social significance.” What I am suggesting is that Lee's post would have been more effective if he had called out this conflation instead of perpetuating it by insisting that “science is always political.” Granted, it is not always easy to draw boundaries between instances of politics directing research agendas and instances of politics being used as evidence for theories. And I expect that those gray areas (which Douglas covers in the book cited above) are the ones that people disagree about the most. But there are fairly clear cases on either side of the gray area, and it is no use at all to insist that everything is gray or (worse) to arbitrarily decide that everything is black and then suggest that anyone who thinks otherwise is naïve. There are a number of analogies between Lee's critique of the claim “science is (or should be) apolitical” and Vanessa's critique of the claim “people believe things because they are true.” Both critics treat the respective claims as popular errors put about by unreflective authors who have not yet read enough STS scholarship. In both cases the real error of the popular authors, insofar as there is one, is not that of endorsing false claims but of conflating the plausible and implausible readings of ambiguous claims. And both critics mix valuable, specific points with general claims that serve only to perpetuate the confusion that gave rise to the popular errors in the first place. In Vanessa's case the specific point is that the truth-value of a past scientist's belief is a poor guide to the reasons they had for holding that belief—a historiographical maxim known as the symmetry principle. This point is easy to confuse with the more general and more controversial claim (or collection of claims) that truth and evidence are not much use in explaining scientist's beliefs: as I argued in my last two posts, there are lots of ways in which truth and evidence can legitimately enter historical explanations. Arguably, this confusion is one of the main reasons why non-historians fail to grasp the symmetry principle. So we need to clear up that confusion—not ignore it or encourage it—if we want to take the symmetry principle to the masses. In Lee's case, as we have have seen, the specific point is that laypeople should have a say about the direction of the research they fund through their taxes. This important observation is likely to be lost, ignored or rejected if we bundle it into the more general claim that science is always political. That claim is as misleading as the opposite claim that science is never political. More importantly, the claim obscures the point that really matters, ie. that there are defensible forms of political involvement in science that do not involve the (in general) dubious practice of treating political values as evidence for scientific theories. In this post I have homed in on the posts by Vanessa and Lee. This is not because I want to make enemies, or because I think their posts contain nothing of value. It is because it is handy to have well-defined targets, and most importantly because I think those two posts are representative of a wide swathe of opinion in STS, including in the history of science. As Will Thomas has been saying for a while now, STS scholars have a choice. We can make dramatic, controversial claims that puff up our discipline, condescend to people outside STS, and cloud the issues that need to be clarified. Or we can use our scholarship and our analytical skills to make specific, timely interventions in public debate. A reason for pessimism is that the claims that sow the most confusion in the two posts in question—like “science is always political” and “no-one believes things because of the evidence”—are precisely the claims that seem most distinctive of STS. As Lee himself writes, the claim that "science is always political" is a “basic tenant—perhaps even a dogma—of science and technology studies.” A reason for optimism is that Lee, Vanessa, and others have been making specific, timely interventions in many of their other posts on their respective blogs. This suggests that STS scholars can do good work in the public sphere without falling back on the one-sided slogans that too often appear to define the discipline. Expand post.