The New Scientism

We can value scientific inquiry without viewing the natural sciences as free of politics.

(Law En Lerk / Flickr)

In 1964, Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove introduced the character of Gen. Jack D. Ripper, an intensely neurotic, paranoid man who insisted that water fluoridation was a Communist plot hatched against Americans. Ripper was unhinged, of course. But he was also the fictional personification of a real popular anxiety over fluoride’s medicinal benefits.

History is not kind to characters who resist scientific progress: they are consistently painted as inflexible troglodytes. Today, fluoridation sits neatly alongside electrification and other advances, triumphs of the march of technological improvement despite the opposition of a supposedly anti-science public. This is, at least, how the scientific establishment tends to tell it. To them, any criticism of this historical narrative is tantamount to wholesale opposition to science.

This is absurd. There is, of course, no merit to anti-fluoridation quackery. Neither is it correct, contrary to anti-science conservatives, that the scientific community has made a Faustian bargain to keep man-made global warming on the agenda. Similarly, it is unfortunate that after decades of biological discoveries, a third of the American public rejects evolution entirely.

But it is astonishing when defenders of science lump together global-warming-denying conservatives, anti-GMO activists, and grassroots environmental activists, treating each as disturbingly anti-science. This simplistic analysis is rooted in the arrogant assumption that science is somehow above criticism — indeed, that it’s above politics entirely.

Call it the “New Scientism,” in which discussions of science policy consist of pundits vaguely pointing to “a body of research” instead of engaging the broader public, in which calling into question conflicts of interest inimical to scientific inquiry is treated, perversely, as anti-science.

Against this phenomenon, the Left must insist on the inherently political nature of scientific inquiry.

Any discussion of the state of science must deal directly with the massive expansion in privately funded science over the last few decades. In other words, it must grapple with a status quo few scientists question or even recognize.

Today, large numbers of scientists are in the employ of Big Pharma, Big Ag, and all kinds of corporations with anti-environmental and anti-social justice agendas. Meanwhile, academics, while still largely publicly funded, have their own ties to capital. Many receive grants or training fellowships from biotech, pharmaceutical, or agricultural companies; serve on advisory panels and committees; oversee and participate in industry-funded events and colloquiums; and rely on industry links as funnels for outgoing graduate students or postdoctoral candidates.

GMOs are a good example of how academics function as cheerleaders for Big Ag.

Professors often appear in the pages of popular science magazines or journals, hailing the arrival of modern GMOs. These essays aren’t lacking in facts — i.e., most of the food we eat has already been genetically manipulated and cultivated — but they’re entirely unhelpful because they rarely discuss the way corporate agriculture operates.

A rigid defense of “the science” prevents scientists from recognizing that Monsanto monopolizes seed production, dictates market prices to the exclusive benefit of rich farmers, drives the emergence of superweeds, allows the spread of transgenes to wild crops in other countries, and uses the state to boost its profits.

Acknowledging these facts should produce a thorough rethinking of the politics of GMO research and the ethics of GMOs. It should prompt a response to anti-GMO activists that doesn’t cast them as malevolent and anti-science, or conflate the movement to label GMO foods with celebrities who refuse to vaccinate their children.

Yet in the wake of news that indebted farmers in India were being driven to suicide, many pro-GMO commentators wrote dismissive rebuttals, plainly refusing to admit that the introduction of Monsanto’s Bt cotton and the exorbitant costs of seeds and chemicals had created a deep debt crisis for many Indian farmers.

The implications for science methodology are dire. Most troubling, Monsanto and other multimillion-dollar agribusiness firms have been suppressing independent research on their genetically engineered crops for decades. When researchers like Emma Rosi-Marshall and John Losey published research articles demonstrating that Monsanto’s insecticidal Bt corn negatively affected the insects feeding on it, they immediately found themselves in a maelstrom of criticism. Dismissing the work as fraudulent, scientists wrote letters demanding retractions and deluged journal editors with irate emails.

The same thing happened to Gilles-Eric Seralini at Caen University in France, whose critics often had undisclosed financial ties to Monsanto. Many follow-up investigations (even those sponsored by Monsanto) failed to disclose conflicts of interest. The uproar immediately after the publication of Seralini’s research is unprecedented.

Few scientists have called this heightened scrutiny what it is: a bullying infringement on academic freedom. One exception is molecular geneticist Jack Heinemann. As reported by the Genetic Literacy Project, when Seralini’s group republished their data, Heinemann went on record saying:

[The] publication of these results revealed some of the viciousness that can be unleashed on researchers presenting uncomfortable findings… This study has arguably prevailed through the most comprehensive and independent review process to which any scientific study on GMOs has ever been subjected.

And that’s for the researchers who manage to do any work on GMOs. Monsanto operates in a virtual research black box, its patents preventing research on newly synthesized genes. In addition, the company has entered into voluntary agreements with government agencies like the US Department of Agriculture — a disconcerting relationship that also quashes independent research.

In September 2009, Nature reported that after writing a column skeptical of GMOs in Nature Biotechnology, David Schubert of the Salk Institute faced immense backlash, saying, “I’ve never received such an obscene response for offering an opinion.”

According to the report, the backlash can even be pre-emptive. Bruce Tabashnik of the University of Arizona, while preparing a manuscript on insect resistance in Monsanto’s Bt cotton, received a warning email from William Moar at Auburn University. Moar, who works for Monsanto, publicly ridiculed Tabashnik’s work at conferences.

These cases are indicative of a wider trend: scientists, employed by big corporations, whose troubling conflicts of interest are entirely overlooked by the scientific community writ large.

Academics who sit back and watch Monsanto’s deplorable crimes in the name of science, or ghostwrite pro-industry op-eds while receiving funding from the selfsame industry, are bolstering the status quo. Do scientists feel comfortable letting capital dictate science policy?

Ever since its coining by conservatives, “scientism” has been used pejoratively, most commonly by the same people who deny evolution and climate change. Consequently, leftists have historically renounced the word, signaling that that they fall on the side of scientific truth and not religion or spirituality.

This is a false dichotomy. One can value scientific inquiry without viewing the natural sciences as unimpeachable truth. And one can assail purported scientific progress without assailing science itself.

But try telling that to Michael Shermer, who, writing in Scientific American, sees in every critique of corporate behavior an anti-science temper tantrum: “Try having a conversation with a liberal progressive about GMOs. . . in which the words “Monsanto’ and ‘profit’ are not dropped like syllogistic bombs. . . The fact is that we’ve been genetically modifying organisms for 10,000 years through breeding and selection.”

The tunnel vision brought on by scientism resolves itself in a kind of social apathy, a dismissiveness of “real” problems, for which scientific data is the only antidote. This “just the facts, ma’am” approach excises ethics from the discussion and frames science as an appropriately depoliticized sphere. And in the process, it completely disregards what the humanities or the social sciences are able to tell us.

The science popularizers, the Neil DeGrasse Tysons of the world, aren’t much better. What, for example, do they have to say about Monsanto polluting the developing world, driving small farmers into cycles of deep debt and despair, developing herbicidal warfare (Agent Orange), dumping untested chemicals like PCB and glyophosphate into water supplies, and having decades-long corrupt relationships with governmental regulators like the FDA?

And really, if popular exposure to science consists solely of platitudes glorifying science and discovery, can we really blame laypeople for their skepticism? On closer inspection, it seems that science for popular consumption, particularly in a miniseries like Cosmos, seems more invested in pomp and self-congratulation than accountability and conscience.

More surprisingly, liberals have been remarkably uncritical of the scientific establishment’s blind spots. Left-of-center outlets generally frame scientific issues in one of two ways.

The first is to expose conservatives who fail to accept evolution and climate change, and to extol the virtues of science popularizers. The second is to blame Big Ag, Big Pharma, governmental regulatory agencies, and oil drilling companies for tragedies ranging from pesticide poisoning and farming and seed monopolies, to oil spills and nuclear waste disasters.

Yet much of the scientific establishment, the very same one liberals oppose to Republican “crazies,”  is complicit in the second set of acts liberals so loudly condemn.

The preponderance of the scientific establishment wasn’t always divorced from reality. In The Age of Extremes, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm reminds us of a time when Western scientists resisted the atomic bomb:

The very horror of these scientists at their achievement, their desperate last-minute struggles to prevent the politicians and generals from actually using the bomb, and later to resist the construction of a hydrogen bomb, bears witness to the strength of political passions.

Soon thereafter, however,

the munificent patronage of governments and large corporations encouraged a breed of researchers who took their paymasters’ policies for granted and preferred not to think about the wider implications of their work, especially when these were military. . . In the later 1940s men and women still agonized over the question whether to join government establishments specializing in chemical and biological war research. There is no evidence that subsequently such establishments had any trouble in recruiting their staff.

This is a shame. If the history of science has one lesson, it is that much of what we know about the world today, our ability to care for it, and the our existence as a species, is a direct result of the scientific discoveries of many pioneering women and men — many of whom, like Rachel Carson, embodied social consciousness.

A robust commitment to scientific exploration and advancement is incomplete without a cognizance of the social consequences of scientific results, and the ways in which financial incentives can debase the scientific process.

The subordination of science to profits, walled off from public scrutiny, is just as damaging as any creationist dogma.