Philosopher’s Corner: Make Science Great Again

Watching the March for Science this past April could give people the feeling that they had traveled back to simpler times. One woman carried a sign that read, “I can’t believe I have to protest for reality.” Another sign read, “Progress in science = Progress for humanity.” It was a throwback to the 1950s, when statements such as “trust the experts” and “better living through chemistry” could be made without eliciting a knowing smile. All the language of postmodernism, where claims that objectivity are seen as masking power, or the recognition that science is multiple and experts often disagree, had melted away. Facts no longer concealed judgments, or failed to dictate the one “best” choice, and science was no longer entangled with technology, creating losers as well as winners.

The defenders of science today accuse President Trump, child of the postwar era, of propping up a sanitized version of the past. The United States was not so great then, they remind us. Remember leaded gasoline? Or McCarthyism? To say nothing of the racism and sexism. But might these defenders be doing the same thing, with a romanticized nostalgia for an ideal of science—and of its links to society—that never existed?

The allure of stability, of a firm metaphysical order, explains the nostalgia on both sides—those who voted for Trump and those protesting his attacks on science. Everything once solid is dissolving, and science-slash-technology turns out to be both refuge and culprit. It has created a global system that undermines traditions and communities as well as a media hall of mirrors in which our consciousness increasingly becomes episodic and distracted. Yet science also holds out the promise of terra firma, of truth and reality. Maybe both camps would find a common hero in the 1950s TV detective Joe Friday: just the facts, ma’am. Plainspoken, black-and-white.

Where does all of this leave the intellectual class—those who have insisted for so long that all is gray? They—we—have some soul-searching to do. After all, many of us have also been at the game of challenging “facts” by exposing their varied genealogies. We have waged our own deconstructive war on certainty. Now that a populist version of post-truth has arrived on the scene, should we switch sides and play the defenders of facts—after all we have done to those poor things?

Faith in the institutions that have traditionally policed the borders of truth—science, the media, and the university—is dropping precipitously. In the United States, the right wing is creating an alternative set of such institutions from Fox News to the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change to Regent University. Creationists, anti-vaxxers, and even flat-Earthers are all over YouTube and beyond. The president thinks that climate change is a hoax, is dismantling scientific advisory bodies, and is not even appointing a presidential science advisor. Those who have spent their careers attacking government science and education agencies are now in charge of them. Tribal epistemologies are taking root, threatening to become tribal realities. Maybe it is time to drop the matches of criticism and pick up a fire hose of realism. Not all criticism is helpful, and not all realism need be naïve.

As the French philosopher Bruno Latour argued, this amounts to a shift in tactics as battlefield conditions change. Like good generals, we need to recognize that the threat no longer comes, as Latour commented, “from an excessive confidence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact … but from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact.” Doctors once had too much power over patients, and now perhaps (in the age of WebMD) they have too little. Experts once went under-questioned; now in the age of knee-jerk accusations of “fake news” they go over-questioned. We have left the age of patronizing and paternalistic authority and entered the age of paralyzing doubt and dangerous quackery.

Heraclitus once wrote that “Everything always has its opposite within itself.” Hegel gave this formulation a historical trajectory by tracing how each affirmation carries within itself a negation, which in turn becomes an affirmation to be negated in an ongoing dialectic. The deconstruction of scientific objectivity and authority is going through this cycle. Intellectuals need to be attuned to the shifting context of their work and cognizant of just who their weapons are serving. We need not only critical thinking but meta-critical thinking, which is to say thoughtfulness about the uses and abuses of criticality. This is something the ancients did better than the moderns, because they understood how some truths are too dangerous to be widely shared. We, however, insist on demonstrating just how “smart” we can be.

This suggests that the intellectual class should not continue the same old assault on “facts” today as they did yesterday. But they also cannot simply revert back to the very myths about science they have so long debunked. Unfortunately, this tactic animated much of the March for Science. For example, some of the organizers pointed out that science is the basis for “many useful technologies,” such as airplanes. Sure, airplanes have their upsides, but they also contribute to the climate problem that formed a key motivation for the march. When you defend something as large and manifold as science, you are bound to get caught in such contradictions. Were they marching for vaccines and bioweapons? Were they marching for clean coal technology and fracking and solar panels?

The march website proclaimed that “science is a process, not a product.” So, they were marching for a process. But that’s a little like rooting for the referee; or worse, it’s rooting for any outcome as long as it fell out the back end of the scientific method. The march website further stated that “science serves the interests of all humans, not just those in power.” But wouldn’t those who work with indigenous communities cringe at this—even though they also oppose Trump? And wouldn’t the same go for feminists and postcolonial scholars who have long documented science as a tool (or shall we say a process?) of oppression?

What we need is a more critical defense of science: progress in science criticism as well as in science. We might learn from the post-war responsible science movement, when scientists first engaged in protest and activism. When they marched, it was for specific policies, not science writ large and full stop. Similarly, during some of the first Earth Day marches, people were for some kinds of science and decidedly against other kinds. Rachel Carson was for biological pest controls and against many chemical pesticides. In short, things were more nuanced and explicitly linked to policy goals and the values and visions justifying them. They didn’t just chant, Facts R Us.

Of course, our challenge today is different, because it is not just about which science to promote but also about the status of science. We have to hold on to the contradictions, by affirming the interpretive richness of reality and the hardness of certain matters of fact. To quote the CNN commercial, sometimes an apple is an apple. Sometimes we should open black boxes, and sometimes we should close them and pronounce the controversy dead. Knowing when to do which—to debunk or “bunk,” to distrust or trust—is a matter of judgment more than epistemology or logic. You have to be equally suspicious of claims that reinforce and claims that challenge your worldview.

In the age of internet trolls, that kind of moral character is in short supply. And until we address this problem, no amount of facts will make an iota of difference. Everyone is fully armed with his or her own set of those. If I may be permitted my own nostalgia, it would be for the town hall meeting where people emerge from behind their screens and gather to talk about the way they understand and take up with the world. To borrow, as Latour does, from Heidegger: we might consider talking as seriously about matters of concern as we do about matters of fact. Silly, I know. But maybe no more so than protesting for reality.

Cite this Article

Briggle, Adam. “Philosopher’s Corner: Make Science Great Again.” Issues in Science and Technology 34, no. 2 (Winter 2018).

Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, Winter 2018