Science is Embedded, and yet Legitimate

This article is part of the Global Governance Debates series

By Annabelle Littoz-Monnet
Professor, International Relations/Political Science
Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies

Peter Haas is right when he tells us that science is being challenged like never before, by populists (often) in conjunction with corporate interests when scientific findings seem to threaten their commercial strategies. This makes the position of scholars who have pointed to the social and historical character of science hardy tenable. Because their arguments seem to be feeding the discourse of populists or conspiracy theorists, a number of scholars feel the urge to reassert the authority of science by recalling science’s impartiality, objectivity and, thus, superiority to any other form of knowledge.

But reverting to a discourse presenting science as impartial and disinterested is also risky. We cannot just ignore what sociologists of science and science and technology studies scholars have revealed about the embedded nature of scientific knowledge. Science is not immune to interests, social practices, norms, identities and power relationships. The boundaries of what is considered to be science are also drawn and redrawn. Many theories have informed research for decades before revealing themselves to be fleeting fads. Paradigmatic shifts –such as the displacement of Newtonian physics towards Einsteinian physics -pepper the history of natural sciences.

Science and politics can interact in more or less direct and tangible ways. First, political agendas may bear their weight on science. When policy-makers mandate experts to produce an analysis for the needs of policy, they can try to orchestrate the production of expert knowledge by framing what is asked in a certain way, talking to scientists or delineating what is politically possible or not. When scientific production is not mandated, scientists have a larger degree of independence but they must nevertheless follow research priorities set by public funding agencies or adjust to established validity criteria to get their work published.

Second, phenomena of ideational alignment occur. When scientists act as experts for policy, they interact, work and discuss with policy-makers, industry representatives, NGOs and other global governance actors, so that common ways of thinking about given policy problems can develop. When scientists work within the walls of universities, such iterations are less direct and tangible, but scientists are influenced in a more diffuse way by the social and political reality around them.

Third, scientists or experts are well aware of policy-makers’ expectations and may calibrate their claims, either because they want to be heard or because they know that only certain options are considered possible. Scientists, thus, may calibrate their findings for the needs of policy.

In this light scientists’ self-depiction as impartial researchers whose reliance on systematic, rigorous and complex methods ensure the neutrality of their findings can also be seen as an attempt to shield themselves from critique.

Yet, we also cannot just say that every interpretation of natural or social reality is equally valid. By this token we would not be able to dismiss any contention, and this is indeed highly problematic in a world in which many are abusing scholarly debates on the social character of science in order to promote their own politically inspired or financially driven claims.

So how can we tell? How can we tell between climate skeptics and the majority of scientists who tell us that global warming is man made? How do we tell between a ‘conspiracy’ theory and a sensible alternative or perhaps a subjugated way of thinking about social or even physical phenomena?

It is tricky, but I would like to propose that there are ways to tell which do not consist in forcefully showcasing scientists’ seeming objectivity and impartiality and re-establish scientific authority on that basis.

First, and to state the perhaps obvious, scientific research should be able to justify its claims and findings. Scientists should be able to show that their theories indeed ‘connect’ with reality, experience or so to say available evidence. Of course this does not suffice because empirical facts can be interpreted in many ways, and every scientific attempt at developing a theory or argument necessarily constructs a narrative which leads to picking and choosing which facts are relevant. But when scientists construct a narrative they should be able to demonstrate that they rely on existing facts and that they assemble these facts in a, if not incontestable, at least coherent way. This would allow us to rule out untenable claims, from that of Holocaust deniers to those of flat earth theories which simply rely on ‘facts’ that are not there, but also those theories which have either no internal coherence or are inconsistent with a number of other known and hardly disputable facts.

Second, and because interpretation plays a crucial role in the construction of scientific theories – both in natural and social science – scientists should be as clear as possible about the underlying values and assumptions which inform their work. If research is informed by values and ideas about the world and how to study it, then more transparency or at least openness about these, from the part of scientists, would be of help. I believe that we may adhere or not to a given scientific programme and its associated findings in light of the values which inform it. For instance, this might be a good way to think about the debate on global warming. Existing research on the causes of global warming is informed by the underlying assumption that we should be careful about the way we live and how this may affect our environment. If we all agree that this is a valuable ethical and political objective, then reducing green gas emissions is our best bet, whatever uncertainties remain as to how much and in what time lapse such emissions are warming up the globe (or whether other environmentally damaging practices or technologies may also add to the problem).

Third, scientists should be open about their uncertainties. The more scientists will attempt to present their findings and theories as authoritative and demarcate their work against other approaches presented as ‘non-scientific’, ‘pseudo-science’, ‘militant-science’ and thus wrong or biased, the more this is likely to provoke contestation. In being more open about remaining or perhaps unsolvable doubts, be it either on the safety of a novel technology, responsibilities in a civil conflict and associated casualties, or the best way to cure a disease, science will be better able to elude being perceived as ‘elitist’ and incapable of listening and dialoguing with forms of knowledge based more on experience than research. In opening up the black box of science and engaging with citizens, scientists can tame the sentiment that experts are an elite group producing analysis disconnected from ‘lay’ forms of knowledge.

Even more fundamentally, scientists’ openness about their uncertainties is what can differentiate sound knowledge, based either on research or experience, from conspiracy theories, fake news and lies of all sorts. Scientists should be able to engage and dialogue with other scientists with whom they disagree and also with non-scientists. Those not interested in the production of sound knowledge evolve in a closed thinking system which does not engage with alternatives.


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