Science and state: should we consider a divorce?
In its ideal form, science is conceived as a quest for pure knowledge unencumbered by any external concerns. Reality is, of course, far messier than that: scientists are driven by their own ambitions, biases and ideological prejudices and are susceptible to political, financial and societal pressures as much as anyone else.
Much has been written on the negative effects politics can have on science. When politicians get to choose which scientists are to be granted research money and prestigious positions, science can easily become distorted, as it is no longer guided by the genuine desire for truth but ideological prejudices of the people involved. The Lysenko episode and the destruction of the Soviet school of genetics certainly demonstrates the dangers of political interference .
Although the effect the Nazi regime had on the scientific process has not been equally well studied, it has arguably interfered with the normal research as well by suppressing the dissidents from the hard-line eugenics favoured by the Third Reich . Eventually self-correction of science does take place, but not without considerably setting back scientific progress, sometimes for decades.
Less attention has been given to the other (and, in my opinion, more important) side of the coin: how does science influence politics? The concept of managerial state created at the beginning of the 20th century has been largely embraced by the modern states both democratic and autocratic. The idea that experts have to determine how multiple aspects of citizens’ lives should be organized continues to be popular. The idea, obviously, rests on the assumption that solutions proposed by the experts are really based on good science. As we have seen throughout this essay (first and second part also on SpeakFreely) this clearly isn’t always the case. Whether through honest misconceptions or malicious intent, generations of scientists have embraced fallacious ways of thinking. It is equally clear that it is not sensible to rely on politicians’ judgement to distinguish the good science from the bad. Politicians have always gone and will always go for a promise of an easy fix. Need to reduce the poverty and crime rates? Easy, we should just sterilize all the undesirables, because these characteristics are clearly heritable. Never mind that these same scientists claimed that the “love of sea” was a sex-linked heritable trait, responsible for producing successive generations of naval officers . Need to increase crop yields? Just rely on the scientists who can speedily turn winter wheat into spring wheat, spring wheat into rye, oats into barley, and pines into firs, as Lysenko’s followers at one time claimed . The obvious absurdity of these “scientific” assertions did not stop politicians across the globe from embracing the proposed solutions which resulted in dire consequences for millions of people.
So what can be done? There are certainly laudable suggestions that we should try to prevent bad science by training scientists to avoid bias in their research, to apply rigorous statistics, to be sceptical of prevailing paradigm and to weigh the implications of their research for society. These indeed may be ways to reduce the chances false scientific paradigms emerging, but I would argue that there is simply no guarantee that bad science won’t ever surface. I would also contend that bad science is not that big of a deal in and of itself, for, after all, what’s the harm in it as long as it stays in the confines of a lab? The widespread harm comes with the coercive implementation of bad science-based policies by a governmental authority. And arguably, the more centralised the authority is, the more ruinous are the consequences. In the absence of central planning programs by the government, would all the farmers have suddenly adopted Lysenko’s practices? In the absence of government-sponsored eugenic programs how many private health institutions would have decided to deprive people of the right to reproduction and even life? I would argue that the results would have been far less disastrous if the unfortunate scientific ideas were implemented by disparate players in the private sector.
We now live in the age when the use of scientific findings in public policy is more or less unquestionably accepted. But perhaps it would be wiser to question it. The past experience shows just how extremely dangerous this combination is. We may think that the past mistakes will not be repeated, but for all we know we may be one unfortunate scientific paradigm and one bad policy decision away from another tragedy. Personally, I am all for an irrevocable divorce of science and politics.
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