I’d like to blow some hot air on the kindling of what may become the hot new election issue in Canada. In a recent CBC debate hosted by The 180, Katie Gibbs – a biologist from the University of Ottawa, and executive director of (the science-lobbyist group) “Evidence for Democracy” – discusses the efforts of her organization to have specific science-policy questions addressed as a part of the current federal leaders’ debates. Clive Crook, Bloomberg View columnist (and author of such enlightened articles as “The Meaning of Donald Trump” and “Are You Rich? No Need to Apologize”), argues that science and policy ought not to mix. Let’s review.
There is a dialectic at play here, between the old economists and a microcosm rising within the bourgeoisie. We are in the epoch of the 21st century technocratic ‘Knowledge Society’. Intellectual property, shifts from a public (military-industrial) to a private (anarchic free-market) funding model for universities, and the overextended farce of patent law, all point to sites of conflict over the ownership of knowledge capital. In Harper’s Canada, declining funding for and the muzzling of government scientists have driven two spears into Galileo’s sides, in what has been called a war on science.
It is important to realize that science as a social institution has been structured on a neoliberal model. Most of us are consumers in the marketplace of facts, while this debate falls between the owners/managers and the producers, whom are a modern technical intelligentsia. Gibbs claims that scientific research is an important element of all political decision-making. It is not clear to me why environmental assessments, ecological impact statements and psychological indices of cross-cultural conflict are important elements, for example, in decisions about whether to build unwanted and potentially damaging oil pipelines through the traditional and oft sacred lands of indigenous communities, except for on the basis of such a model.
Of course, scientists are also citizens, and like any other they will be predisposed to making value judgements based on the evidence that confronts them. There is a question as to whether (or to which extent) the facts discovered by scientific researchers have any value-content. Crook defends a dated view of objective neutrality in the sciences; in his view, the facts discovered by scientists are bereft of value-content. The role of scientists is to present the bare facts to politicians, who then attend to the ethics and make value judgements.
Gibbs’ view puts value-content not into the facts discovered by scientists, but into science itself. Usually scientists and philosophers of this persuasion appraise whichever their notion of the scientific method: used to arrive at facts by way of the testing of hypotheses against empirical observations, through the fuse of several degrees of abstraction. The facts themselves do not have any value-content, but the scientific method does. Her view envisions greater autonomy for researchers and rings of class individualism and elitism, affording value to an epistemic culture in-demand rather than their specific product. Crook’s view, on the other hand, is conservative against the progressive element contained in the rising intellectual microcosm within the capitalist class.
Neither view seems quite correct to me. Facts have value-content, both inwardly and outwardly. Consider the fact, “75% of all casualties in World War II were civilians”. If you’re interested, that’s nearly 50 million people. Value-content comes into this fact through the productive means which birthed it. For example, does a person who succumbs to a lingering lung infection from having inspired a modicum of Mustard Gas several years after the end of the war count as a casualty? What about the countless infants in the following generation that would die simply for having been born into crushing war-torn poverty?
Outwardly, the fact is harrowing to hear. It makes me unhappy. It makes me dislike war. No doubt my reaction upon hearing this fact is socially and culturally conditioned, but this does not rob it of its value-content. If anything, it correlates value-content with shared evaluative practices and norms. It seems that we are inclined to make use of facts when we reason, and that we evaluate facts according to our own worldviews and against our own experiences.
Methods, such as experimental practices and statistical models of inference, do not have value-content, but are value relevant in their factive manifestations. Value judgements are made even in ostensibly minute methodological details. But ‘science’ (supposing a group of spuriously connected methodologies) has no intrinsic value. Science is the dominant epistemic culture living in a postcolonial and multicultural society. Public uptake of the scientific worldview is as much a role for the scientist-as-citizen as it is a role for science journalism. The understanding of and receptivity to scientific facts is a function of the ideological outgrowth of the institution, whose expansion under the neoliberal model is fueled by market forces.
Crook’s view consigns science merely to be the scullion of capitalism. I am inclined to agree with Gibbs, that scientists must strive to be engaged citizens. The question is how we, as a critical and engaged public, should react to their involvement. Though bound by the strictures of neoliberal management, and displaying some of the class characteristics of the liberal bourgeoisie, there exists a progressive element relative to the current balance of power in the Canadian political context. In my view, we should even encourage scientists – beyond what Gibbs suggests – to make specific policy recommendations, rather than merely advocating for the value of science in general.
Hypothetical science policy directive for a new Canadian socialist party: fully decentralize knowledge production. In the interim, leading up to the revolutionary stage, foster a program of epistemic revolt against the neoliberal scientific institution. The revolution in the means of production made possible on the condition of capitalism, when transitioning to a socialist stage of history, could evenly redistribute the sublime bourgeois luxury of leisure time, ushering in a new post-scientific Enlightenment. The scientific institution assumes the role of the church: the crumbling tradition against which new progressive elements are tested.
In fact, this is happening even now, with insurrectionary pockets papering from within the intelligentsia to resist the neoliberalization of academia. Of course, even if science policy is successfully introduced into the arena of federal leaders’ debates, the Canadian political spectrum runs only from just-left-of-center to far right; only a radical left party could be expected to take this tone. But many parties to the far left accept the sciences of the day uncritically, as many others do. ‘Scientific’ socialists should be careful not to unwittingly adopt neoliberal predilections based on their aspirations to the status of a science.
A discussion of the sort which Gibbs envisions should not be seen as a truly progressive shift. It is a horizontal shift in hands between powers, primarily centred on the question of ownership. Since the first Canadian federal leaders’ debate in 1968, a total of zero science policy questions have been asked of the candidates. Surely it is time to discuss these matters inside of our official political infrastructure. I suspect that parties to the left are weakly positioned to take a stance on the science policy question, with perhaps only the Lysenko affair as an embarrassing lesson from history. Efforts should be made to bring the culture of epistemic revolt out from their dark corners in the universities, into the public whose uptake of scientific facts is considered to be such an important metric.
 This is the current suasion from within the social studies of science (STS). A 2010 Issue of Social Studies of Science (40/5) was focused on the impacts of neoliberalism as “a regime for scientific management”. (Lave and Mirowski, “Introduction: STS and Neoliberal Science” (2010), in the aforementioned issue.