The Folly of Apolitical Science


Johnathan Flowers, PhD

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Tag(s): Legacy post
Topic(s): Cultural Education Medical Humanities Philosophy & Ethics Race Science Social Justice

By Johnathan Flowers, PhD

A persistent myth in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Medicine) fields argues that science exists beyond politics and outside culture and society. As a philosopher of science, specifically a Black philosopher of science with a disability, I challenge students – many of whom are future scientists – to reconsider this glamorized view. Students often react violently: “How can science be political?” they demand. “What do you mean that science is racist?” they clamor. Their development in a culture that presents science, or scientific fact, as unfettered by culture is partially to blame. I believe there is also a misunderstanding of what it means to say science is neutral, apolitical, and objective.

My students mistake the processes of science for the practice of science. Here, it is helpful to take a lesson from the philosopher John Dewey, who states:

In truth science is strictly impersonal; a method and a body of knowledge. It owes its operation and its consequences to the human beings who use it. It adapts itself passively to the purposes and desires which animate these human beings. It lends itself with equal impartiality to the kindly offices of medicine and hygiene and the destructive deeds of war. 

If science is impersonal, doesn’t that mean science is beyond the social and cultural biases possessed by individual practitioners of science? The short answer is yes: the methodology of science, and the results that ultimately emerge from it, are not concerned with the politics of scientific practitioners or the people who ultimately deploy it in action. What Dewey is saying is that the processes and equations that that govern nuclear fission are agnostic to their use in either nuclear weapons or nuclear reactors. Similarly, the processes of epidemiology are agnostic to their use in either treating the COVID-19 pandemic or in developing bioweapons for the military. 

It is the practice of science by humans that makes all the difference.

Science, as a method and body of knowledge, adapts itself to serve the needs and ideologies of the humans who practice it. J. Marion Sims, the “father” of gynecology, developed the foundations of the specialty through brutal experiments on Black women who, at the time, were not considered to be fully human. Because the subjects of Sims’ experiments weren’t deemed human in his eyes, or the culture that surrounded him, Sims was free to conduct his experiments without regard for the health and safety of his subjects.

Sims’ experimentation on Black women to advance the field of gynecology primarily for the benefit of white women is not the only case of the impartial, or agnostic, nature of science being directed by human beings in line with their socially cultivated beliefs. Much of modern medicine, including the research that has led to the COVID-19 vaccines, is grounded in the non-consensual harvesting of cancerous cells from the cervix of Henrietta Lacks. This HeLa line has been used in everything from cancer research to the development of the first Polio vaccine to research on the division of cells in microgravity. However, it is only recently that the scientific community reached an agreement with the Lacks family for the ethical use of the cells and the recognition of Henrietta Lacks for her contribution to the advancement of science.

My students ask, “but what about physics, astronomy, material sciences, the stuff that doesn’t involve humans?”

My response is simple: what science doesn’t involve humans or human interests?

Dewey also says that the results of scientific inquiry are controlled by interests that have been present in culture long before any subsequent discoveries. As the history of science demonstrates, the embedded cultural biases, beliefs and perspectives that exist within our culture have a demonstrable impact on the ways that science is conducted, the “practice” of science, and how the work is applied. As an example, racist beliefs about Black people’s sensitivity to pain, rooted in attempts to biologically justify slavery, continue to lead to the undertreatment of Black patients by contemporary medical professionals. 

My students ask, “but what about physics, astronomy, material sciences, the stuff that doesn’t involve humans?” My response is simple: what science doesn’t involve humans or human interests? Here, we might turn to the development of modern spaceflight and rocketry as grounded in the Nazi development of weapons during World War II; or, we might consider the development of military origins of modern GPS. As with nuclear fission, the technologies required to launch satellites in orbit, place humans on the moon, and to navigate our local cities, are grounded in the interests that preceded their development, namely war.

To this end, we should ask: “what is the history of physics without its deployment in warfare, in killing?” 

The awareness of the social cost of science is not something new. Many of the figures that we credit with revolutions in physics understood the human cost of their work. As the first nuclear weapon detonated, J. Robert Oppenheimer’s reference to the Bhagavad Gita wasn’t some pithy quote: it was an acknowledgement of the sheer gravity of their achievement for humanity and in warfare. Oppenheimer later described the moral impact in the following terms: “in some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatements can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” Haunted by the power of his field’s work, Oppenheimer called for memorializing of the moral implications of technology, not simply lauding the end of a war.

This is the intelligence and reverence that I would like scientists, even those working at the bleeding edge of theory, to cultivate. This is the recognition of how work of scientists has fundamentally changed the human conditions. The products of scientific research are not simply constrained by the desire for pure discovery and the advancement of the human condition: they are controlled by social and political forces that exist beyond the laboratory, and beyond the field of inquiry framed by the scientific project. 

We should not teach science in a “depoliticized” or a “leftist” context. Rather, we need to teach science in its connection with culture so we can understand science better. We should teach these histories not to shame or politicize science and scientists, but to remind current and future scientists that their work has a human cost and impact. We should teach them that their work is not disconnected from the cultural context in which it is conducted

When scientists are sensitive to the socio-cultural context and implications of their work, they can  harness science to resolve socio-cultural issues of our time. We need to encourage scientists that examine how our technologies extend systems of oppression and the ways that our sciences are grounded in the marginalization of the many for the benefit of the few. We need scientists whose work expands the participants in the great enterprise of science. 

Finally, we need to train scientists not just to ask, “can I,” but “should I.” We need scientists who think clearly about what might happen if their results are put to horrible ends. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t do the research, but that we should have the wherewithal to be as horrified as Oppenheimer at the gravity of what he created. While the processes of science might be neutral, scientists and scientific practice are not. 

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