The importance of sensible politics to good science

Stuart Ritchie writes a newsletter-blog that I quite like, called Science Fictions. On May 30, he published a post on this blog entitled ‘Science is political – and that’s a bad thing’. I thought the post missed some important points, which I want to set out here. First, the gist of his argument:

[About the “argument from inevitability”] After a decade of discussion about the replication crisis, open science, and all the ways we could reform the way we do research, we’re more aware than ever of how biases can distort things – but also how we can improve the system. So throwing up our hands and saying “science is always political! There’s nothing we can do!” is the very last thing we want to be telling aspiring scientists, who should be using and developing all these new techniques to improve their objectivity. … [About the “activist’s argument”] If you think it’s bad that politics are being injected into science, it’s jarringly nonsensical to argue that “leaving politics out of science” is a bad thing. Isn’t the more obvious conclusion that we should endeavour to lessen the influence of politics and ideology on science across the board? If you think it’s bad when other people do it, you should think it’s bad when you do it yourself. … If we encourage scientists to bring their political ideology to the lab, do we think groupthink—a very common human problem which in at least some scientific fields seems to have stifled debate and held back progress—will get better, or worse?

There’s also a useful list of what people mean when they say “science is political”:

Ritchie writes below the list: “There’s no argument from me about any of those points. These are all absolutely true. … But these are just factual statements – and I don’t think the people who always tell you that ‘science is political’ are just idly chatting sociology-of-science for the fun of it. They want to make one of two points” – referring to the inevitability and activism argument-types.

I agree with some of his positions here, not all, but I also think it might be useful to specify an important set of differences with the way the terms “politics” and “science” are used, and in the contexts in which they’re used. The latter are particularly important.

The statement “science is political” is undeniably legitimate in India – a country defined by its inequalities. Science and technology have historically enjoyed the patronage of the Indian state (in the post-war period) and the many effects of this relationship are visible to this day. State-sanctioned S&T-related projects are often opaque (e.g. ISRODAE and DRDO), top-down (e.g. Challakere and INO) and presume importance (e.g. Kudankulam and most other power-generation projects).

India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru baked science into the Indian nation-project with his stress on the “scientific temper”; his setting up of institutes of higher science education and research; and the greater liberty – and protection from having to justify their priorities – he accorded the nuclear and space programmes (yoking them to the nation’s prosperity but whose work and machinations today are not publicly accessible).

But counterproductively, the Nehru government’s policies also stunted the diffusion of ‘higher’ technologies into society. Currently, this access is stratified by class, caste, location and gender: wealthy upper-caste men in cities and poor lower-caste women in villages lie at the two extremes of a spectrum that defines access to literacy and numeracy, healthcare, public transport, electricity and water, financial services, etc.

Second, asking the question “is science political?” in some country in which English is the first language is different from asking it in a Commonwealth country. Pre-Independence and for many years after, English-speakers in government were typically Brahmins hired to help run the colonial government; outside of government, access to the English language was limited, though not uncommon. Today, access to English – the language of science’s practice – is controlled through the institutions that teach and/or regularly use the language to conduct trade and research. Yet English is also the language that millions aspire to learn because it’s the gateway to better wages and working conditions, and the means by which one might navigate the bureaucracy and laws more effectively.

In these ways, a question arises of who can access the fruits of the scientific enterprise – as well as, perhaps more importantly, whether one or a few caste-class groups are cornering the skills and benefits relevant to scientific work for ends that their members deem to be worthier. When a member of an outgroup thus breaks into a so-called “top” research institute with the characteristics described above, their practice of science – including the identifies of existing scientists, and their languages, aspirations, beliefs and rituals – is inevitably going to be a political experience as well. Put another way, as access to science (knowledge, tools, skills, findings, rewards) expands, there are also going to be political tensions, questions and ultimately reorganisations, if we take ‘politics’ to mean the methods by which we govern ourselves.

In this regard, the political experience of science in India is inevitable – but that doesn’t mean it will always be: the current historical era will eventually make way for a new one (how political the practice of science will be, and its desirability, in that period is a separate question). Nor does it mean we should lower the thresholds that define the quality of science (relevant to points 2, 6 and 8 in Ritchie’s list) in our country. But it does mean that the things about science that concern a country like ours (post-colonial/imperial, agricultural, economically developing, patriarchal, majoritarian, diverse) can be very different from those that concern the UK or the US, and which in turn also highlights the sort of political questions that concern a country the most.

With this in mind, I’d also contend against junking the “argument from inevitability” simply because, in India, it risks prioritising the needs of science over those of society. A very simple (and probably relatable) example: if a lab that has been producing good research in field X one day admits an ESL student belonging of a so-called “lower” caste, it has to be able to tolerate changes in its research output and quality until this individual has settled in, both administratively and in terms of their mental health. If the lab instead expects them to work at the same pace and with the same quality as existing members, the research output will suffer. The student will of course produce “sub-par” work, relative to what has been expected of the lab, and might be ejected while the institutional causes of her reasons to “fail” will be overlooked.

By undertaking such socially minded affirmative action, research labs can surmount the concerns Ritchie flags vis-à-vis the “argument from inevitability” (i.e. by recalibrating v. compromising their expected outcomes). They can also ensure the practice of science produces benefits to society at large, beyond scientific knowledge per se – by depoliticising science itself by admitting the political overtones mediating its practice and improving access to the methods by which good science is produced. It bears repeating, thus, that where science is a reason of state and daily life in all its spheres is governed by inequalities, science needs to be political.