May 25, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich

Going round in circles?

Klallam_people_at_Port_TownsendAs some readers of this blog will know, there has been a conference last week here at the University of Nottingham, which brought together social scientists and natural scientists to discuss issues related to science, politics and the media. The conference was entitled: ‘Circling the square: Research, politics, media and impact’. [Just after I posted this post, Philip Moriarty sent me his take on the science politics issue, which you can read here – there are certainly some overlaps between what say below and what he says in his post]

Science and communication

In blog posts written after the conference, some natural scientists expressed genuine consternation about the ways in which they thought social scientists had portrayed natural scientists, for example as bad, naïve, or ill-advised communicators. I remember chatting to a group of people after one of the panels and trying to stress that this stereotype was just not true. So, for all those who are still reflecting on this issue, please read Tim Radford’s refutation of this myth (which is, it should be stressed, not only perpetuated by social scientists) and look at the blog posts these poor communicators have written after the conference!

Science and politics

Many natural scientists I spoke to were also puzzled by claims about the inextricably political nature of science. This issue perplexed me too and has bewildered me for a long time. I think the crux of the problem lies in conflating science as ‘the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment’ (Google definition) with using science for policy making or engaging in science advice.

After one of the panellists, Beth Taylor (until recently Director of Communications and International Relations at the Institute of Physics), told us about her experiences when dealing with communication issues around nuclear waste, I was tempted to ask the audience to carry out the following Gedankenexperiment or thought experiment. I did not do this at the conference, but I want to do this now in this blog post:

Imagine you are a policy maker who has to decide where to relocate a nuclear waste dump threatened by coastal erosion. You want to get things right, so that you don’t get into that situation again and you don’t want to lose the trust and support of the communities affected. So you go to ‘the scientists’ and ask them to supply you with as much information as possible about tidal patterns, coastal erosion, geology, seismology, geography, patterns of road use, etc. etc. You then go to your communities and say: ‘OK, we have to make a decision about how to relocate this nuclear waste. Here is the information supplied by the scientists. Of course, you will also have to take into account your own wishes, worries and values. Now tell me what you think and help me to make my final decision as a policy maker’.

However, if the claim about the inextricably political nature of science is true, then the policy maker would have to go to the community and say exactly what he or she said before, but then add a caveat: ‘but of course, you have to keep in mind that all the scientific information which the scientists have supplied is political (biased, value-laden) in nature. Now make up your minds!’

I believe that this just would not work. Or am I completely misunderstanding something here? I am still trying to learn about science and politics.

Of course I don’t deny that there are political issues which impinge on science (funding and the impact agenda come to mind, as well as the corporatisation and marketisation of universities) and, even more so, on the use of science in political decision making. I also don’t dispute that scientists have to be extremely careful and totally honest about the limits of what they do and say when stepping into the political sphere or mingling with politicians. This does not mean, however, from my still rather naïve perspective, that basic science itself, the process of gathering robust and reliable information about an issue, is an essentially political pursuit. If that was the case, how would we ever make political decisions about anything where we need scientific information? Would we just toss a coin in the end?

And what would happen if we also applied this principle of the inextricably political nature of science to the social sciences (see the comment by Victor Venema here)? Could we still trust what social scientists say about the nature of science, about science and politics, about scientists and so on? Wouldn’t this lead to a rather vicious circle?

Breaking the circle?

So, what I would like to see is a blog post by a core social scientist, with much more knowledge about these issues than me, who can explain to me and probably many others what the inextricably political nature of science means and what it entails for the natural as well as the social sciences and the status of knowledge and expertise in our society.

A good start may be for us all to read and discuss this 2013 Guardian science blog by Sheila Jasanoff who contributed strongly to the conference and has a wealth of knowledge and experience on such matters.

Image: Klallam people at Port Townsend (Wikimedia Commons)


Posted in science and politics