CAN SCIENCE BE RADICAL?

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by Ella Gilbert

One of the most fundamental rules of science that any student will learn is the importance of objective thought. The strength of scientific observation lies in the ability to weigh up evidence without assuming pre-defined outcomes, while investigating all possible hypotheses with equal exactitude. The triumvirate of ‘reliability, accuracy and precision’ are concepts drilled into students throughout their education, and the importance of withholding judgment until conclusions can reliably be drawn is underlined in experimentation and practice. Indeed, the process of science in itself is about careful, reasoned consideration of the available evidence, rigorous data analysis and logical extrapolation and conclusion. Science’s strength lies in its claims to objectivity – it wouldn’t work without it. Any deviation from these well-defined parameters and rules constitute ‘bad science’, tainted with opinion, ideology or personal belief. So, in this context, can science be radical? Or should it?

Certainly, science needs to remain out of politics – once scientists become embroiled in the confused and complicated world of political sniping, loaded and underhand behaviour, their credibility is violated. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is arguably the most broad-reaching and respected authority on Climate Change, yet its remit is “policy relevant, not policy prescriptive”; very wisely, the IPCC does not involve itself in policy-making nor politics, leaving that up to bureaucrats and politicians. Instead, the IPCC relies on probabilistic statements, asserting for instance in its most recent report that the catastrophic release of methane hydrates from continental shelves before 2100 is “unlikely” (with rare 99% confidence), which can be frustratingly vague for policy-makers and the public. Scientists and policy-makers speak different languages, and therein lies the problem: science is translated poorly from the research to the public domain. These disconnects can mean research is incorrectly interpreted, and effective policy is formulated based on incorrect information. It can also lead to a failure in implementation, confounded by the short political lifetimes and priorities of politicians, which contrast with the long-term effects and actions required to tackle an issue such as climate change or antibiotic resistance.

Scientific conclusions, although weighted heavily in analysis of certainty and considerations of error, are drawn based on the available evidence and others’ research, which can often be a considerable body of work. After years of looking at data pointing to a certain conclusion, surely it is justifiable to make a stand based on what is glaringly obvious? If you truly believe that action is needed to avert catastrophe, should you not speak out? Furthermore, seeing a scientist, whose entire professional life has been dedicated and guided by these strict conventions, taking direct action on their subject is surely more powerfully persuasive than the likely bunch of anarchists and greenies (important as they are) you see at protests and summits – right?

Academic institutions and academia are inherently conservative – radicalism doesn’t pay in science, where being too vehement can bring disrepute. Non-scientists frequently misinterpret scientists’ inability to ‘prove’ things, or to conclude with 100% certainty as evidence that something is not true – the greenhouse effect for example. Scientists are as sure as they can be that fossil fuels are causing greenhouse gas concentrations to rise (in fact, the theory has been around for a very long time) but they still cannot be sure that some previously unconsidered force is at work (like black magic for example), and hence cannot say with 100% certainty that this is the case (although they can say with 99.9% certainty). Again, this gets lost in translation, and non-scientists interpret this as evidence of doubt. So: academics tend to hedge their bets, and tend to err on the side of caution. This lends itself to conservatism, and the poor translation into the public domain means that policy remains decades behind the research – politicians are not willing to risk their necks on what they perceive as ‘uncertain’ facts. It is a vicious cycle; academia recoils from unequivocal statements, and no self-respecting scientist would dream of citing a result without including caveats of error and uncertainty ranges.

Although science is in itself radical, at the forefront of new, independent thought, radical expression is suppressed. The academic world often ostracises and disregards those who speak for themselves (not just scientifically) – for instance David Graeber, who was controversially pushed out of Yale for his public political views as a self-proclaimed anarchist. There is a new wave of academics brave enough to stand behind more radical statements – people like Graeber, Kevin Anderson, and George Monbiot, who regularly make ripples. People like them are needed to challenge the stifling conservatism of institutions, which is often augmented by the perverse incentives offered by funding models for research. Many scientists are pressured into releasing results that are favourable to those who commissioned or funded the research – and market titans like pharmaceutical giants and the fossil fuel industry are big funders. It comes as little surprise therefore that many scientists feel unable to publish results that contradict the aims and objectives of their donors – being under the thumb of oil companies must bestow a great weight indeed.

What is needed is a radical change in the way science and knowledge is produced, doing away with the commodification of knowledge. Changing that releases academics in institutions from the straitjacketed requirement to produce a quota of publications per year, or that eliminates the paywall of journals, which sells knowledge only to those who can pay, therefore keeping science exclusively within the reach only of those who have paid to be a part of an institution like a university – thereby justifying and perpetuating a system where students are customers, paying £9k per year in fees. A more autonomous funding model is required, free from the tyranny of corporate sponsorship, which allows free thought to shape knowledge, unhindered by external pressures to represent data in a certain way.

Where this money is going to come from is irrelevant – it could not happen on a large scale under a system like capitalism, where profit is the ultimate motive. Autonomous knowledge creation is a grassroots process – incorporating the expertise of academics and ordinary people requires work from the bottom up, but such knowledge would be more representative of and better understood by the population at large. Free from the pressures of top-down, imposed funding structures and institutional demands, science would be free to be what it is at heart – truly radical thought.

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