Ferey: Populism against science: a new political cleavage?, Part 2/2

This is part 2 of a translation of an op-ed by Camille Ferey in BibliObs. Part 1 is here.

Analyzing the legitimate reasons for criticizing science

If the ideological dimension of the cleavage between rationalism and populism has been clarified, there remains a real phenomenon behind it. There exists a mass of untruths (lies and errors) whose effects on humanity are deleterious: climate-skepticism, historical denialism, anti-Darwinism and various kinds of conspiracy theories. But there is a pressing need to analyze the real causes of these untruths rather than to attribute them to the mental dysfunction of idiots: democracy cannot be defended by being anti-democrats.

The foremost of these causes is a political one: the process of scientification of politics and technicalization of democracy. Liberal capitalism largely subordinates collective decisions to mathematical economic models that are presented by a stratum of “experts” that are linked to power as eternal truths. In this way, presenting political choices as scientific ones, a rhetoric that was widely used in the management of the COVID19 pandemic (the decisions, said Edouard Phillipe, are not political, they are scientific), exposes science to skepticism from that point on whenever choices prove to have negative consequences. How can we believe, for example, the irrefutability of economic laws after the 2008 crisis? Dismissing any critical reflection of a technical-scientific vision of politics, immediately branding such reflection as mistrustful and irrational populism, and eliminating from public debate a set of subjects under the pretext that they are matters of science, thus contributes directly to putting science in doubt.

Another cause, this one sociological, can explain the lack of confidence in science. As history and sociology show clearly: no science is neutral in the sense that it may be produced by an observer with no characteristics and no purpose. Science is produced by scientists and if the scientists all belong to the same social class or to the same group, their products will necessarily be affected. And so, the fact that over the centuries scientists were men can explain the great delay in research about feminine sexual organs as well as about certain diseases such a endometriosis, which afflict only women.

If today women are slowly gaining ground in science (even if with much difficulty, for the scientific establishment is barely opening up and renewing itself), this is not happening with regards to the working class due to the length and uncertainty of the path leading to a career in research (being inversely proportional to the ridiculous sums and the small numbers of the scholarships available). Therefore, as science is going to be done by the wealthier classes, it will necessarily to some extent be done for the wealthy. Objectivity and neutrality grow from pluralism and equality. Without those, as the philosopher John Dewey wrote in 1927, “a class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests that it becomes a class with private interests and private knowledge, which in social matters is no knowledge at all. [The Public And Its Problems, p. 207]”

Finally, the economic organization of the scientific establishment greatly contributes to the legitimate suspicion toward its products. The mode of production of knowledge does not avoid the general logic of the accumulation of profit of our economic system. The increasing private financing of scientific research removes choices of investment and priorities of research from democratic discussion, even as science takes an increasingly important part in our lives, determining how we live, die, eat, reproduce and move about.

On the other hand, public money continues still to finance research massively, notably in the form of financial gifts, but with a total lack of transparency. This is a situation which facilitates the appropriation by the private sector of profits generated by discoveries. An example: pharmaceutical work was slowly privatized over decades by liberal governments, as shown by Pauline Londeix and Jerome Martin, the co-founders of the Observatory of Transparency in the Politics of Pharmaceuticals. The system of research, development, production and distribution of health products, common goods largely financed by public funds, is therefore literally monopolized privately thanks to the patenting system. Furthermore, the private sector eliminates research position which are, again, largely financed by public funds, and continues to hand out billions in dividends to its shareholders while refusing to produce its products locally due to “cost” considerations. How can confidence in such a non-democratic situation be demanded?

Do not restore trust in science. Make science worthy of trust

These observations, rather than leading to skepticism, should lead us toward transforming “mistrust” into criticism. In a democracy, all institutions should rest their authority on their legitimacy rather than through enforcement. Science is no exception to this rule. Therefore to be legitimate science must be the object of criticism – that is one of the fundamental principles of democratic legitimacy. It is therefore through an effective criticism of science, and not through an authoritarian enforcement of its certitudes, that we may hope to eliminate untruths.

Such a critique must first consist of a collective decision about the boundaries of science’s authority: which questions are within those boundaries and which are part of different regimes of truth and values, as important for lawmaking as science is. The COVID19 crisis has shown that strictly scientific advice and warnings are merely parameters, along with economic, social, cultural, even religious dimensions, all of them being communal. It is therefore the democratic community that is to decide what is the proper place of science in public life.

For that, the directions of research have to be planned in a transparent way and submitted to democratic deliberation. Organized this way, it planning would allow to reintroduce democratically the question of the values which science must be strictly subordinated to, in order to serve collective emancipation and happiness rather than private interests. Furthermore, all the products of science must be considered as common goods that may not be appropriated privately. Scientists must be independent of all industry and political relations, in particular through strengthened legal and financial protections.

Finally, each area of application of science must be open to counter-expertise. If we want to give science power, counter-powers must be given as well. To do that, all the studies upon which political decisions rely must be made public. The crucial role of counter-expertise required and realized by the citizens in numerous political and social struggles, from the death of Adama Taroré to environmental struggles through the struggle against the AIDS epidemic, have shown how the critique of science has been a major democratic tool. Citizen science movements have also shown how wrong is the image of the ignorant public led by the Enlightened. This should lead us to recall that, contrary to the anti-democratic vision of Queen Science, knowledge is not a virtue but a right.

A justified political critique of science is therefore a critique of its institutions: their financing, their transparency, their accessibility, their representatives and their impact. Furthermore, giving an account for our present situation through the prism of an opposition between the forces of rationality and irrationality is profound negation of the idea of criticism, an essential ingredient of democracy. Because science is not simply a matter of truth and falsehood. It is also, even if this displeases the ultra-rationalists, a matter of values, as Albert Camus sharply asserted in the aftermath of Hiroshima. We must be living in our own imaginations, he would say, to believe that science is above the violence and the madness of this world.

8 Responses

  1. *** Camille Ferey’s text includes very strong points. But it includes likewise some important weak points and omissions.
    *** She says “Science is [also] a matter of values”. There is confusion between knowledge – which may not be subject to value assessment – and applications, which may be subject to such assessment. The discovery of the bacteriological origin of many illnesses is science, value-free. Bacteriological warfare value-assessment is legitimate.
    *** She mentions « the crucial role of counter-expertise required and realized by the citizens in numerous political and social struggles ». But these counter-expertises, usually produced by militant groups, may be even more biased than the institutional expertises. How the ordinary citizen may know the truth ? In our polyarchies, he has few hopes. But even in an ortho-democracy, it is a problem.
    *** She says « The fact that over the centuries scientists were men can explain the great delay in research about feminine sexual organs as well as about certain diseases such a endometriosis, which afflict only women. » Very possibly, but we must distinguish two points : the choice of the subjects of scientific research, and the trust the ordinary citizens may have towards the consensus resulting from the research. The second point is difficult even in an ortho-democracy.
    *** « The directions of research have to be planned in a transparent way and submitted to democratic deliberation. » OK. But it is better to add some space of free research for the scientists themselves, allowing them to study some fields where they feel there is hope of discovery. Useful results may come by indirect ways, and therefore research must not be 100% planned.
    *** Furthermore we must beware that the planning proposals could cover censorship of some fields : groups may propose discarding research in some fields not really because they think money would be more useful elsewhere, but because they are afraid this research could lead to unpleasant results.
    *** Ferey underlines how useful may be diversity among the scientists. But she omits an important parameter : the intellectual training. When all the scientists in a field have the same training, conformity is much easier to get. If for instances the sociological studies are made by people of different background – psychological, biological, historical, economical etc – the intellectual diversity acts against spontaneous conformity (which itself is orientated by ideology and interests).
    *** Scientific elites, as all « functional » elites, may include a fraction with strong oligarchizing tendencies, using consciously or not its function to get political power through apparent scientific consensuses. Secret vote here as always is useful to dispel a false look of consensus. When an Academy of Sciences gives an advice to the citizens, they must know how big is the minority, by secret vote.

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  2. Andre, you raise good points i think.

    Facts are are true or false regardless of what majority opinion says.

    Best to give scientists a lot of academic freedom and independence, and make sure they are independent from big business interests, religious interests, political ideologies and from government. And from majority public opinion as well.

    Desirable for epistemic reasons for scientists to be diverse. Not limited to men or to white people or to those born with a silver spoon in their mouth or to heterosexuals.

    These are among the things that make science better and provide good reasons to accept the results as valid.

    Also good to distinguish between physics and biology on the one hand, and on the other the social sciences where the epistemics may be quite different, and there may be specific dangers of elite capture (such as an economics profession that is largely a handmaiden of Wall Street, and political scientists who are handmaidens of political and economic elites rather than independent and fair observers of them).

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  3. *** Simon Threlkeld mentions « political scientists who are handmaidens of political and economic elites rather than independent and fair observers of them ».
    *** It may be right if we consider the political scientists as an elite, collectively, and its global role. But, at least in France, a fraction of political scientists are not along this description, and we find even among them supporters of sortition. There is, I think, at least in France enough academic freedom to allow that.
    *** Even the most oligarchizing elites in our polyarchy are not perfectly homogeneous, and this gives some hope for (ortho-)democracy.

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  4. Simon:> Desirable for epistemic reasons for scientists to be diverse. Not limited to men or to white people or to those born with a silver spoon in their mouth or to heterosexuals.

    Surely discipline and paradigm diversity is more important than gender, sexuality etc?

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  5. > How the ordinary citizen may know the truth ?

    Good question. How does anybody know anything? “Knowing” is of course a much more complicated thing than the electoralist dogma asserts. The dissemination of the idea that knowing is simple and easy is in fact one of the ways in which our society being degraded by electoralism.

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  6. Regarding giving scientists independence from the scientific establishment mentioned above and also in the article (“Scientists must be independent of all industry and political relations, in particular through strengthened legal and financial protections.”).

    Yes, this is a good idea, but it should not be limited to scientists. In the same way that scientists should be protected against retribution and sanctioning, so should any person in society. Providing a guarantee for a decent living through a generous Universal Basic Income program should go a long way toward encouraging freedom of thought and speech in society.

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  7. *** Yoram Gat says « Providing a guarantee for a decent living through a generous Universal Basic Income program should go a long way toward encouraging freedom of thought and speech in society. »
    *** A civic minimum income may be argued a strong asset for (ortho-)democracy. It was implemented in the Second Athenian Democracy through the political wages – pays as juror and for assembly attendance – and through the thêorikon (the glue of democracy, said Demades).
    *** But it does not seem so strong a shield for freedom of thought in a modern society. We can easily imagine a socio-political order where any incorrect thought will lead to loss of professional expectations or to leveling towards the minimum civic income, with a strong intimidating effect even if this basic income allows decent life. Well, freedom of speech will be higher for pensioners, but maybe it would be difficult to quit the ingrained habit of intellectual over-caution.

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  8. Andre,

    > We can easily imagine a socio-political order where any incorrect thought will lead to loss of professional expectations or to leveling towards the minimum civic income

    Indeed. This would be an improvement, however, over the current situation where the loss of professional expectations could also lead to destitution.

    Yes, UBI by itself is not a guarantee of freedom of thought and freedom of speech, but it would reduce the power of economic threats which are one of the main tools that the establishment uses in order to enforce conformity – in academia and more generally in any workplace.

    Like

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