Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Is Science Political? (bostonreview.net)
37 points by XzetaU8 52 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 25 comments

Everything humans do is political. Thinking something is not political is like thinking you don't have an accent: it just means you think of the politics as normal, not that they don't exist.

The practice of science involves choices about where to allocate resources, what lines of research are considered prestigious, what fields of study are encouraged or discouraged, debates over the ethics of technologies that arise from research, who gets to do the science... All of these considerations and more are political.

No. Stop it. Funding is, science isn't.

There's an effective debate tactic where attackers DDoS the other side with innocent questions about their premises. As defenders drown under these reasonable-seeming queries, onlookers wonder if the deluge might indicate a hidden fundamental flaw in the defenders' argument.

Your comment needs a little more nuance. Funding is part of the overall practice of science, and research cannot happen in a vacuum. Facts are not political. Science involves people coming up with research plans, getting funding, conducting the research, and reporting results. Even though facts are not political, many important scientific findings can be debated. Very little of our body of knowledge is verifiable by the general population. You can verify gravitational acceleration and atmospheric drag by self experimentation, but have you ever tried to verify how many electrons are in the outer shell of a particular element? We teach the periodic table of elements to high schoolers as fact, but if a student claims that titanium has eight electrons in its outer shell most chemistry teachers are going to have a hard time proving otherwise. This lack of verifiability leaves a bunch of room for political maneuvering.

Add in the fact that scientists are still human, and are just as morally corrupt as other humans. Being a scientist doesn't come with a magic aura of justice and credibility. Falsification of data in the hopes of getting published tarnishes the reputation of scientists worldwide- who is to say that others aren't also falsifying their data to favor their funding source? If a scientist can be doubted then their findings can be debated, which politicians will certainly do when it suits them.

You have to get your results published, or else you won't get funded for future research, and a group of editors controls the access to the important journals in each field. Those editors usually have a common political bias, as did most researcher's professors, because once a bias is established in a field it tends to reinforce itself.

So I'll reword your comment to be "the practice of science is political, but facts are not." Unfortunately so little of our life falls to the realm of verifiable facts.

Maybe in a very strict sense that the data points observed from a properly setup scientific experiment are not political per se. But even what experiments scientists decide to perform and what to observe can be political, and this is definitely also a part of "science".

Some science is clearly political and other science is clearly not. It is important to keep as much original evidence in the open as possible (without abstracting it away behind rules and principles) so it can be challenged.

That all being said, I'm not sure this really goes to the article; which seems to be more about how the capitalists were more effective at managing a complicated relationship with truth and reality than the communists, and that was an advantage for them.

> Some science is clearly political and other science is clearly not

So the politicalness of something is based on the intention? I’d like to challenge that idea. Imagine you are a nuclear scientist in the brink of cold war. Your interests are purely scientific and you don’t care about all that political talk. You got a nice life. If you decide to work on nuclear fission you aid the government and are thus political if you don’t want to aid the government you are political as well. In that situation every choice is political because your actions have a huge impact on society.

Other example: you work on image recognition algorithms used in CCTV cameras, which are used in different ways around the world and nudge societies they are used in into certain directions. Even if you don’t know where these societies are nudged into and your single goal is truth — is what you do apolitical? The person I write about here would say “Yes” without hessitation, but is that really so?

As long as you science/art/etc impacts society in a meaningful way, you will have that question. Confirming the status quo is just as political as questioning it.

I would say that an interest may be "purely scientific", but if you don't consider the impact of your work then that in itself is a political stance. Your position is that your scientific curiosity is more important than the impact of your discoveries on others.

It's not a great look.

Doing the work implies that a researcher has considered the impact of what they're looking at to the extent they feel it is important, and concluded that it is in line with their values to move forward.

What those values are is the politics. Certainly they can make mistakes, if their intent was good but they were naive about the usage because they simply didn't grasp it, it's hard to think they're bad people. If they don't bother to consider impacts, that's a position as well... but it's not neutral.

how exact do you separate the two? without funding, science doesn’t happen? and this article is covering a specific viewpoint, but how people do science can certainly be political (and is).

I think discussing a tangential discussion is enlighting: Is there such a thing as unpolitical art?

You will find the intuition to consider art with political statements as political and art without as unpolitical. But art operates in an status quo, so can it even be unpolitical? Are the shiny baloon-like sculptures produced by questionably paid interns of Jeff Koons unpolitical? Is a painter who depicts the most idyllic sceneries in a starving country apolitical?

You quickly realize, that trying not to taking part in political things is itself political in a way.

But what about science? Is it political to speak the truth? Yeah, quite much. People have been killed for telling the truth. It takes a very nasty social climate for the truth to become political, but it can become political and when it does, speaking truth becomes as political as denying it.

We have this reflex to say: “but if it is political it is less legitimate”, but forget that any action that shapes society in a meaningful way is political — be it intentional or not.

You can do the most neutral climate science in the world and base everything on proof and facts and your words will still be political in a world where some fractions deny it.

Your goal just isn’t power then, but to speak truth.

People can still do science on their own. Grant giving institutions as a driver of science is a relatively recent phenomenon. There's nothing wrong with a garage laboratory to test your ideas so long as you document your methodology so it can be repeated by others and scrutinized for following the scientific method.

The article is about the Cold War and the history of scientific funding, not so much about recent politics.

It's interesting! But the title could be misleading. Judging from the last para, maybe that's intentional.

Just warning that this could be RTFA bait. Step lightly brave commenters!


Speaking of history and the Cold War, a worthy docuseries to face some uncomfortable facts of the US' post-WW2 behavior: Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States. Even Gorbachev wrote an opinion on the subsequently-released book.


the title is a bit misleading in that this is actually a book review of "Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science" by Audra J. Wolfe, which describes the role of global politics on the direction of american science in the 20th century.

in college, i read what i assume is a precursor to this book, entitled "The Cold War and American Science" by Stuart W. Leslie[0] which covers much of the same material, particularly the rise of MIT and stanford as top-tier schools.

but to answer the question in the title, yes, science is political, because people are political and science is a process devised and employed by humans.


Science is very political! Though as others point out this is about the history of the cold war more than colloquial forces. Scientists are people first and people live in the world, hold views and their views influenced what makes sense to them. All research is aligned with politics in some way, though not all topics are equally engaged.

Isn't science, by the nature of funding, necessarily political?

Politics arises when 3 or more people decide on who gets what and how much of it.

Life is political all the the way down.

By that definition of governance you could argue an individual must engage in politics when dealing with only his own choices. Surely there is a line between direct negotiation and political governance. I'd argue that line is drawn when representation comes into play.

The line is drawn at the point it's possible to form coalitions to overpower another party. Hence at minimum 3 people have to be involved otherwise it is just direct negotiation.

Most of life is deeply political in this sense.

Interesting article. I have a slightly related idea to mention.

The application of empiricism is suspect by the nature of perception, cognition, and the complexity of reality. This is not to say that empirical activity is not critical to science. It's just that scientific theories by necessity exceed the scope of local observation and are biased by worldview, especially as predictions become grander in scale.

I don't understand. Empiricism is based on shared perceptions, and scientific theories exceed these?

Is science apolitical?

It's the same question, only opposite spin.

I don't think that science could be apolitical. Not as long at it uncovers facts, and facts have political consequences.

From various other discussions and clear examples in HN, in my opinion: hard sciences aren't political, soft sciences are clearly political.

There is not a single thing you can't interpret as political. The question is more about intent, both from the emitter, and the receiver.

Of course science is political. What isn't?

I have a feeling that non-scientists see science as an invisible ethereal, platonic construct that's slowly being unveiled by hardy explorers, uh I mean scientists, until at last the whole of the Truth and nothing but the Truth fully shines in its enlightening splendor.

Except that's not how it works. In practice, science works by scientific consensus. What is true is what the community decides is true. The community can be convinced otherwise by contradicting evidence (or not) but the process of convincing is then subject to all the biases affecting our feeble human minds: it can be contradictory with other evidence, misinterpreted, misunderstood, deemed insufficient, coming from the wrong person, etc. It takes a lot of time for the consensus to evolve, and it's a rather a messy and political affair. There's often a running joke that a theory's acceptance depends on the old guard dying out and being replaced by the younger, more open-minded generation (relevant smbc: https://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/how-math-works)

Btw, just in case you're wondering, math is absolutely not immune from this either. Cathy O'Neil wrote an excellent post detailing how mathematical proofs work in real life (and not in some platonic imaginary world invented by laymen): https://mathbabe.org/2012/08/06/what-is-a-proof/ also with a relatively recent example: https://mathbabe.org/2012/11/14/the-abc-conjecture-has-not-b...

Does the Pope shit in the woods?

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact