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The Science Wars: What is at Stake?

Dorothy Nelkin

Chronicle of Higher Education
July 26, 1996

A surprising number of scientists have mobilized to attack those humanists and social scientists who study science as an activity influenced by social, cultural, and political forces. Battles against the so-called "flight from science and reason" are taking place on many fronts; in angry books (Higher Superstition) and public meetings, science studies scholars have been called "science bashers," "ignorant alarmists," or "self- deluded ideologues," bent on destroying science and undermining the scientific world view. A Smithsonian Institution show called "Science in American Life," intended to portray the role of science in society and the costs as well as benefits of progress, became a target of scientists' wrath. And when physicist Alan Sokal used deception to promulgate his outrage at social constructivist theories of science, he was lauded by his colleagues. Are these critics suggesting that science must not be critically examined by "outsiders"-- only celebrated, promoted, and praised?

The very success of science has given the once private domain of the scientific laboratory a public profile. Studies of science extend beyond examination of its social impact to question the choice of research priorities, the methods of research, and the biases that shape interpretations of nature. Such investigations treat science as a product not of disembodied minds but of actual people in social interaction. To many scientists this is a hostile attack on their status in society, and they are responding with vehemence and indignation.

The scientific community has, in the past, been notoriously reluctant to mobilize against creationists, animal rightists, and other influential anti-science groups. Why now are scientists so eager to attack social constructivist theories? Why is it so problematic to explore the gap between truth and knowledge, to ask "how do we know?" What is this science war really about? Some scientists have accused their humanist critics of postmodernist obfuscation. But the foibles of other disciplines are unlikely catalysts for war. Nor is the science war about the power of humanists who are hardly about to topple the scientific enterprise. There is no evidence that science studies scholars are responsible for Congressional cutbacks in science funding. A Congress that is wiping out the National Endowment for the Humanities could not really place so much value on cultural studies that it would be influenced by humanists. Nor is there evidence that humanists, even those with popular appeal, have ever had much influence on public policy. One is hard put to find a correlation between cultural analyses of science and changes in science policy.

The moral outrage of scientists may be best understood in the context of critical changes within science itself and in the relationship of science to the state. The social contract between science and the state that formed after World War II included agreements about the terms of scientific autonomy. The government would provide research support unfettered by requirements for accountability if scientists would work in the interests of progress and effectively regulate themselves. The unusual degree of autonomy granted to science reflected the public image of scientists as apolitical, unbiased, and therefore reliable as sources of truth. It also reflected public trust in the ability of the scientific community to control its internal affairs. Under these conditions science flourished and scientists took autonomy for granted as their due. In the 1990s, however, the terms of contract appear increasingly obsolete, and the harmony that had long marked the partnership between science and the state has deteriorated. Both sides have failed to meet their side of the bargain. Government is cutting back on funding and and scientists, often working in the interest of private profit, are facing the problems of self-regulation.

The strains on science funding are, in large part, a consequence of world events--the end of the Cold War, the cutback in defense related research, and the national deficit. But also, the extraordinary optimism about the future of science that maintained the social contract has dissipated, and scientists like other institutions and most people these days must cope with fewer resources and greater accountability.

The scientists' side of the contract, their promise of self regulation, has also deteriorated. It has become increasingly difficult to maintain control over the large number of scientists working in specialized fields in a climate of intense competition. The widely reported incidents of fraud have become a major concern for journal editors and scientific associations. Some scientists regard fraud as an aberration: others as revealing basic structural flaws in the organization of science. But fraud strikes at the moral roots of the scientific enterprise, and presents a serious challenge to the ability of the community to regulate itself.

Scientists are also struggling to come to terms with revelations about ethical abuses. The US Department of Energy investigation into the history of unethical research involving human subjects revealed widespread scientific complicity in dubious experiments using inadequate safety precautions. It also found that many scientists gave only limited attention to informed consent.

Finally, changes in science also reflect growing corporate influence on research. As economic competition overshadows military goals, many scientists are shifting their priorities to commercially relevant research devoted to the solution of short term problems. Predictably, corporate sponsors demand research in the interest of profit. Thus, the vision of science as driven by scientific curiosity has been clouded leaving the impression that scientific information is less a public resource--the basis after all of the original contract-- than a private commodity.

In all, science, has become a different enterprise than it was when its contract was forged with the state. It is larger, more costly, more controversial, and more difficult to control. It is faced with budget projections below the rate of inflation so that some established projects have been blocked and some well-trained scientists are without jobs. Scientists view their situation as grim--but who is to blame?

Institutions under siege, in the words of Mary Douglas, seek to "block personal curiosity [and] organize public memory." They protect their boundaries, by "channel[ing] perceptions into forms compatible with the relations they authorize." This is what the science war is about. In defending their disciplines, scientists are arguing with extraordinary passion to convey their dispassionate objectivity. They want once again to be perceived as pure, unsullied seekers after truth, and to define their own history and contemporary practice in just such terms. History is important in shaping public perceptions; yet the defensive war against those who study science as a social institution is very strange.

Despite budget cutbacks, the scientific culture is not about to disappear. While certain areas of science, especially "big science" projects such as NASA and fusion research are threatened, surveys consistently show that despite a general lack of science literacy, the public is convinced of the value of science. And the role of science as a model of rationality in human affairs is not really in question. Indeed, most historians and sociologists who study science validate the credibility of their work in terms of scientific standards. Moreover, American society has by no means abandoned science. Unlike welfare mothers, the chronically ill, artists, and other needy groups, many scientists can fall back on industry and private foundations when government funds are reduced. And the budget plans for the National Science Foundation call for increasing support of basic research while wiping out most support for the social sciences. On this front the scientists have won their war.

In sum, the science war seems misplaced. There are, these days, many threats to scientific rationality-- from religious fundamentalists, right wing politicians, and other anti-science forces. Attacking fellow academics is much easier, but misdirected. It is strategically misguided as well. Given the importance of science in society, what is wrong with a sociologically-informed account of the workings of science? Is science only to be popularized and praised? After all, demystifying science, and assessing it as a social institution could contribute to public understanding.

By engaging in polemics against all who question science, scientists are fostering polarization and discouraging reasoned discussion. By defending themselves so bitterly against outside critiques, scientists can only encourage a public image of their profession as arrogant and answerable to no-one. By closing ranks, they appear as simply another self-protective institution looking out for interests and careers. And by making vociferous claims to absolute authority over the definition of truth, they are behaving much like fundamentalists. Thoughtful scholars-- even those outside the debate -- are forced to take sides as the science war challenges assumptions about their mode of research and their freedom to articulate ideas. At a time when academic institutions are generally under siege, dividing the academy into warring factions is not a productive strategy

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