Certainly there are things to like about the March for Science. As you are likely aware, scientists and engineers have a reputation for being politically aloof. I, for one, am glad to see events like it, which run contrary to that stereotype.
The March for Science website describes the event as a nonpartisan call for politicians to recognize that science upholds the public good: in other words, science matters. I want to push those of you reading this post to critically examine this slogan—to treat it as you would any truth claim.
On face value, there seems to be little to disagree with: of course science should matter. Good luck solving any 21st century challenge without it. Hence, I think it is more interesting to ask, “Which science should matter? And how much?” Some of you may find this to be a provocative turn of phrase, because it applies to science a standard definition of politics: that is, politics as any answer to the question “What gets what, when, and how?”
This is a provocative question because many people, including many scientists and engineers, tend to believe that politics is everything science is not and vice-versa, which in turn supports the idea that advocating for science can be a non-partisan activity, that it can be an apolitical social movement.
To say today that science should matter, but little more than that, could be construed to imply that we ought to continue with science as we had prior to recent electoral results. Such an implication would appear to be rooted in the presumption that science was previously nonpartisan and only recently tainted by political agendas. Is that a wise presumption?
Certainly the current administration’s attempts to excise climate science from NASA and muzzle the EPA can be recognized as political. But what about the historical relationship between science and military applications, running all the way from Archimedes to the United States today—where some $77 billion gets spent on military R&D annually compared to $69 billion on nondefense research? What about the fact that a paltry portion of public research money is dedicated to developing non-toxic alternatives to the suspected and confirmed carcinogens and endocrine disruptors found inside most consumer products, toxins which invariably end up in the environment and, thus, in human bodies. Compare that to the billions that always seems await every new overhyped and highly risky area of innovation: nano-tech, syn-bio, and so on.
I don’t assume that you will agree with my own valuation of the relative worthiness of these different areas of science, but I hope you can join me in recognizing that such discrepancies in funding and attention do not exist because one area is more scientific than the others.
If historians who can study our time period even exist in 100 years, they will likely find our belief that science is nonpartisan as perplexing to say the least. How could a sophisticated society believe in such an idea when it is obvious that some areas of science matter more than others and some science gets ignored? How could they sustain such a belief when the advantages of military R&D and the harms of toxic consumer products clearly accrue more strongly to some people than others? Some clearly win because of this arrangement, while others lose.
I don’t say this to denigrate science but to denigrate one of the myths that undergirds the political aloofness that is so common among scientists and engineers. My message to you is that you’re already and always partisan. That is a reality that will not disappear simply by not believing in it. Accepting this message, I would argue, is not as destructive as one might believe at first. Rather, I think it is freeing: it enables one to act more wisely in the world, rather than be misguided by a “flat Earth theory” of politics. There is no abyss to fall into wherein one ceases to be scientific, in turn becoming political. One is already and always both.
Therefore, it is not a question of whether science and engineering is partisan or not, but a question of what kind of partisans scientists and engineers should be: self-conscious ones or ones asleep at the wheel? What kind of technoscientific world will you be a partisan for? Which science should matter? And how much?
It is an understatement to say that the case of Anna Stubblefield is simply controversial. Opinions of the former Rutgers professor, who was recently sentenced to some 10 odd years in prison for the charge of sexually assaulting a disabled man, are highly polarized. When reading comments on recent news stories on the case, one finds not only people who find her absolutely abhorrent but also people who empathize or support her side. No doubt there are important issues to consider regarding the rights of disabled persons, professional ethics, racism, and the nature of consent. However, I want to focus on how the framing of the case as a battle between science and pseudoscience prevents us from sensibly dealing with the politics underlying the issue.
The case is strongly shaped by a broader dispute over of the scientific status of “facilitated communication” (FC), a technique claimed by its advocates to allow previously voiceless people with cerebral palsy or autism to speak. As its name suggests, a facilitator helps guide the disabled person’s hand to a keyboard. In the most favorable reading of the practice, the facilitator simply balances out the muscle contractions and lessens the physical barriers to typing. Some see the practice, however, as more than mere assistance: they claim that the facilitator is the one really doing the typing, either consciously or unconsciously. In the former case, FC is a wonderful gift for those suffering from disabilities and their families. In latter reading, facilitators are charlatans, utilizing a pseudoscientific technique to deceive people.
"Given our inability to see into the minds of people so disabled, both sides of the debate end up speaking for them in light of indirect observations."
This latter view seems to have won out in the case of Anna Stubblefield, who claims that DJ--a man with profound physical and suspected mental disabilities—consented to have sex with her via FC. The court rules that FC did not meet the state standards for science. Hence, Stubblefield was unable to mount a much of a defense vis-à-vis FC.
Most people fail to grasp, however, exactly how hard it is to distinguish science and pseudoscience—despite whatever popularizers like Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye seem to claim. Science does not simply produce unquestionable facts, rather it is a skilled practice; its capacity to prove truth is always partial, seen far better in hindsight than in the moment. As science and technology studies scholars well illustrate, experiments are incredibly complex—only becoming more so when their results are controversial. The fact that many scientific activities are heavily dependent on the skill of the scientist is on the one hand obvious, but nevertheless eludes most people.
Mid-20th century experiments attempting to transfer memories (e.g., fear of the dark, how to run a maze) between planarian worms or mice exemplify this facet of science. Skeptical and supportive scientists went back and forth incessantly over methodological disagreements in trying to determine whether the observed effects were “real,” eventually considering more than 70 separate variables as possible influences on the outcome of memory transfer experiments. Even though some skeptical scientists derided skill-based variables as a so-called “golden hands” argument, there are plenty of areas of science where an experimentalist’s skill makes or breaks an experiment. Biologists, in particular, frequently lament the difficulty of keeping an RNA sample from breaking down or find themselves developing fairly eccentric protocols for getting “good” results out of a Western Blot or bioassay experiment. What some will view as ad-hoc “golden hands” excuses are often simply facets of doing a complex and highly sensitive procedure.
A similar dispute over the role of the skill of the practitioner makes FC controversial. After rosy beginnings, skeptical scientists produced results that cast doubt on the technique. Experiments involved the attempt to duplicate text generated with the help of a disabled person’s usual facilitator with a “naïve” facilitator or the asking of questions to which the facilitator wouldn’t know the answer. Indeed, just such an experiment was conducted with DJ, for which both sides claimed victory (Jeff McMahan and Peter Singer, for instance, argue that DJ is more cognitively able than the prosecution would have one believe). As has been the case for other controversial scientific phenomenon, FC only becomes more complex the more deeply one looks into it. Advocates of the method raise their own doubts about studies claiming to disprove the technique’s effectiveness, contending that facilitation requires skills and sensitivities unique to the person being facilitated and that the stressfulness of the testing environment skews the results in the favor of skeptics. There is enough uncertainty surrounding the abilities of those with autism or cerebral palsy to make reasonable arguments either way. Given our inability to see into the minds of people so disabled, both sides of the debate end up speaking for them in light of indirect observations.
Again, my point is not to try to argue one way or another for FC but to merely point out that the phenomenon under consideration is immensely complex; we simplify it only at our peril.
Indeed, the history of science and technology provides plenty of evidence suggesting that we are better off acknowledging that even today’s best science is unlikely to provide sure answers to a controversial debate. Advocates of nuclear energy, for instance, once claimed that their science proved that an accident was a near impossibility, happening perhaps once in ten thousand years. Similarly, some petroleum geology experts have claimed that it is physically impossible for fracking to introduce natural gas and other contaminants to water supplies: there is simply too much rock in between. Yet, an EPA scientist has recently produced fairly persuasive evidence to the contrary. “Settled science” rhetoric has mainly served to shut down inquiry, and the discovery of contrary findings in ensuing decades only adds support to the view that reaching something like scientific certainty is a long and difficult struggle. As a result, scientific controversies are often as much settled politically as scientifically: they are as much battles of rhetoric as facts.
Rather than pretend that absolute certitude were possible, what if we proceeded with controversial practices like FC guided by the presumption that we might be wrong about it? What if we assumed that it was possible the method could work—perhaps for a very small percentage of autistics and those born with severe cerebral palsy--but that we are challenged in our ability to know for whom it worked? Moreover, self-deception—like many believe Anna Stubblefield fell prey to—remains a pervasive risk. The situation changes dramatically. Rather than commit oneself to idea that something is either pure truth or complete pseudoscience, the issue can be framed in terms of risk: given that we may be wrong, who might suffer which benefits and harms? How many cases of sham communication via FC balances out the possibility of a non-communicative person losing their voice? In other words, do we prefer false positives or false negatives?
Such a perspective challenges people to think more deeply about what matters with respect to FC. Surely the prospect of disabled people being abused or killed because of communication that originates more with the facilitator than the person being facilitated is horrifying. Yet, on the other hand, Daniel Engeber describes meeting families who feel like FC has been a godsend. Even in the scenario in which FC only provides a comforting delusion, is anyone being harmed? A philosophy professor I once knew remarked that he’d take a good placebo over nothing at all any day of the week. On what grounds do we have to deprive people of controversial (even potentially fictitious) treatment if it is not too harmful and potentially increases the well-being of at least some of the people involved? I don’t have an answer to these questions, but I do know that we cannot begin to debate them if we hide behind a simplistic partitioning of all knowledge into either science or pseudoscience, pretending that such designations can do our politics for us
The recent vote by Congress, approved by President Trump, to eliminate the FCC rules that constrain the ability of internet service providers (ISPs) to track Internet users’ data has left a lot of people worried about their online privacy. Indeed, the average person’s search history does not merely reflect their consumer desires but also exposes their most personal secrets, worries, and anxieties and their health, relationship, and financial struggles. Virtual private networks (VPNs), which hide a user’s Internet behavior by funneling their transmissions through a third party, have been touted as way for average people to protect themselves from being tracked by their ISP. VPNs don’t work, however, but not for the reason one might think. They represent a technical fix for a problem that ultimately requires a technological solution.
Much of the public’s imagination for solving collective problems like privacy is stunted by the belief that technology can and will come to our rescue. Even though most people would recognize that technologies are more than merely the gadgets in our pockets or on our desks upon reflection, they nevertheless act as if they were not tightly intertwined into larger technical, cultural, and political systems. We look to solar panels to save us from climate change, presuming them to be unquestionably “green” despite their resource intensity and the all the pollution that results from their production and disposal. We ignore that rebound effects and consumer behavior often cancel out technical improvements in efficiency. The trust put in VPNs to solve the problem of Internet privacy reflects a similar ignorance of the broader sociopolitical context of communication technologies.
In fact, VPN services belong to a class of technical fixes to collective problems already well studied by sociologists: inverted quarantines. Consider the response by citizens to the prospect of nuclear attack during the Cold War, namely building backyard bunkers. Another is how people will buy bottled water to protect themselves from perceived contaminants in their municipal supply. VPNs are like digital bunkers. Users put themselves in a protective digital cocoon to protect just themselves (hopefully) from online privacy threats.
Inverted quarantines are deceptively alluring solutions to collective problems, having three main limitations. First, they are individualistic and, hence, class-based solutions. Simply put, the level of protection one receives depends upon a willingness and ability to pay. VPN protection will run a person anywhere from five dollars month for a basic proxy to several times that amount in monthly fees and a several hundred dollar VPN router for those wanting a premium level of privacy. Just as bottled water frames access to clean drinking water as a marker of status, the perceived need to rely on VPNs transforms privacy from a right to a luxury good available mainly to the middle and upper classes.
The second limitation of inverted quarantines is that they are often imaginary refuges. For instance, some studies have found that bottled water is often no cleaner and tastes little better than many cities’ municipal supply; some even have higher levels of certain contaminants. Likewise, the tragic irony of the bunker building mania of the 1950s was that backyard shelters provided a cruel illusion of safety: no family had any hope of surviving the aftermath of a nuclear war--even if they were lucking to make it through the initial blast. Indeed, observers have pointed out that VPNs come with significant costs in terms of access speed, and many sites (like Netflix) will not provide access to their content if you’re using one. Most importantly, VPN services only protect a user’s privacy insofar as they can be trusted not to gather and store personal data.
There are a lot of reasons to suspect that many VPN services will begin to collect data. As for-profit companies they are only committed to a user’s rights as long as not respecting them is unprofitable and illegal. As Internet scholar Lawrence Lessig noted, the pressure to reduce people’s online privacy comes more from the market than from governments. Little would prevent VPN companies from being like other tech firms, such as Facebook, altering privacy agreements quietly whenever it suited them. Hence, citizens should avoid falling prey to naïve optimism about the intentions of these companies. Unfortunately, the general tendency is to see them as saviors. Indeed, whenever net neutrality rules are at risk, large corporate firms like Facebook and Google get framed as warriors for civil liberties. Citizens forget that these firms’ belief in net neutrality has little to do with freedom but the bottom line: Google and Facebook maximize their earning potential when users are free to consume as much content they desire (and hence provide them with the more data to mine and analyze). Unsurprisingly, sites most likely to take a financial hit from users being increasingly worried about who is tracking their behavior, like pornography sites, are some of the few firms to express much concern about changes to FCC rules.
The biggest undesirable unintended consequence from VPN-based inverted quarantine solutions to Internet privacy is that they act as political anesthetics. Users who can afford them will be tempted to say, “I’m protected. What do I care about FCC rules?” Viewing other cases of inverted quarantine leaves little reason for optimism. Citizens who can afford expensive water filters or sidestep other environment concerns by buying organic food or expensive non-toxic alternatives to consumer products, even though they may care deeply about the environment, end up less strongly advocating for new EPA or FDA regulations. The issue may matter to them, but it nevertheless has less salience: they won’t vote someone out of office for undoing environmental legislation. Likewise, citizens who protect themselves with VPNs will not feel as strong of a motivation to remove from office the politicians who voted to eliminate FCC regulations.
VPN services are at best a temporary solution. At worst they will distract Americans from the heart of the problem: a corporate dominate Internet. Shoddy Band-Aid technical fixes don’t address the fact that the current Internet is built on advertising. The entire economic basis of the contemporary online world presents a conflict of interest with regard to users’ right to privacy. Corporate firms will not stop trying to dig ever deeper into users’ private lives without changes to the Internet as a sociotechnical system. No doubt it is hard to imagine what a completely public alternative might look like but that shouldn’t stop people from starting to dream up different designs. We might start with the creation of municipal service providers, perhaps combined with community run mesh networks. In any case, the economic arrangement through which Internet access is provided is socially constructed: things could be otherwise. In the same way that many societies have considered goods like healthcare or electricity to be too important to leave completely up to for-profit firms and the market, information access and privacy could become treated more as a public good than a privatized, ad-driven commodity.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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