During debates about some contemporary scientific controversy, such as GMO foods or the effects of climate change, someone almost invariably declares at some point to be on the “right side” of science. Opponents, accordingly, are implied to be either hopeless biased or under the spell of some form of pseudoscientific legerdemain. Confronted by just such an argument this week during a discussion over Elizabeth Warren’s vote against mandating the labeling of GMO ingredients, I was mostly struck by how profoundly unscientific and ignorant of the actual functioning of science and politics this rhetorical move is.
In order to avoid overstating my case, I should make clear that some knowledge claims are fairly straightforward and obvious cases of pseudoscience. Although philosophy of science has yet to develop unproblematic criteria for demarcating science from pseudoscience, the line between scientific approaches to inquiry and pseudoscientific ideology can be fuzzily drawn around such practices and dispositions as the willingness of practitioners to subject their claims to scrutiny or admit limitations to the theories they develop. Pyramid power and astrology are typical, though somewhat trivial, examples.
The labels “scientific” and “pseudoscientific,” however, are best thought of as ideal types; the behaviors of most inquirers usually lie somewhere in between, and this is normally not a problem. Decades ago Ian Mitroff demonstrated the diversity of inquiry styles used practicing scientists. Science requires many types of researchers for its dynamism, from hardliner empiricists to armchair bound synthesizers and theoreticians – who may play more fast and loose with existing data. It is a social process that seems better characterized by the continual raising of new questions, evermore highlighting new uncertainties, complexities and limits to understanding, than the establishment of enduring and incontrovertible facts. Theories can almost always be refined or subjected to new challenges; data is invariably reinterpreted as new ideas and instruments are developed. At the same time, respected and successful scientists are generally not the exemplars of objectivity typically depicted in popular media, having pet theories and engaging in political wrangling with opponents.
It is in light of this characterization of science that makes claims to being on the "right side of science" so troubling. The way the word “fact” is used attempts to transform the particular conclusion of scientific study from tentative conjecture based on incomplete data analyzed via inevitably imperfect techniques and technologies into something incontrovertible and unchallengeable. Even worse, it shuts down further inquiry, and there can be nothing more profoundly unscientific and epistemologically stale than eliminating the possibility for further questions or denying the inherent uncertainty and fallibilism of human claims to truth. Recognition of this, however, is frequently thrown out the window during the moments of controversy.
Some opponents of GMO labeling contend that doing so automatically implies that genetically modified ingredients are harmful and lends credence to what they see as pseudoscientific fear mongering concerning their potential effects of human health. The person I was arguing with believed that the absence of what he considered to be a “strong” linkage between human or animal well-being and GMO food in the decades since their introduction rendered their safety a scientific “fact.” To begin, it is specious reasoning to assume that the absence of evidence is automatically evidence of absence. The presumption that the current state of research already adequately explored all the risks associated with a particular technology is dangerous and should not be made lightly. The historical record is full technologies, such as pesticides (DDT), medicines (Vioxx) or industrial chemicals (BPA), at one time thought to be safe and discovered to be dangerous only after put into widespread use. It is incredibly risky to project the universality of a particular present finding into the foreseeable future – when available methods, data and knowledge will likely be more sophisticated than in the present.
Furthermore, it is incredibly narrow-minded to assume that it is only the potential health risks posed by the ingestion of GMO’s by individual consumers that we should be worried about. Any technology, like the manipulation of recombinant DNA, is part and parcel of a larger sociotechnical system. GMO foods are, for the foreseeable future, intertwined with particular ways of farming (industrial scale monoculture), certain economic arrangements (farmers utterly dependent on biotech firms like Monsanto) and specific ways of conceiving how human beings should relate to nature and food (as a pure commodity). Citizens may be legitimately concerned about any or all of the above facets of GMO food as a technology; many of these concerns, clearly, cannot be answered or done away with by conducting a scientific experiment.
Regardless, the claim that science is on one’s side also fails to recognize how scientific studies are scrutinized in imbalanced ways and doubt manufactured when politically useful. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the controversy surrounding Seralini’s study purporting to find a link between cancer and the ingestion of GMO and RoundUp treated corn. As numerous ensuing commentaries point out, the connections drawn in the paper remain uncertain and the experimental design seemed to lack statistical power. Yet, many critics claimed the study was rubbish for its “nonstandard” methodological choices, even though they used many of the exact same methods as industry research claiming to demonstrate the safety of GMO food.
My point is not to claim whether or not the effects observed by Seralini’s team is real or not but to note that scientists and various pundit are often incredibly inconsistent in their judgments of the flaws of a particular study or result. Imperfections tolerated in other studies seem to conveniently render controversial studies pseudoscientific when the results are incompatible with the critic’s other sociopolitical commitments, like the association of “progress” with the increasing application of biotechnology to food production, or powerful political interests.
More broadly, the desire to be on the “right side of the facts” in controversial areas often takes on the form of a fetish. Such thinking seems founded on the hope that science can free humanity of the anxieties inherent in doing politics, which I think is best framed as the process of deciding how to organize civilization in the face of uncertainty, diversity and complexity. If a particular way of designing our collective lives can become enshrined in “fact,” than we no longer have to subject the choice to the messiness of democratic decision making or pursue the reconciliation of different interests and ideas about how human beings ought to live. Yet, if a particular scientific result is, at its best, something we can be only tentatively certain about and, at its worst, a falsehood only temporarily propped up by a constellation of inadequate theorizing, techniques and methodologies – or even cultural bias or outright fabrication, it would seem that science is generally not up to the task of freeing humanity from the need for politics.
This point leads to one of the main problems with the way people tend to talk about “scientific controversies:” It is premised on a false dichotomy. Politics and good science are often taken to be polar opposites. It seems to presume that politics is the stuff of mere opinion and emotion and outside the realm of genuine inquiry. Such a dichotomy, to me, seems to do damage to our understandings of both of politics and science. The qualities celebrated in idealized versions of scientists – openness to new ways of thinking, self-reflective criticality and so on – seem to be qualities also befitting of political citizenship. At the same time, the assumption that science is the realm of absolute certainties and falsehoods – rather than the messy muddling through of various complexities, uncertainties and ignorances – leads to an interpretation of scientific findings that many practicing scientists themselves would not condone.
The greatest challenges facing technological civilization are best met through inquiry, debate and the recognition of human ignorance, not blind faith in some naïve, fairy-tale understanding of science and fact. To presume that it is more "objective" or rational to have the opinions and arguments of a particular set of men and women wearing lab coats carry the most weight in deciding our collective futures is to simply smuggle in one set of interests and ideas about the good under the guise of “just siding with the facts.” Even worse, it fails to comprehend the partially social character of fact production and the inherent fallibility of human knowledge. An understanding of politics more befitting of those claiming a “scientific outlook” on reality would recognize that citizens and decision makers are inexorably locked in conflict-ridden processes of juggling facts, interests and ideas about the good life, all fraught with uncertainty. When more participants in a scientific controversy understand this, perhaps then we can have a more fruitful public dialogue about GMO foods or natural gas hydrofracking.
Note: I have to give credit to Canadian musician Danny Michel for the inspiration for the title of this post: "If God's on Your Side Than Who's on Mine?"
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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