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 belief that science and religion (and science and politics for that matter) are exact opposites is one of the most tenacious and misguided viewpoints held by Americans today, one that is unfortunately reinforced by many science journalists. Science is not at all faith-based, claims Forbes contributor Ethan Siegel in his rebuke of Matt Emerson’s suggestion otherwise. In arguing against the role of faith in science, however, Siegel ironically embraces a faith-based view of science. His perspective is faith-based not because it has ties to organized religion, obviously, but rather because it is rooted in an idealization of science disconnected from the actual evidence on scientific practice. Siegel mythologizes scientists, seeing them as impersonal and unbiased arbiters of truth. Similar to any other thought-impairing fundamentalism, the faith-based view of science, if too widespread, is antithetical to the practice of democracy.
Individual scientists, being human, fall prey to innumerable biases, conflicts of interest, motivated reasoning and other forms of impaired inquiry. It sanctifies them to expect otherwise. Drug research, for instance, is a tangled thicket of financial conflicts of interest, wherein some scientists go to bat for pharmaceutical companies in order to prevent generics from coming to market and put their names on articles ghost-written by corporations. Some have wondered if scientific medical studies can be trusted, given that many, if not most, are so poorly designed.
Siegel, of course, would likely respond that the above cases are simply pathological cases science, which will hopefully be eventually excised from the institution of science as if they were a malignant growths. He consistently tempers his assertions with an appeal to what a “good scientist” would do: “There [is no] such a thing as a good scientist who won’t revise their beliefs in the face of new evidence” claims Siegel. Rather go the easy route and simply charge him with committing a No True Scotsman fallacy, given that many otherwise good scientists often appear to hold onto their beliefs despite new evidence, it is better to question whether his understanding of “good” science stands up to close scrutiny.
The image of scientists as disinterested and impersonal arbiters of truth, immediately at the ready to adjust their beliefs in response to new evidence, is not only at odds with the last fifty years of the philosophy and social study of science, it also conflicts with what scientists themselves will say about “good science.” In Ian Mitroff’s classic study of Apollo program scientists investigating the moon and its origins, one interviewed scientist derided what Siegel presents as good science as a “fairy tale,” noting that most of his colleagues did not impersonally sift through evidence but looked explicitly for what would support their views. Far from seeing it as pathological, however, one interviewee stated “bias has a role in science and serves it well.” Mitroff’s scientists argued that ideally disinterested scientists would fail to have the commitment to see their theories through difficult periods. Individual scientists need to have faith that they will persevere in the face of seemingly contrary evidence in order to do the work necessary to defend their theories. Without this bias-laden commitment, good theories would be thrown away prematurely.
Further grasping why scientists, in contrast to their cheerleaders in popular media, would defend bias as often good for science requires recognizing that the faith-based understanding of science is founded upon a mistaken view of objectivity. Far too many people see objectivity as inhering within scientists when it really exists between scientists. As political scientist Aaron Wildavsky noted, “What is wanted is not scientific neuters but scientists with differing points of view and similar scientific standards…science depends on institutions that maintain competition among scientists and scientific groups who are numerous, dispersed and independent.” Science does not progress because individual scientists are more angelic human beings who can somehow enter a laboratory and no longer see the world with biased eyes. Rather, science progresses to the extent that scientists with diverse and opposing biases meet in disagreement. Observations and theories become facts not because they appear obviously true to unbiased scientists but because they have been met with scrutiny from scientists with differing biases and the arguments for them found to be widely persuasive.
Different areas of science have varied in terms of how well they support vibrant and progressive levels of disagreement. Indeed, part of the reason why so many studies are later found to be false is the fact that scientists are not incentivized to repeat studies done by their colleagues; such studies are generally not publishable. Moreover, entire fields have suffered from cultural biases at one time or another. The image of the human egg as a passive “damsel in distress” waiting for a sperm to penetrate her persisted in spite of contrary evidence partly because of a traditional male bias within the biological sciences. Similar biases were discovered in primatology and elsewhere as scientific institutions became more diverse. Without enterprising scientists asking seemingly heretical questions of what appears to be “sound science” on the basis of sometimes meager evidence, entrenched cultural biases masquerading as scientific facts might persist indefinitely.
The recognition that scientists often exhibit flawed and motivated reasoning, bias, personal commitments and the exercise of faith nearly as much as anyone else is important not merely because it is a more scientific understanding of science, but also because it is politically consequential. If citizens see scientists as impersonal arbiters of truth, they are likely to eschew subjecting science to public scrutiny. Political interference in science might seem undesirable, of course, when it involves creationists getting their religious views placed alongside evolution in high school science books. Nevertheless, as science and technology studies scholars Edward Woodhouse and Jeff Howard have pointed out, the belief that science is value-neutral and therefore best left up to scientists has enabled chemists (along with their corporate sponsors) to churn out more and more toxic chemicals and consumer products. Americans’ homes and environments are increasingly toxic because citizens leave the decision over the chemistry behind consumer products up to industrial chemists (and their managers). Less toxic consumer products are unlikely to ever exist in significant numbers so long as chemical scientists are considered beyond reproach.
Science is far too important to be left up to an autonomous scientific clergy. Dispensing with the faith-based understanding proffered by Siegel is the first step toward a more publically accountable and more broadly beneficial scientific enterprise.
Repost from Technoscience as if People Mattered
In almost every technoscientific controversy participants could take better account of the inescapable complexities of reality and the uncertainties of their knowledge. Unfortunately, many people suffer from significant cognitive barriers that prevent them from doing so. That is, they tend to carry the belief that their own side is in unique possession of Truth and that only their opponents are in any way biased, politically motivated or otherwise lacking in sufficient data to support their claims. This is just as clear in the case of Vibram Five Finger shoes (i.e., “toe shoes”) as it is for GMO’s and climate change. Much of humanity would be better off, however, if technological civilization responded to these contentious issues in ways more sensitive to uncertainty and complexity.
Five Fingers are the quintessential minimalist shoe, receiving much derision concerning its appearance and skepticism about its purported health benefits. Advocates of the shoes claim that its minimalist design helps runners and walkers maintain a gait similar to being barefoot while enjoying protection from abrasion. Padded shoes, in contrast, seem to encourage heel striking and thereby stronger impact forces in runners’ knees and hips. The perceived desirability of a barefoot stride is in part based on the argument that it better mimics the biomechanical motion that evolved in humans over millennia and the observation of certain cultures that pursue marathon long-distance barefoot running. Correlational data suggests that people in places that more often eschew shoes suffer less from chronic knee problems, and some recent studies find that minimalist shoes do lead to improved foot musculature and decreased heel striking.
Opponents, of course, are not merely aesthetically opposed to Five Fingers but mobilize their own sets of scientific facts and experts. Skeptics cite studies finding higher rates of injury among those transitioning to minimalist shoes than those wearing traditional footwear. Others point to “barefoot cultures” that still run with a heel striking gait. The recent settlement by Vibram with plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit, moreover, seems to have been taken as a victory of rational minds over pseudoscience by critics who compare the company to 19th century snake oil salesmen. Yet, this settlement was not an admission that the shoes did nothing but merely that recognition that there are not yet unequivocal scientific evidence to back up the company’s claims about the purported health benefits of the shoes.
Neither of the positions, pro or con, is immediately more “scientific” than the other. Both sides use value-laden heuristics to take a position on minimalist shoes in the absence of controlled, longitudinal studies that might settle the facts of the matter. The unspoken presumption among critics of minimalist shoes is that highly padded, non-minimalist shoes are unproblematic when really they are an unexamined sociotechnical inheritance. No scientific study has justified adding raised heels, pronation control and gel pads to sneakers. Advocates of minimalist shoes and barefoot running, on the other hand, trust the heuristic of “evolved biomechanics” and “natural gait” given the lack of substantial data on footwear. They put their trust in the argument that humans ran fine for millenia without heavily padded shoes.
There is nothing inherently wrong, of course, about these value commitments. In everyday life as much as in politics, decisions must be made with incomplete information. Nevertheless, participants in debates over these decisions too frequently present themselves as in possession of a level of certainty they cannot possibly have, given that the science on what kinds of shoes humans ought to wear remains mostly undone.
At the same time, it seems unfair to leave footwear consumers in the position of having to fumble with the decision between purchasing a minimalist or non-minimalist shoe. A technological civilization sensitized to uncertainty and complexity would take a different approach to minimalist shoes than the status quo process of market-led diffusion with very little oversight or monitoring.
To begin, the burden of proof would be more appropriately distributed. Advocates of minimalist shoes are typically put in the position of having to prove the safety and desirability of them, despite the dearth of conclusive evidence whether or not contemporary running shoes are even safe. There are risks on both sides. Minimalist shoes may end up injuring those who embrace them or transition too quickly. However, if they do in fact encourage healthier biomechanics, it may be that multitudes of people have been and continue to be unnecessarily destined for knee and hip replacements by their clunky New Balances. Both minimalist and non-minimalist shoes need to be scrutinized.
Second, use of minimalist shoes should be gradually scaled-up and matched with well-funded, multipartisan monitoring. Simply deploying an innovation with potential health benefits and detriments then waiting for a consumer response and, potentially, litigation means an unnecessarily long, inefficient and costly learning process. Longitudinal studies on Five Fingers and other minimalist shoes could have begun as soon as they were developed or, even better, when companies like Nike and Reebok started adding raised heels and gel pads.
Monitoring of minimalist shoes, moreover, would need to be broad enough to take account of confounding variables introduced by cultural differences. Indeed, it is hard to compare American joggers to barefoot running Tarahumara Indians when the former have typically been wearing non-minimalist shoes for their whole lives and tend to be heavier and more sedentary. Squat toilets make for a useful analogy. Given the association of western toilets with hiatal hernias and other ills, abandoning them would seem like a good idea. However, not having grown up with them and likely being overweight or obese, many Westerners are unable to squat properly, if at all, and would risk injury using a squat toilet.
Most importantly, multi-partisan monitoring would help protect against clear conflicts of interest. The controversy over minimalist and non-minimalist shoes impacts the interests of experts and businesses. There is a burgeoning orthotics and custom running shoes industry that not only earns quite a lot of revenue in selling special footwear and inserts but also certifies only certain people as having the “correct” expertise concerning walking and running issues. They are likely to adhere to their skepticism about minimalist shoes as strongly as oil executives do on climate change, for better or worse. Although large firms are quickly introducing their own minimalist shoes designs, a large-scale shift toward them would threaten their business models: Since minimalist shoes do not have cushioning that breaks down over time, there is no need to replace them every three to six months. Likewise, Vibram itself is unlikely to fully explore the potential limitations of their products.
Finally, funds should have been set aside for potential victims. Given a long history of unintended consequences resulting from technological change, it should not have come as a surprise that a dramatic shift in footwear would produce injuries in some customers. Vibram Five Finger shoes, in this way, are little different from other innovations, such as the Toyota Prius’ electronically controlled accelerator pedal or novel medications like Vioxx. Had Vibram been forced to proactively set aside funds for potential victims, they would have been provided an incentive to more carefully study their shoes’ effects. Moreover, those ostensibly injured by the company’s product would not have to go through such a protracted and expensive legal battle to receive compensation.
Although the process I have proposed might seem strange at first, the status quo itself hardly seems reasonable. Why should companies be permitted to introduce new products with little accountability for the risks posed to consumers and no requirements to discern what risks might exist? There is no obvious reason why footwear and sporting equipment should not be treated similarly to other areas of innovation where the issues of uncertainty and complexity loom large, like nanotechnology or new pharmaceuticals. The potential risks for acute and chronic harms are just as real, and the interests of manufacturers and citizens are just as much in conflict. Are Vibram Five Finger shoes made for running? Perhaps. But without changes to the way technological civilization governs new innovations, participants in any controversy are provided with neither the means nor sufficient incentive to find the answer.
Peddling educational media and games is a lot like selling drugs to the parents of sick children: In both cases, the buyers are desperate. Those buying educational products often do so out of concern (or perhaps fear) for their child’s cognitive “health” and, thereby, their future as employable and successful adults. The hope is that some cognitive “treatment,” like a set of Baby Einstein DVDs or an iPad app, will ensure the “normal” mental development of their child, or perhaps provide them an advantage over other children. These practices are in some ways no different than anxiously shuttling infants and toddlers to pediatricians to see if they “are where they should be” or fretting over proper nutrition. However, the desperation and anxiety of parents serves as an incentive for those who develop and sell treatment options to overstate their benefits, if not outright deceive. Although regulations and institutions (i.e., the FDA) exist to help that ensure parents concerned about their son or daughter’s physiological development are not being swindled, those seeking to improve or ensure proper growth of their child’s cognitive abilities are on their own, and the market is replete with the educational equivalent of snake oil and laudanum.
Take the example of Baby Einstein. The developers of this DVD series promise that they are designed to “enrich your baby’s happiness” and “encourage [their] discovery of the world.” The implicit reference to Albert Einstein is meant to persuade parents that these DVDs provide a substantial educational benefit. Yet, there is good reason to be skeptical of Baby Einstein. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for instance, recommends against exposing children under two to television and movies to children as a precaution against the potential development harms. A 2007 study broke headlines when researchers found evidence that the daily watching of educational DVDs like Baby Einstein may slow communicative development in infants but had no significant effects on toddlers. At the time, parents were already shelling out $200 million a year to Baby Einstein with the hope of stimulating their child’s brain. What they received, however, was likely no more than an overhyped electronic babysitter.
Today, the new hot market for education technology is not DVDs but iPad and smartphone apps. Unsurprisingly, the cognitive benefits provided by them are just as uncertain. As Celilia Kang notes, “despite advertising claims, there are no major studies that show whether the technology is helpful or harmful.” Given this state of uncertainty, firms can overstate the benefits provided by their products and consumers have little to guide them in navigating the market. Parents are particularly easy marks. Much like how an individual receiving a drug or some other form of medical treatment is often in a poor epistemological position to evaluate its efficacy (they have little way of knowing how they would have turned out without treatment or with an alternative), parents generally cannot effectively appraise the cognitive boost given to their child by letting them watch a Baby Einstein DVD or play an ostensibly literacy-enhancing game on their iPad. They have no way of knowing if little Suzy would have learned her letters faster or slower with or without the educational technology, or if it were substituted with more time for play or being read to. They simply have no point of comparison. Lacking a time machine, they cannot repeat the experiment.
Move over, some parents might be motivated to look for reasons to justify their spending on educational technologies or simply want to feel that they have agency in improving their child’s capacities. Therefore, they are likely to suffer from a confirmation bias. It is far too easy for parents to convince themselves that little David counted to ten because of their wise decision to purchase an app that bleats the numbers out of the tablet’s speakers when they jab their finger toward the correct box. Educational technologies have their own placebo effect. It just so happens to affect the minds of parents, not the child using the technology. Moreover, determining whether or not one’s child has been harmed is no easy matter. Changes in behavior could be either over or under estimated depending on to what extent parents suffers from an overly nostalgic memory of their own childhood or generational amnesia concerning real significant differences.
Yet, it is not only parents and their children who may be harmed by wasting time and money on learning technologies that are either not substantively more effective or even cognitively damaging. School districts spend billions of taxpayer money on new digital curricula and tools with unproven efficacy. There are numerous products, from Carengie’s “Cognitive Tutor” to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s “Destination Reading,” that make extravagant claims about their efficacy but have been found not to significantly improve learning outcomes over traditional textbooks when reviewed by the Department of Education. Nevertheless, both are still for sale. Websites for these software packages claim that they are “based on over 20 years of research into how students think and learn” and “empirical research and practice that helps identify, prevent, and remediate reading difficulties.” Nowhere is it stated on the companies’ websites that third party research suggests that these expensive pieces of software may not actually improve outcomes.
Even if some educational technologies prove to be somewhat more effective than a book or numbered blocks, they may still be undesirable for other reasons. Does an app cut into time that might otherwise be spent playing with parents or siblings? Children, on average, already spend seven hours each day in front of screens, which automatically translates into less time spent outdoors on non-electronic hobbies and interactions. The cultural presumption that improved educational outcomes always lie with the “latest and greatest” only exacerbates this situation. Do educational technologies in school districts come at the costs of jobs for teachers or cut into budgets for music and arts programs? The Los Angeles school district has cut thousands of teachers from their payroll in recent years but, as Carlo Rotella notes, is spending $500 million in bond money to purchase iPads. All the above concerns do not even broach the subject of how people raised on tablets might be changed in undesirable ways as a result. What sorts of expectations, beliefs and dispositions might their usage be more compatible? Given concerns about how technologies like the Internet influence how people think in general, concerned citizens should not let childhood be dominated by them without adequate debate and testing.
Because of the potential for harm, uncertainty of benefit and the difficulty for consumers to be adequately informed concerning either, the US should develop an equivalent to the FDA for educational technologies. Many Americans trust the FDA to prevent recurrences of pharmaceutical mistakes like thalidomide, the morning sickness drug that led to dead and deformed babies. Why not entrust a similar institution to help ensure that future children are not cognitively stunted, as may have happened with Baby Einstein DVDs, or simply that parents and school districts do not waste money on the educational equivalent of 19th century hair tonics and “water cures?”
The FDA, of course, is not perfect. Some aspects of human health are too complex to be parsed out through the kinds of experimental studies the FDA requires. Just think of the perpetual controversy over what percentage of people’s diet should come from fats, proteins and starches. Likewise, some promising treatments may never get pursued because the return on investment may not match the expenses incurred in getting FDA approval. The medicinal properties of some naturally occurring substances, for instance, have often not been substantively tested because, in that state, they cannot be patented. Finally, how to intervene in the development of children is ultimately a matter of values. Even pediatric science has been shaped by cultural assumptions about what an ideal adult looks like. For instance, mid-twentieth century pediatricians insisted, in contrast to thousands of years of human history, that sleeping alone promoted the healthiest outcomes for children. Today, it is easy to recognize that such science was shaped by Western myths of the self-reliant or rugged individual.
The above problems would likely also affect any proposed agency for assessing educational technologies. What makes for “good” education depends on one's opinion concerning what kind of person education ought to produce. Is it more important that children can repeat the alphabet or count to ten at earlier and earlier ages or that they can approach the world with not only curiosity and wonder but also as a critical inquirer? Is the extension of the logic and aims of the formal education system to earlier and earlier ages via apps and other digital devices even desirable? Why not redirect some of the money going to proliferating iPad apps and robotic learning systems to ensuring all children have the option to attend something more like the "forest kindergartens" that have existed in Germany for decades? No scientific study that can answer such questions. Nevertheless, something like an Educational Technology Association would, in any case, represent one step toward a more ethically responsible and accountable educational technology industry.
 Like any controversial study, its findings are a topic of contention. Other scholars have suggested that the data could be made to show a positive, negative or neutral result, depending on statistical treatment. The authors of the original study have countered, arguing that the critics have not undermined the original conclusion that the educational benefits of these DVDs are dubious at best and may crowd-out more effective practices like parents reading to their children.
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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