We need a science that advances social justice

April 12, 2018

April 14 is the date for the second March for Science, a day of demonstrations and other events taking place in Washington, D.C., and around the country. The crowds will be smaller than last year's March for Science, which stunned organizers by drawing out as many as 1 million people. But the reasons for demonstrating are more urgent than ever--and scientists are asking more and deeper questions about what we should be organizer for.

Science for the People, an organization dedicated to building a movement around radical perspectives on science and society, issued the following statement, titled "The Dual Nature of Science," ahead of this year's March for Science. An extended version of the essay and a variety of activist resources can be found at the group's website.

WHY DO we "March for Science"? A central impulse is to fight the exercise of power for private gain at the expense of broad interest; oil companies ought not determine the quality of climate science!

However, if we generalize this impulse we risk reifying science into a neutral counter-power to be deployed merely through Evidence-Based Policy. But defense of science is not enough. We need to transform the role of science in our world.

Science for the People engages with what ecologist Richard Levins called the dual nature of science. That is, science as "an episode in the growth of human knowledge in general, and as the class-, gender- and culture-bound product of Euro-North American capitalism in particular." Levins noted that two common reactions to the intersection of science and politics, scientism and anti-science, fail to grasp this dual nature:

Both scientism and modem anti-science are one-sided. This is not the same as "extreme," the ultimate reproach of liberal criticism. "Extreme" implies as its preferred opposite "moderate," a solution with the implication that the truth is a little bit of this and a little bit of that, or "not all black or white, but some shade of grey," an optimal middle ground defined by the extremes that are rejected.

Protesters take to the streets of Washington, D.C., during the 2017 March for Science
Protesters take to the streets of Washington, D.C., during the 2017 March for Science (Molly Adams | flickr)

Science tends to satisfy capitalism's need to constantly innovate in the pursuit of profit, placing it at the center of a misleading progressivist ideology. But progress for whom? More than half of American government science funding is channeled through the military. The invasion and occupation of Iraq killed half a million Iraqis and cost $2.3 trillion. The total budget of the National Institutes of Health over the same period was about $225 billion. The U.S. spent 10 times more killing 500,000 people than it did on research to improve health care!

Reproductive Justice
Science is often integrated into profoundly anti-democratic policy. Writing in Science for the People magazine in 1977, Linda Gordon noted that the birth control movement started with an emphasis on women's liberation, but the entry of doctors and other professionals infused the movement with elitist values such as population control, often due to openly eugenicist views. The fight for reproductive justice continues today. Black women die at a rate four times higher than white women in childbirth, and abortion access has been declining for decades. Our movement must not repeat these errors of technocracy and elitism, but must join broad democratic struggles.

Eugenics and Biological Determinism
Too often, scientific acceptance promotes injustice. The Eugenics Movement reached mainstream scientific status in the early 20th century (with many universities hosting Eugenics Departments), justifying tens of thousands of sterilizations of Black, poor and disabled people up through the 1960s.

Ideas that later are deemed reprehensible can exist as accepted science for decades; this happens even today. Eugenics is a cruder version of the general science of biological determinism--the justification of social violence and inequity through their naturalization as biologically inevitable--which is alive and well.

How Should Scientists Organize Politically?
The discrediting of biological determinism was the joint victory of the women's movement, the Black freedom struggle, and the radical science movement
. Radical scientists contributed by publicly exposing ideological motivations through careful, sustained, confrontational argument. And the fight continues. So long as structural injustices persist, so too will their naturalization, from Charles Murray's "colorblind" notion of biological class, to James Damore's claims that women are underrepresented in tech because they are innately inept.

Science is not an abstraction removed from society. Science is produced by the labor of people like us. But the conditions of this production and the use of science are controlled by the wealthy and powerful. We must fight for a science that serves all people, organizing wherever science is produced or applied alongside all those fighting for justice.

Against any tendency to anti-science, we should remember: Knowledge is won with our labor and can be used to advance our goals. Against any tendency to scientism: Our movement lives and dies with the broader left; technical knowledge alone never delivers justice.

A longer version of this essay and a variety of activist resources are available at Science for the People.

Further Reading

From the archives