Politicisation of science

Tunku Varadarajan writes for WSJ:

But what does it mean to believe in science? The British science writer Matt Ridley draws a pointed distinction between “science as a philosophy” and “science as an institution.” The former grows out of the Enlightenment, which Mr. Ridley defines as “the primacy of rational and objective reasoning.” The latter, like all human institutions, is erratic, prone to falling well short of its stated principles. Mr. Ridley says the Covid pandemic has “thrown into sharp relief the disconnect between science as a philosophy and science as an institution.”

This is an engrossing read and a thought to ponder. If you claim “scientific research” is all kosher, yes, we should be putting more money in “research”. After all, with all the statistical mumbo-jumbo and the grey areas around research, what can go wrong? Though, how do we measure the output?

PhD’s? Patents? Podt-Docs working on new problems? Has the needle on scientific research moved forward? Biomedical research gets the lion’s share of public resources, but by doing more of less and less – where have we reached? How do we align the societal interest with the research inputs? After all, why are scientists conducting the reasearch?

Science has unwittingly become the centre of geopolitics. There are more insights from the write up below and why I thought it needed to be included here.

Scientists are a global guild, and the Western scientific community has “come to have a close relationship with, and even a reliance on, China.” Scientific journals derive considerable “income and input” from China, and Western universities rely on Chinese students and researchers for tuition revenue and manpower. All that, Mr. Ridley says, “may have to change in the wake of the pandemic.”

(emphasis mine)

I don’t speculate on geopolitics here. However, there have been enough reports in media around “Chinese invasion” and their deployment of “western standards” to start paper-mills. The western construct derives its legitimacy from principles that echo in “universalism”, but have limited application in other socio-cultural contexts. This is backed by some “rigorous study contexts”, though has to do with academic gatekeeping. China is aiming to break this mould.

Here’s something on the pandemic:

Epidemiologists are divided between those who want more lockdowns and those who think that approach wasn’t effective and might have been counterproductive. Mr. Ridley sides with the latter camp, and he’s dismissive of the alarmist modeling that led to lockdowns in the first place. “The modeling of where the pandemic might go,” he says, “presents itself as an entirely apolitical project. But there have been too many cases of epidemiologists presenting models based on rather extreme assumption.”

One motivation: Pessimism sells. “You don’t get blamed for being too pessimistic, but you do get attention. It’s like climate science. Modeled forecasts of a future that is scary is much more likely to get you on television.” Mr. Ridley invokes Michael Crichton, the late science-fiction novelist, who hated the tendency to describe the outcomes of models in words that imply they are the “results” of an experiment. That frames speculation as if it were proof.

I completely agree here. For example, the dominant discourse here on AI in healthcare is driven by the idea of chatbots taking over the “doctor’s jobs”. There are points and counterpoints (some vanity “liberalism” constructs) that represent an extreme form of dystopia which is bound to scare away potential discourse. While we need a balanced nuanced ideation/discussion around AI (for example), what we get is the narrative around “AI replacing the jobs”.

Here’s something interesting:

Climate science has also been “infected by cultural relativism and postmodernism,” Mr. Ridley says. He cites a paper that was critical of glaciology—the study of glaciers—“because it wasn’t sufficiently feminist.” I wonder if he’s kidding, but Google confirms he isn’t. In 2016 Progress in Human Geography published “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research.”


This one also merits due consideration:

The politicization of science leads to a loss of confidence in science as an institution. The distrust may be justified but leaves a vacuum, often filled by a “much more superstitious approach to knowledge.” To such superstition Mr. Ridley attributes public resistance to technologies such as genetically modified food, nuclear power—and vaccines.

We need to guard against the politicisation of science because the vacuum will be filled up with hogwash.

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