Why I am resistant to the notion of public participation in science

Nov 10, 2011 by Lydia Allen

It is not because I think that the public is stupid or dishonest in general. It is not because I don’t think that some bad scientists have done things to diminish the public trust in the scientific process. It is not because I participated in the biological sciences before changing the direction of my graduate studies to the intersection of science and society.

It is because science has the possibility to bring together people of all kinds in the pursuit of knowledge that we can eventually agree on and utilize to help each other, and political interference in that process would, in my opinion, reduce science to a political fight.

Call me a dreamer.

I realize that it’s not that simple. Yes, science has been used to promote the values of a privileged class of people; however, I contend that as the sciences have become more diverse and accessible to people of differing walks of life, this problem has been lessened. Yes, science has been used to do despicable things; however, in response to ethically questionable science, regulatory bodies such as the NHS and ethics committees at universities, each of which are staffed by experts in the science and/or the ethics of scientific practice, have sought to limit the abuse of science.  I realize the limits of epistemological justification of scientific knowledge that philosophers worry about, but I think that science has a pragmatic justification. I understand concerns about the “technocratic elite” that political theorists concern themselves with, but I argue that scientific knowledge is not secret, anyone who can go to school can learn about it. I hear the complaints about “scientific hubris” that are levied by those who worry that science moves too quickly and may have disastrous results, but I wonder to which major catastrophes are these individuals referring?  Of course there are much more nuanced arguments concerning these topics which I am unable to narrow in on in an informal blog post, but I am trying to point out that yes, science has limits, but it is still the best way we have to gain information about the world around us.

Public control of science is a real threat to the continuing success of science. When people create coercive laws about how society ought to be run, there is an inevitable tyranny of the majority that emerges unless measures are put in place to protect minorities from this tyranny. This is how I see the scientist– as a minority. This minority should be held in check when it comes to public harm. There is no arguing that (although what constitutes harm is up for debate). However, when it comes to freedom of inquiry, the scientists themselves must be able to pursue research goals that line up with their values. Why be a scientist if one cannot pursue one’s own curiosity? Why be held in check when one does not agree with philosophical differences held by a majority? For instance, why be limited in conducting field work in evolutionary biology if a political majority rejects evolution? Why be limited in regenerative medicine if a political majority thinks that so-called “life” begins at conception? Why be limited in field work in environmental sciences/ ecology if a political majority thinks that government interference in business policies limits profits?

The fact is that science leads people to uncomfortable conclusions sometimes, but the practitioner of science must be willing to follow the evidence where ever it may lead. I’m not saying that the practitioner is values-free or objective in some ultimate way. I’m saying that an honest look at the evidence, the trends, and the fields of specialties that have emerged as science has evolved demonstrates that nature is not always intuitively understood and that the guesses of the past (whether scientific, philosophical, or religious) have been wrong or incomplete and need to be updated given new evidence.

If the public is given control of the direction or the outcome of science (over and above the political power to decide what to do with the results), then the danger of Lysenkoism becomes a real possibility:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trofim_Lysenko

In other words, for the sake of good science and for the sake of the public benefit that may be derived from good science, I am resistant to the pubic having a say in the direction of science. Yes, the findings of science may upset people because it does not necessarily confirm their dearly held beliefs about the world, but this is no reason to interfere. Perhaps my stance seems undemocratic, but science is not done by popular opinion, it is done by experiment, peer review, and replication of results. While science certainly has politics, it is no democratic process.

Again, I feel that I have not been able to capture the nuances of these debates well in this format, but I have expressed a genuine concern for the problems I see with science and politics interacting over and above the limit of harm. If the public seeks to steer science, I fear that they will also have certain results in mind, and science that does not confirm their biases may be censored or de-funded. Such a limit would destroy science because science cannot be done with an expectation to have certain results every time. There has to be room for surprise. There has to be room for confusion. There has to be room for adjusting of the knowledge narrative.

In short, there is no room for dogma in science.