Browse By

How The March For Science Explains The Relationship Between Science Technology and Society In The 21st Century

Did we just witness a revolution? Or was that another fatal misstep by science? Has science lost it’s soul and become corrupt by muddling in the dirty world of politics? Why did scientists opt for a political tool (protests) in the March for Science? By some accounts this is simply a miscommunication between science,technology and society. As we shall see, protests are child’s play when what’s gone down before when this relationship broke is considered. Nonetheless, a new chapter in the relationship between science and society has just begun.

A tree whose stem is a shape simillar to Watson & Crick's model of DNA helix, with a caption: Don't tread on me . An apt mantra to guide the relationship between science, technology and society
Poster Image courtesy of REDDIT user wheatabix75

What do we learn about the relationship between science, technology and society in the 21st century from this unorthodox, possibly seminal choice of mass exasperation? Going by popular opinion, the open show of civil disobedience by seemingly the most rational of human minds, science lovers, has left many guessing.Whichever, you look at it, a protest is a conflict.

A peaceful one, but a sign that dialogue is no more effective. A protest is a glorified tantrum that calls the world’s attention to whatever is going on. It not only speaks of outrage by the protestors, but is a political tool seeking to enroll voices in moving an obstinate opponent. As a student scientist, as a member of society, I have to ask myself: How did we get here?

History of  the Relationship Between Science, Technology and Society: Lessons from Buganda Kingdom & Beyond

To better understand the history of the relationship between science, technology and society, we need to get to the heart of another conflict. This conflict is found at the interface of society and religion and is best told by the Uganda Martyrs story. Sadly, the Uganda martyrs story is a tale of a fate common in every monarch that ever was.

It is a gripping, tragic story of the endless machinations around power. Late 19th Century Buganda kingdom of modern-day Uganda is the time and place for a play for  power that might help us draw parallels with 21st century struggles with reconciling science, technology and society .

A young king, Kabaka Mwanga II, had ascended to the throne in 1884. Between 1885 and 1886, he naturally concerned himself with consolidating power. To achieve that, he acted to fatal ends on his mistrust of certain (not all) young, educated,religious types within the King’s court. Outsiders who he considered too close to power.

It’s helpful to know that this wasn’t just an irrational unease.

Knowledge is power

It was worse actually. Kabaka Mwanga II had recognized an imminent threat to his rule. Around him, traditional chiefs were losing power thanks to the emergence of a new class of ‘exposed’ individuals. These individuals ‘exposed’ they were as they had access to the products of science. This is because by 1884, these individuals possessed knowledge that made them powerful and a threat to establishment. By then, know how on contemporary matters like theology had been enriched by the work of early scientists like Galileo.

From beheading to being set on fire alive, by the time the blood-letting stopped in Buganda, scores had been murdered in the cold. Fanning on this gruesome power play were the stratagems of different world powers – Muslim Zanzibari’s, French Anglicans and English Catholics – all angling for Uganda in the ensuing scramble and partition of Africa.

The death of Galileo : It’s play in the history of the relationship between science, society and technology

It is said that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Well, these sad happenings in Baganda kingdom were actually a continuation of centuries old conflict. A conflict whose nadir (one of many) is in this other tragic story:

The significance of the story of Galileo to the history of science and technology is often muddled with bias towards nitpicking the actions of the actors involved. To the liberals, Galileo’s plight personifies the problem with religion .i.e religion’s asphyxiating choke hold on society to the chagrin of useful science. To the conservatives, Galileo’s death is emblematic of the role of religion as an agent of society in the epistemological process.

It goes without saying that evidence of arguments for and against each submission comes in truck loads. We’ve given examples steeped in religion, but truth is it might as well be any other agent of society: Politicians, community leaders and even scientists driven by diverse ideological Norths.

Trumpisim & Science

march for science showed hor society through politics, affects the relationship between science, technology and society

That is why it is paramount for us to be diligent in telling the forest from the trees. Just like the Uganda Martyrs story can’t be isolated as a purely religious affair, neither should Galileo’s plight suffer the similar indolence of thought. Nor should the March for Science taken for a flash in the pan or reduced to for/against debate on Trumpisim.

The March for Science deserves better consideration as these two historical tragedies serve to remind us of the injustice of a poorly managed epistemological process. Understanding the relationship between science, technology and society in the 21st century calls for such a big picture approach. But before we get to the 21st century, a look at the 1900’s first for more lessons.

Earth Day Ruined!

Earth Day 2017 refused to wink in the dark as it has been the norm for this global, annual commemoration of the 1970 birth of the modern environmental movement.

Reach as it might for relevance, it soon became apparent to science enthusiasts that life indeed  is absurd. Of the many things in life that can’t be controlled for, is the infamous 15 minutes of fame and its knack for arriving when one is least ready. For the Earth Day movement, this meant that at that moment when its star shone brightest, politics – never mind environmental conservation– took center stage.

The March For Science 2017 as told by Alan Burdick

Attempting to scientifically model this peculiarity of  life is beyond this article. However, Alan Burdick writing for The New Yorker,  helps unravel how science and politics (read:society) got in each others cross hairs at the March for Science.

Burdick paints the picture of the March for Science through participant observation. He then frames this painting, his observations, with interviews of eminent scientists. In doing so, Burdick’s article The Usefulness of a March for Science captures the soul of the march. By all measures, the Burdick piece belongs to the finer recordings of history. It does justice to a seminal event that surely will be a reference point for science and society relations in the 21st century.

march for science is a microsm of the relationship between science technology and society

In our view, this esteemed distinction is well deserved. In part because Burdick’s account of The March for Science is an ode to the relationship between science, technology and society from the 20th into the 21st century. A parochial relationship perfectly captured in a 1939 essay by Alexander Flexner titled The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge which Burdick fishes to set the tone for his article.

Burdick notes and I quote:

Throughout the whole history of science,” Flexner wrote, “most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity

Alexander Flexner as quoted by Alan Burdick

Translation? Well, science likes being a brat. It thrives when it’s let to have its way. To the rest of us? Suck it up or sod off ! After all, science and scientists know. Don’t they?

20th century: Height of the Parochial Relationship Between Science, Technology & Society

For most of the 20th century, such patriarchy was the nature of relationship between the science, technology and society. The scientists would hole up sit in their labs, unilaterally make discoveries then spend the life of that discovery convincing society of the usefulness of technology A or B.

March for science is a nadir in science, technology and society relationship

True to form, in there somewhere, another study by another scientist would emerge dispelling the findings of the previous study. As Google co-founder Sergey Brin revealed at Davos 2017, neural networks, the precursors of artificial intelligence suffered such a fate. To this mix add special interests like partisan politics, research funding complexities, intellectual property rights, big tobacco, food and consumer giants and the broth is perfectly bad.

Where did the mistrust between science, technology and society start? The engraving effect of unethical human subject research

To bystanders like me who wield little power in the process of scientific innovation, the bad blood makes us sick to the stomach. Worse when stories of evil science such as the Tuskegee experiments or Tearoom Trade study still resonate in our lecture halls. Or when we try to take stock of the resources expended yet the grand challenges of the 21st century remain. That universal health coverage, income inequality, climate change still impede human progress thanks to a non responsive science policy is heartbreaking.

Given such a conspicuous mismatch in the scale of scientific enterprise Vs. puny volume of novel scientific discoveries. Even more sorry state of anemic ready-for-market technology, the net gain for society is way too discounted in this unidirectional system of epistemology. As a matter of fact, it is a system liable to abuse as evident in atrocities that occurred in Nazi camps under the guise of human subject research.

final rule

While we have had The Belmont Report, the common rule and now the final rule to protect human subjects, other leakages within this patronizing epistemological system pose a greater threat to human existence. When you consider Willowbrook Hepatitis Study among other contemporary, unethical studies, an over arching theme emerges. That of science blurring the lines of utilitarianism and altruism on one end, and the (ab)use of man as an end on the other.

The threat posed by the propagation of bad science as scientific breakthroughs aren’t sufficiently interrogated by society. How does this come to be? You see, the outputs of a science policy environment guided by this unidirectional epistemological process leads to a dangerous loop. Society’s irrationality is fortified as the cheer leaders rubber stamp and ready society to be amazed by science and technology. Consider the following modern-day reality.

How traditional science reporting sealed the coffin for sts relationship

Writing for The Guardian, Jalees Rehman decries the preference of infotainment over critical science journalism. Infotainment thrives on elevating the wow factor and neglects sober critique and even contextualization of scientific discoveries.

When we front entertainment, the message that science would like to communicate to society is lost in the effects. The end result is that this miscommunication serves to entrench the mistrust in the relationship between science,technology and society. As a result, when science speaks, all it gets back is its own echo. These auditory hallucinations only serve to entrench the power of science over society.

Why Miscommunication is at the Heart of a Fractious Relationship between Science, Technology and Society

Before long, as science buckles down – encouraged by static that it confuses for chatter – society feels the pinch. To get a hint of how miscommunication can be damaging (because that’s what hallucinations are) I encourage the reader to imbibe the character of my hero John Nash.

Nash the father of Game Theory, as played by Collin Farrel in the revisionist multi Oscar Winner: A beautiful mind (2001). With miscommunication, it is not uncommon for society to shot itself in the leg by inadvertently punishing science. It is a classical case of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing.

When society finds ‘better’ use for its resources

One of the ways this happens is when society elects to spend money otherwise than to fund science. Funding meant for science could be redirected via political means to finance other societal goals. War, infrastructure projects and state welfare programs are good examples. This awesome slide show on Science, Technology and Innovations of the Great Depression perfectly illustrates this. Note the yawning gaps in technological innovation during the war years

But has Science lost its Soul?

The great depression and the effects of world wars on the relationship between science,technology and society is a great place to start. Earlier, we quipped “the more things change, the more they remain the same”. Another way we could put this is: “history repeats itself”. Here is how:

The social conditions in the first half of the twentieth century mimics the corresponding period in the twenty-first century. There already has been a financial crisis of global scale. Posturing between Donald Trump’s America and North Korea threatens to escalate as the Syrian war rages on. With the European refugee crisis, there also has been a reversal of the 20th century great migration that took the form of the scramble for Africa and the immigration to Australia and Americas.

If these conditions hold, science should brace itself for a barren period reminiscent of the late 1930’s to mid 1940’s. What is different this time round is that science has refused to let this one fly. Not only has the scientific community raised its voice, it has caused a ruckus.

When science marched

With the march, the scientific community has cherry picked the most effective of societal tools: protest. The enemy? Society’s onslaught that threatens to de-fund and discredit science. You might be wondering; Where is this money meant for science going?

Probably to fund military activities going by the spirit and text of Pres. Trump’s inaugural congress address. World leaders snub of the protest is further indictment of how much they give a hoot. But should science matter than others? What impact that the March for Science have on society-science relations in the 21st century?

Power of Protest

It must be noted that protests were the bread and butter of the civil rights movement. As this quote made famous by Jay Z during 11th hour campaigns for Obama’s first stab at the presidency and attributed by Shippensburg University to an unnamed 19-year-old single mum, maybe society should sit up and listen to science for once:

Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King walked so Obama could run. Obama’s running so we all can fly

In 2010, protests brought down long serving despotic governments in the Arab spring. Today, the ferocity of  #BlackLivesMatter is another contemporary example. As society should know, protests do matter. Protests are powerful and so is the March for Science.

Wait, could it be that In the 21st Century, there is no Dichotomy such as Society and Science?

The March for Science draws more power from something else. Protests do not exactly sit well in this era of responsible research and innovation (RRI ). RRI calls for a reflexive approach in the science, technology and society paradigm. Protests tell of a broken relationship.

In the 21st century, scientists visualize themselves as in constant communication with society when designing and undertaking scientific research. Recent publications such as the Asilomar AI ethics principles echo this approach to 21st century technology and science. Among other rules, the AI Asilomar principles advocate for legal, ethical and social research. Understanding of these ‘adjunct’ areas of studies will flesh out the peer-to-peer relationship between science, technology and society.

Reflexive Science

Furthermore, a look at the March for Science mission, principles and goals lauds this reflexive approach. I quote:

It’s not only about scientists and politicians; it is about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world.

However, sadly, even such nice copy writing does little to explain why science just got political on us. To answer that, we need to quantify what’s at stake.  Plenty must have been, to warrant such uncouth (at least from our perceptions of scientists) response. After all, there is a thin line between a march, a protest and anarchy.

Now that we are here, what to do now?

Going forward, we’d have to keep tabs on such terms as cyber-physical systems. We need to overcome our fear of artificial intelligence. Agree on such things as how to equitably use CRISPR and other genome editing technology. As well have an eye out for Kim Jon Hun, mind efforts towards a “two state solution” for Israel and Palestine. What of Elon Musk and project Space X? Augmented reality ? Uber ? and other contemporary issues in the 21st century?

We all silently acknowledge that the golden age of science might just be upon us. But we all are rightfully afraid of the power of these technologies as the fourth industrial revolution unfolds. Frankly, all these technologies can redefine personhood and what it means to be human in the 21st century.  Some scientists are even talking about woolly mammals and unicorns and that is just damn scary. To better handle this, the same old “Let’s talk” approach still suffices. But as we talk to chart our future as a species, let this be on record. The March for Science set the bar for science,technology and society relations. The gloves are off!

Join the conversation by leaving a comment.