How The March For Science Explains The Relationship Between Science Technology and Society In The 21st Century
Last updated on June 22nd, 2017 at 01:58 pm
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) the March for Science to address what by some accounts is simply a miscommunication between science,technology and society (sts) ?
Finally, what do we learn about this relationship between sts in the 21st century from this unorthodox, possibly seminal choice of mass exasperation? Might I add an open show of civil disobedience by seemingly the most rational of human minds?
Whichever, you look at it, a protest is a conflict. A peaceful one, but a sign that dialogue is no more effective and the world needs to know what’s going on and add their voice 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 Science, Technology and Society
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. The Uganda Martyrs story is a tale of a fate common in every monarch that ever was. 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.
It was worse actually. Kabaka Mwanga II had recognized the imminent threat posed 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, the knowledge these individuals posses, that made them powerful and thus a threat to establishment, included prowess in contemporary matters like religious teachings that had by then benefited from the works of early scientists like Galileo.
From beheading to setting them 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- The Muslim Zanzibari’s, The French Anglicans and The English Catholics- all angling for Uganda in the ensuing scramble and partition of Africa.
The death of Galileo & 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 plight 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.
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 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 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 -observations- with interviews of eminent scientists. In doing so, Burdick’s article The Usefulness of a March for Science captures the soul of the protest. By all measures, this Burdick’s piece belongs to the finer recordings for what in retrospect will surely be a reference point for science and society relations in the 21st century.
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:
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?
The 20th century: The height of the parochial relationship between science, technology & society
For most of the 20th century, that 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.
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 revealed at Davos 2017, neural networks, the precursors of artificial intelligence suffered such a fate. To that 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 got eroded? The engraving effect of unethical human subject research
For bystanders like me who wield little power in the process of scientific innovation, all the bad broth does is to make you 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 and take stock of the resources (human subjects included) expended only to find the grand challenges- universal health coverage, income inequality, climate change- that human progress faces, mockingly staring back at us thanks to a non responsive science policy
Given such a conspicuous mismatch in our scientific endeavors, volume of novel scientific discoveries and ready-for-market technology, the net gain for society is way too discounted in this unidirectional system of generating new knowledge. 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 during world war II.
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 effort in a science policy environment guided by this unidirectional epistemological process is to fortify society’s to cheer on, rubber stamp and ready itself to be amazed by science and technology. Consider the following modern-day realities:
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 chose to push entertainment rather than information, 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. When science speaks, all it gets back is its own echo. These auditory hallucinations only serve to entrench the power of science over society.
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 as played by Collin Farrel in the revisionist multi Oscar Winner: A beautiful mind (2001).
In the midst of this miscommunication, it is not uncommon for society to shot itself in the leg and inadvertently punish science. It’s the classic ‘the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing’ kind of thing.
When society finds better use for its resources
One of the ways this happens is when society elects to spend money otherwise (war, infrastructure projects, social programs etc) rather than fund science. 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
Has science lost its soul & become corrupt?
The great depression era and the effects of a world war on the relationship between science,technology and society is a great place to pick up this conversation. 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- to match society’s onslaught that threatens to de-fund 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 be ignored? What impact that the March for Science have on society-science relations in the 21st century?
It must be noted that protests were the bread and butter of the civil rights movement. As the 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:
In 2010, protests brought down long serving despotic governments as 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.
In the 21st century, there is no such thing as society and science
Nonetheless, 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, the scientific community likes to think of itself as being in constant communication with society in conceptualizing, 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.
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 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 and agree on such things as how to equitably use CRISPR and other genome editing technology….As well as have an eye out for Kim Jon Hun, efforts towards a “Two state solution” for Israel and Palestine, Space X, augmented reality, Uber and other contemporary issues in the 21st century.
Why? 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’s be reminded that The March for Science just set the bar for science,technology and society relations. The gloves are off!