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What Is a Radical Analysis of Science?
We shouldn't relinquish science to those who would depoliticize it or use it to prop up the ruling class. We should it for emancipatory, transformative ends.
A chemist at work in a laboratory circa 1970s. Pictorial Parade / Archive Photos / GettyThis summer marks thirty years since the last issue of Science for the People was delivered to its subscribers in 1989. The magazine helped train a generation of unapologetic left-wing scientists to criticize and challenge the use of their work for violent and oppressive ends. From its enduring polemic against the latest variants of biological determinism to its critiques of weapons research and military funding on college campuses — and much more — Science for the People became an institution of radical thought and political struggle for its members and subscribers.
Today, a new generation has revived the group, both as a membership organization and a periodical. In this piece, republished from the magazine’s summer 2019 relaunch collection, Helen Zhao reviews the critical contributions of the original Science for the People and challenges the new formation to revolutionize science and technology from within existing institutions. To receive the relaunch issue in print this summer, subscribe here.
A radical analysis must not confine itself to the business of critique — to dismantling dominant ways of thinking about the doing and making of science. A radical analysis must offer lessons for how to transform science in a revolutionary direction. How to remake science in the service of the people.
This means using critique to inform our movement’s concrete plans for actualizing hopes, visions, and waking dreams of a science emancipated.
This means setting a goal for radical analysis to guide our movement in its fight to reclaim science — currently complicit with and exploited by capital — weaponized against workers and the oppressed, and forged to reinforce ruling-class power.
You’ve probably heard the story. While science has been abused by nefarious actors for nefarious purposes — especially under the auspices of incompetent and malevolent government agents — science itself is innocent, free of political content. Science is merely the tried and true method of seeking and finding knowledge. In Richard Feynman’s charming words, it is “an enabling power to do either good or bad — but it does not carry instructions on how to use it.”
In another version of the same story, science is socially valuable expertise. Despite a few bad apples — fraudulent research, scam journals, or a poorly designed study — science withstands systematic critique and serves the public good. Those who think otherwise are “anti-science.” Turn, for instance, to the mission statement of Science Not Silence, the official blog of the March for Science. The blog aims to “highlight the service role of science and how science supports the common good for all,” to document “political threats to science and its ability to serve,” and to encourage “people to get involved and support science and science-based policymaking.”
A different story you may have heard, far less common today but once in wider circulation on the Left, says that science isn’t neutral, free of politics, or by and large a benevolent force for good. This is because all science amounts to one oppressive ideology among many. No science deserves privileging: any science coerces, indoctrinates, or demands religious adherence to its precepts. Such a defeatist perspective as far as truth, knowledge, and technology are concerned carries its own problems. What about the free health clinics organized by the Black Panther Party in the 1970s, which provided desperately needed and effective medical services to those who could neither afford expensive private clinics, nor meet their needs in underfunded and overcrowded public clinics?
None of these views of science are attractive to those committed to bringing about institutions of science unlike the ones implicated in the dealings of warfare and capital. After all, none afford a sober, clear-eyed faith in the possibility of a science for the people. Many radical critiques found in previous issues of SftP subvert all three aforementioned views, setting out from the thought that science demands a revolution, and in the wake of a wider revolution, there should still be science.
In particular, previous issues of SftP have featured three kinds of radical critique, each of which has challenged a liberal interpretation of science.
Critiquing the Application of Knowledge
The first is a radical critique of the applications of scientific knowledge. This kind of critique brings to light the many, often horrifying, ways in which technological and ideological results of knowledge production abet and reinforce ruling-class power, domination, and exploitation of workers and the oppressed. It makes clear the devastating knock-on effects of science on society, such as napalm, nuclear bombs, forced sterilization, hate crimes, unjust social policies, racist criminal risk algorithms, facial recognition scanners at border checkpoints, intersex medical interventions — the list goes on.
A 1988 SftP article, “After the Boycott: How Scientists Are Stopping SDI,” shows how a research program created under President Ronald Reagan, officially known as the Strategic Defense Initiative but informally dubbed “Star Wars,” sought to enlist American scientists and engineers in constructing an elaborate network of satellite-based lasers and missiles to defend against a potential nuclear attack on the United States. Here, the author condemned the technological application of physical and chemical research to an irresponsible, massively expensive arms race against the Soviet Union.
More recently, an article in the special 2018 issue of SftP, “Geoengineering and Environmental Capitalism,” shows that geoengineering “solutions” to climate change pose grave risks to both the natural and social worlds. While large-scale technological interventions in the climate system, such as those used to militarize the weather during the Vietnam War, have become mainstays of climate policy discourse in the Global North, heralded “solutions” like injecting aerosols into the atmosphere to reduce the amount of incoming sunlight have the potential to suppress rainfall and interfere with monsoon patterns. Vast plant monocultures to sequester carbon from the atmosphere carry devastating risks for ecosystems. Furthermore, bio-energy production combined with carbon capture and storage is likely to escalate international conflicts by encouraging competition over land and resources, forced displacement, and sharp increases in global food prices.
A 1976 SftP article titled “Racist Outbreak at Harvard Medical School” subjects the scientific theory of biological determinism to scrutiny on the basis of its ideological applications. It shows how this theory was harmfully applied to naturalize social injustice: to reinforce the pernicious political belief that social and economic inequities are the fault of individuals being born in the wrong body with the wrong genes. In a racist episode earlier that year, Bernard D. Davis, a professor at Harvard Medical School, published an op-ed in the New England Journal of Medicine attacking minority admissions programs. He warned against “the temptation to award medical diplomas on a charitable basis” to “a person who might leave a swath of unnecessary deaths behind him.” Prior to the publication of this op-ed, Davis had given a public speech in which he’d argued that “social justice must be built around the reality of our genetic diversity.” Here, radical critique of science brought to light the way in which a scientific theory was applied to support white supremacist ideology and dismiss calls for systemic redress of unjust social outcomes.
Critiquing Theory and Methodology
A second kind of radical critique challenges the methodological and theoretical frameworks that guide the production of science and technology.
One of Science for the People’s most intense campaigns was its fight against the aforementioned theory of biological determinism, notably propounded by Harvard University biologist E. O. Wilson in his influential book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Members of Science for the People like Barbara and Jonathan Beckwith, Steven Chorover, David Culver, Stephen Jay Gould, Ruth Hubbard, Richard Lewontin, and Herb Schreier participated in a widely cited 1975 critique of Wilson’s book, published in the New York Review of Books.
This critique consisted of several parts. It criticized Wilson for citing no evidence for the genes he’d posited to exist, such as “conformer genes,” “homosexuality genes,” and “genes favoring spite.” It took him to task for dogmatically assuming that human behavior and social structures are “organs” determined by genes. In addition, it highlighted the absurdity of Wilson’s implicit chain of reasoning: because anthropological genetics is logically conceivable — it could be true despite no evidence that human behavior is determined by genes, and despite that “the very opposite could be true” — there’s a “necessity” for anthropological genetics. We must study the processes of genetic inheritance of culture, it would seem, for no good reason but that such explanations are Wilson’s preference. Furthermore, the critique revealed the sleight-of-hand by which Wilson purported to give evidence for the naturalness of historically specific social structures like slavery and castes. It showed that Wilson had circularly confirmed his own prejudices. He’d read into nonhuman behaviors precisely those social structures he’d hoped to justify.
In this example, radical critique comprised critique of a scientific argument: of the concepts, methods, and theories by which conclusions were drawn. Biological determinism was shown not only to be harmful in application, but also, as a theory, to be plagued with gaps — illogical and circular.
Likewise, the 2018 SftP critique of geoengineering “solutions” appeals to the fact that the science itself is dubious. It shows that technological schemes to “fix” the climate presuppose linear, simplistic causal models of climate systems despite the fact that such systems, especially on a global scale, are complex, nonlinear, chaotic, and unpredictable. A lot of uncertainty remains as to whether geoengineering “solutions,” tested in silico by incomplete models, are even effective. Models employed in geoengineering research also tend to ignore the social and geopolitical impacts of simulated technologies, perhaps in part because geoengineering is systematically dominated by perspectives from the physical sciences and engineering. Geoengineering “solutions,” then, are not only risky technologies; geoengineering science itself, it’s been argued, is epistemically blinkered.
Critiquing the Basis of Knowledge Production
A third kind of radical critique takes as its subject matter the material basis of scientific knowledge production. It emphasizes the causal role that differential access to resources, such as funding, capital power, political power, education, and training, plays in reproducing science and the inequities therein.
Sometimes, this causal role takes little work to understand. As the director of the “Star Wars” Office of Innovative Science and Technology (IST) put the point bluntly thirty-five years ago: “People go where the bucks are. There is a lot of money involved here.” Unsurprisingly, oil industry moguls and representatives are at the forefront of developing geoengineering technologies, given that these technologies promise to mitigate anthropogenic climate change without alteration or perturbation to the life of capital. Interest in geoengineering is growing, even outside of fossil fuel producers and extractive industries, because “technofixes” herald opportunities aplenty for profit through promoting market expansion, making commercial gains, and increasing power for economic actors and corporations.
At other times, this critique of science requires more effort to unpack and appreciate. “Equality for Women in Science,” an early piece by the SftP editorial board, describes multiple, intricately interacting social and material structures that then, and still today, facilitated the exclusion of women from science. It explains how sorting by sex from an early age made a difference in the trajectories and relative ease of success in scientific careers. Vocational counseling in high schools and colleges, for instance, encouraged women to pursue family roles, clerical work, and professions in the service fields. This decreased the likelihood that women after high school or college would go on to work in science. In addition, women who did manage to complete their science training were made to choose between families and their profession while men in the same fields were not asked to choose. This, then, also decreased the likelihood that women with the same training would advance professionally as far as men.
The article ends with a list of economic and institutional demands to “make steps now towards destroying false notions of superiority.” These include equal wages for equal work, a graduate school admissions gender quota, reorientation of vocational counseling, birth control and abortion counseling, parenthood and family sick leave, and free, 24/7 childcare centers. The list reinforces the idea that unequal gender representation in the scientific workforce may be explained not by differences in gender, but by differences in access to resources between the genders. It explains inequity in science by appealing to relevant inequities in the material basis of science.
Radical Versus Liberal Critique
These, then, are three kinds of radical critique of science: critique of the applications, epistemic features, and material basis of scientific knowledge production.
But what distinguishes a radical critique from a liberal critique? Here, the answer lies not merely in an awareness on the one side that science has been and continues to be used to further warfare, to existentially threaten human life, and to justify sexism and racism. Liberal critiques readily admit that science is sometimes instrumentalized for evil by bad faith actors. They simply take such incidents to be abuses of science, as opposed to its usual uses; outliers as opposed to humdrum events in the daily, monstrous churn of the capitalist/science/war machine. With respect to “Star Wars” and the racist episode at Harvard, someone like Richard Feynman might say that science has made its way into the wrong hands. With respect to the pitfalls of geoengineering “solutions,” Science Not Silence might say that scientists lack the freedom and resources to study the right questions — questions they would be able to address if someone like Trump were removed from office.
By contrast, a radical critique does not explain the horrors of science as the mere doings of bad faith actors or effects of restrictions on intellectual freedom. It explains science and its demons through an historicized analysis of the structural causes of technological and ideological “misfires” as expected downstream consequences of selective support for favored research questions, methods, models, and disciplines; of differential access among stratified groups to funding, training, and modes of communication.
Radical critiques of science thus distinguish themselves from liberal critiques by the political entanglements they posit among the applications, epistemic features, and material basis of science. Unlike their liberal counterparts, they take for granted that any part of science must be understood through a rich and nuanced grasp of the whole of science across time and place; of the entire knowledge-making industry and its role in capitalism at large. Radical critique is anti-reductionist critique. Radical science is therefore science transformed as a whole.
While some radical critiques have included concrete demands for reforming science, fewer have offered concrete perspectives on how to achieve those demands. But if radical analysis is to further our movement’s political projects, magazines like SftP should move beyond varied critiques of science’s effects, practices, and disciplinary logics, beyond exposés of the grisly interactions in between, to more extensively articulate, debate, and plan concrete “next steps” for moving science to the left.
A call for more strategic perspectives in radical science publishing is not a call for something new. One of SftP’s earliest and most widely distributed essays, “Toward a Science for the People,” describes a vision and plan for revolutionary change. This 1972 piece argues that:
Traditional attempts to reform scientific activity, to disentangle it from its more malevolent and vicious applications, have failed. Actions designed to preserve the moral integrity of individuals without addressing themselves to the political and economic system which is at the root of the problem have been ineffective. The ruling class can always replace a Leo Szilard with an Edward Teller. What is needed now is not liberal reform or withdrawal, but a radical attack, a strategy of opposition. Scientific workers must develop ways to put their skills at the service of the people and against the oppressors. … Scientists must succeed in redirecting their professional activities away from services to the forces and institutions they oppose and toward a movement they wish to build.
At the 2014 conference “Science for the People: The 1970s and Today,” Richard Levins, a luminary member of Science for the People, offered his audience several words of advice. He suggested that the major terrain of struggle for a people’s science would continue to be ideological:
Part of the task of a revolutionary movement is to push the boundary of the permissible, to be able to say things that are not allowed to be said. … One option is to struggle within the intellectual community to change the boundaries. A second one is to work semi-clandestinely: that is, write your term papers but have a missing chapter, the kind that says the things that you’re not supposed to refer to, using forbidden words like class, and so on. Another is to step outside of academia and work for people’s organizations … Or you can leave employment in the sciences, drive a cab, and do your agitation in your spare time.
Strategic perspectives for and by our movement are therefore not lacking. Nonetheless, much work remains to be done to sharpen our movement’s analysis, particularly of our goals, tactics, and direction. While many have devoted considerable attention to reflecting on the doing and making of science, fewer have sufficiently considered what’s to be done by our movement — and, in particular, in pursuit of what vision.
“Toward a Science for the People,” for example, argues for a people’s science run by scientists. On this view, a people’s science is not a science by the people, but a science (for the people) by the scientists. But should our movement set its sights so low on bringing about institutions of science merely accountable to the communities they serve? After all, a science in the hands of the people, in a world where the people have been educated and trained to own, manage, and run institutions of science themselves, is arguably a science in better service of the people. Where do the “experts” and “expertise” belong — if anywhere — in a science emancipated, a science for the people?
In addition, “Toward a Science for the People” argues against continued attempts to reform established institutions of science on the grounds that such strategies are proven blind alleys. It urges scientists to leave them behind in favor of building communities and knowledge-producing structures separate and apart. Scientists must direct “their professional activities away from services to the forces and institutions they oppose.” The thought seems to be that a revolution in science must come from without, not from within. Until a wider revolution in society has succeeded, scientists working within the powerful institutions of science will be unlikely to resist or defy the ruling interests that hold sway. Still, one might wonder whether a priority of our movement should also be to contest the workplace. Should we narrow down our goal and strategy of struggle to assisting struggles fought on other terrains, even other lands? Without a doubt, using scientific knowledge to aid people’s organizations, oppressed communities, and movements abroad is necessary, important, and valuable work. But does our movement stand to lose from eschewing all “traditional attempts at reforming scientific activity,” no matter how futile and hopeless such efforts may seem?
On the one hand, actualizing people’s visions of a people’s science outside the policed walls of existing institutions may be our movement’s best bet for mounting a robust resistance to science as it stands. If so, reforming these institutions poses only an unhelpful diversion from more effective and useful activism elsewhere.
On the other hand, perhaps our movement is more likely to succeed if, in addition to supporting struggles outside science, it attempts to build power within existing institutions’ walls. It could be that both reforming science and assisting other political struggles is what it will take to realize a people’s science, to bring about a change not only for science but society writ large.
Consider that Levins’s presentation makes little mention of contesting the institutions of science, let alone a case against it, and does not consider a world without them. Agitation is what one does outside of academia in one’s spare time, after leaving employment in the sciences. In science, one “revolutionary” task is to “push the boundary of the permissible” — to speak and write words that are “not allowed to be said,” like race, class, and gender — a rather disappointing evolution in what radical activists and organizers in science have come to count as “movement work.” If this view is right, activism in science has become merely fighting to say the things not allowed to be said, as opposed to fighting to do the science not allowed to be done.
Another SftP essay, this one published in 1976, suggests an explanation for us for this potential deflation in our movement’s ambitions. In “The Politics of Scientific Conceptualization,” Norman Diamond argues that, while political activity after work hours, speaking out against political abuses related to science, and organizing coworkers indeed represent ways to combine scientific work with political activity,
all of these approaches leave the science itself, the content of research and formulation of results, untouched. … It is through recognizing that scientific concepts themselves are political that it is primarily possible not only to be a radical and a scientist, but to be a radical scientist. …. Recognizing that there are choices behind concepts and that these choices have political implications, radical scientists are able to take responsibility for the concepts they use. By doing so they act as precursors of a society in which consciousness is no longer subordinate to social conditions. Through their science now, they can contribute to fundamental social change.
It is ideological struggle over the content and formulation of scientific results — what Diamond deems “the science itself” — that plays the leading role in bringing about “fundamental social change.” It may be that the perspective expressed in Levins’s presentation on how radicals in science ought to fight back can be traced to such ideas as well.
However, these ideas contain deep flaws. As Diamond rightly notes, human beings are more than mere causal effects of their social conditions. Still, to think that theoretical frameworks and disciplinary logics of science constitute the primary locus of political struggle is, strategically, to put the cart miles before the horse.
As radical critiques of science have made clear, politically interested concepts, like the idea of a “technofix” in geoengineering, emerge partly as products of scientific methods and theoretical frameworks selectively supported by institutions with a vested interest in their success, partly as products of the wider world we live in. To recommend that radicals in science radicalize science primarily by taking responsibility for their choice of methodological and theoretical frameworks, then, is to forget that science’s applications, epistemic features, and material basis are inextricably entangled. Concepts of science do not systemically change without institutional support. They have a material basis; they are not mere products of volition. Institutional support for a people’s science is unlikely to be forthcoming so long as the right people — that is, the people — lack control over institutional decision-making and the world we live in remains deeply stratified.
Diamond therefore fundamentally misunderstands a central lesson of radical critiques of science, that lesson distinguishing them from liberal critiques. Different parts of science, including its concepts and formulations, can be understood only through an understanding of the whole of science. Challenging the concepts and formulations of scientific results is not enough. Fundamental social change takes fighting back against the technological and ideological uses of science to murder, oppress, colonize, and exclude people from political power. It takes contesting and reforming the gendered, raced, heteronormative material bases of science: the funding bodies, institutional cultures and structures, and publication rat races. It takes thinking through, debating, and disseminating an incisive analysis of how to organize in higher education, where scientists go not only to produce but to be produced: to be disciplined, tamed, and formed as workers.
What, then, does all this come to? What, in the end, is a radical analysis of science?
First, a radical analysis must point our movement, straining for a better future, toward effective strategies for challenging hegemonic relations of knowledge production. It must make a revolution in science, whether from within or without, a hope within reach. This means taking seriously the strategic importance of reforming institutions of science and contesting the scientific workplace. This means clarifying, too, what it is we’re fighting for.
Second, a radical analysis must not theorize strategy in isolation from radical critiques of science’s applications, epistemic features, and material basis. What is to be done can be realistically decided only by accepting an important lesson of critique: that the way to understand the different parts of science, and therefore to change them, is to understand the whole of science, particularly its integration in global systems of power and capital.
Perhaps a new direction for magazines like SftP is to make more space for dialogue and debate about the way activists and organizers should move forward…
… as radicals in science, fighting to organize, politically educate, and empower their coworkers.
… as radicals outside science, agitating in solidarity for a science for the people.
About the Author
Helen Zhao is a PhD student in philosophy at Columbia University.
Proud member of the Massachusetts Society of Professors (MSP/MTA/NEA), the union representing faculty and librarians at UMass Amherst, and supporting public education and labor movements everywhere: umassmsp.org
Red Revolution, Green Revolution: Scientific Farming in Socialist China (University of Chicago Press, 2016)
Science for the People: Documents from America's Movement of Radical Scientists (University of Massachusetts Press, 2018)
Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean: Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong's Work for Sustainable Farming (Tilbury House, 2018) -- picture book