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Requiem for Science?

We must stick to science when science gets political. Scientists claim that the endeavour of science is the ultimate pursuit of truth.

ASH NARAIN ROY |

“The Pope? How many divisions has he?” This is how Stalin retorted when Churchill reportedly suggested to him the possibility of the Pope being associated with some of the decisions taken at the 1943 Tehran conference which was the strategy meeting between Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill. Arrogance comes from ignorance. In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue. During the Stalin era, the self-serving Communist leaders saw their political beliefs as so all-encompassing that even science became political. If science contradicted communism, what good was it? It was simply not science. Are we any different today? It is ironical that at a time when it’s theoretically possible to send signals using mathematical calculations and quantum communications across interstellar space, the post-truth world should be witnessing the blatant politicisation of science. Or is it the slow death of science? Of course, the suppression of science is not a new phenomenon. The politicisation of science and technology has been a familiar game of autocrats. This affliction has now spread to democracies across the globe. President Trump forced the approval of unproved drugs such as hydroxychloroquine and remdesivir. George W.

Bush refused federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Globally commercial agenda dictates policies and procurement of drugs. Antipathy towards mathematical thinking is clear and evident. There are some who argue that we are approaching the limits of knowledge and hence further theorizing will only lead to speculation that cannot be verified or falsified by experiment. The hostility towards climate science is even more intense. There is no dearth of leaders who trash science and peddle conspiracy theories to cultivate certain constituencies of supporters. Populists and autocrats bank on monetising non-science. Conservatism, xenophobia, and climate change denial are inextricably linked. The extractive industry too has joined the bandwagon. Leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro are not looking for truth; they have found the truth.

No wonder, Trump called climate change “an expensive hoax.” Bolsonaro, the “Trump of the Tropics,” is the most dangerous climate denier in the world. He has downplayed the Covid threat, peddled conspiracy theories, ridiculed health measures and sabotaged vaccination efforts. Some say the Brazilian president is a practitioner of “ecological Leninism.” Brazil’s former foreign minister Ernesto Araujo, who argued that there was a lack of scientific proof over the causes of global warming, went as far to say that climate change advocates were stirring up alarmism for political ends. It was part of a leftist conspiracy against Brazil, whose sovereignty is under attack. Nobel laureate Venki Ramakrishnan says that “science flourishes where there is a real freedom of thought, opinion and minimal ideological interference.” We are living in a profoundly anti-science moment.

Some call it “post-theory science.” How can science flourish when denial, distraction, accusation and lies are part of the democratic game? Doubt is essential for science. In the age of social media, we are more likely to trust content that aligns with our views. Today, people are feeling genuinely a sense of mental discomfort when confronted with evidence that contradicts the view they hold. Social science is wrestling with this problem of what is understood as “cognitive dissonance.” We are in the belly of the beast. Technology is helping the autocrats to perpetuate their myths. Thanks to the smartphonification of life, we now have more memories in our pockets and less in our heads. The Uberisation of work, imposition of algorithmic management and commodification of data have resulted in global elites deflecting from the drivers of inequalities. All this is happening when we are dancing on the Titanic and the iceberg is not far away. But who cares? Make-believe is now fake-believe. Screen time is as addictive as junk food.

With the advent of dystopian technology, we are unwittingly submitting ourselves to a devil’s bargain. A study by sociologist Gordon Gauchat suggests that despite increasing higher levels of education in the US, the public’s trust in the scientific community has been decreasing. In 1974, conservatives with college degrees had the highest level of trust in science and the scientific community. Today, they have the lowest. Some of the bitterest attacks on climate scientists in the US are made by commentators of Fox News. They ridicule climate science and dismiss global warming as “the greatest scam in history.” There is another danger. The data deluge threatens to make the scientific method obsolete. Will big data mark the end of theory? Do we need digital dieting? With “every fool and every demon” invoking what Richard Falk calls “the voice of destiny,” the 21st century is threatening to become an age of nescience and unreason.

Social pathology is another problem. The slow death of liberalism and secularism has resulted in the blatant politicisation of science. In many countries scientists teach things which are obviously untrue as it supports the prevailing ideology. We are witnessing an epoch of breathless hype and scornful naysaying. Of course, science can’t claim absolutism and scientists too have their own biases. It is scientists’ job to weed out culturally relative truths and examine their rationality. Do we need deification of science? Perhaps no. Science is not a deity to have faith in it; faith is the domain of religion. Science can’t become a theology. Science is a theory. Critique and challenging long-held beliefs are germane to science. Politicisation of science too is problematic. Science can inform our choices, but it can’t guarantee wisdom. Friedrich Nietzsche exhorted his contemporaries to free themselves from scientific ‘piety.’ He argued that there are continuities between theology and modern faith in science.

Both blind adherence and hostile suspicion are dangerous. We must stick to science when science gets political. Scientists claim that the endeavour of science is the ultimate pursuit of truth. But truth has multiple shades of grey. There are spaces where multiple truths exist at once. Scientists are not new gods. There are no absolute truths in science. Nothing is ever completely settled. All knowledge is just probable knowledge. There are only approximate truths. Scientific truths are provisional. Even Newton’s law has its limits. Scientists must admit what they don’t know. Renowned physicist Edwin Hubble said famously that scientists must possess a healthy scepticism, suspended judgement, and disciplined imagination” towards others’ ideas but also towards their own.