Recently I got into a discussion with a young blogger, “Emily”. It started out as a debate about whether string theory is science; but it turned out that she also had strong views about the need for scientists to assert themselves in politics and public life. The discussion was happening here, but I’m having trouble posting my comments, so the next round goes here instead.
I’m finally ready to respond to the part of this that’s not about string theory. Concerning the strings, my task was clearly to defend string theory as a scientific enterprise. As for the rest of the essay, I intend discussion rather than rebuttal. (By the way, at a forum I just set out a non-string, “neo-minimal” research program for theoretical physics. I wanted to gather several alternative ideas in one place and see how far they can get.)
First, what’s your basic point, your big picture? You want science to be more prominent and influential in culture and politics. You especially mention sustainability as a reason for scientists to be more outspoken and political. You provide a small list of ways in which science, scientists and technology may have screwed up in the past, but still say that nonetheless, we need more science in public life.
Well, you’re certainly right that science is already ubiquitous and having an impact on everything. It also seems to me that the distinctive political form of the age of science is technocracy, rule by experts. Before the 20th century, the culture of ruling classes tended to be religious or humanistic, and it’s still lawyers and bankers who administer the big institutions, but increasingly power has also passed to various “ologists”. Physicists made bombs for the military, economists advise how to spend and how to tax, engineers design machines and biologists study their effect on life, and psychologists and neuroscientists are the authorities on human nature.
In American political life, the Democrats seem far more comfortable with this kind of technocracy, whereas the Republicans, with their enthusiasm for religion, tradition, and economic liberty, preserve the vestiges of pre-scientific culture.
I discussed with one of my housemates (a climate activist) the nature of “anti-science movements” in modern society. My thesis was that the breadth of anti-science is a symptom of the breadth of science, the ubiquity of scientific culture, its technological products, and the technocracy of experts who potentially regulate every aspect of life.
Also that we need to distinguish anti-science movements with very different origins and motivations. The wellspring of climate skepticism is the enormous economic adjustment implied by an attempt to stop emitting CO2, whereas intelligent design is a defense of the religious conception of humanity’s nature. And then opposition to, say, DSM-5 and the pathologization of everything, is also another type of “anti-science”, but here it’s directed against the self-interest of the psychopharmacological branch of the technocracy; and it’s a type of anti-science which resembles science’s own self-policing, science against pseudoscience.
One issue, in evaluating your essay, is whether there is a need or opportunity for an overt “movement of science” in politics. It seems like a distant possibility now, but new things do happen. We have a cultural movement of “New Atheism” now, that combines opposition to religion with fairly conventional ideas of social justice; and it could easily give rise, some years down the track, to an overt political movement.
For the sake of giving it a name, I’ll call this hypothetical future political movement, the Big Science movement. We may imagine Big Science to be “science-positive”; it calls on scientists to be socially minded and it calls on politicians to take heed of scientists. It might gather strength as the world continues to experience weather havoc and other sustainability crises, events which would cement the practical importance of ecology and eco-economics, but it would be a movement with a broader cultural agenda. It might argue for everything from “born-this-way” transphilia as a result of new neuroscientific concepts of gender, to a LessWrong-style attitude of extreme rationalism in habits of thought. It is the nature of such movements that they tend to tie together politics, culture, and identity all at once.
This seems to be an entirely possible scenario. It could even give Democrats and Republicans something to fight about again, in a future iteration of their relationship, at a time when the Republicans have finally moved beyond climate skepticism and being the party of white men; the Democrats can be the supporters of the next wave of rationalistic reconstruction of culture and institutions, and the Republicans can be defenders of traditional, pre-cog-sci, pre-utilitarian liberal democracy.
It’s hard for me to say whether this is a good or a bad thing. Having thought of it, it just seems inevitable, or at least highly plausible, that this is where the political culture of America and its imitators will go. (Other parts of the world may go on very different paths, something that would be of consequence when one tried to address the *geopolitics* of sustainability and of transhuman technologies.) It may not call itself the Big Science movement, but there will be a rationalistic, very pro-science politics one day. You might even play a role in it.