What you need to know
'It is really most appropriate that the scientists should be the ones marching for social justice and philosophical reflection. For perhaps no other people know better than we do just how our endeavors can be equally powerful for the destruction as it is for the construction of humanity.'
The March for Science convened on April 22, the World Earth Day, in Washington D.C. and several other cities. It vowed, according to its mission statement, to denounce the growing tendency of undermining scientific evidence, and to promote evidence-based policy-making.
The campaign was made public in late January, soon after U.S. President Donald Trump took office. There is an apparent causal relationship, as Trump’s election campaign and administrative team have been constantly disregarding or acting against generally recognized scientific consensus, including the impact of anthropogenic climate change and the benefits of nation-led universal health coverage.
This objective evidence-driven cause is legitimate, especially at the time of global post-truth politics, but at the mean time not without peril. Here I would like to make an attempt to argue that marching for science is in fact not about marching for evidence, but for a much more philosophical cause.
The era of 'knowledge as a commodity'
Being the generation of information technology, we see knowledge become a commodity that can be much more easily exchanged and purchased. The concept of “knowledge-based economy” proposed by the OECD in 1996 had officially introduced the world into the era of “market of knowledge”, if not already so.
I borrow the term “market of knowledge” from the great French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, one of the first postmodernism theorists. He argued, as early as 1979, that this era warrants the humanity to rethink our perception of scientific knowledge.
Three centuries ago, the privilege of conducting scientific research was preserved for a minimal amount of people. Bars were high for new entries and institutions were created to signify their exclusive authority and legitimacy of generating knowledge; the Royal Society in England, the Academie des science in France, to name a few. Scientists have to be trained in essentially the same genealogical system in order to be recognized. Some equally innovative inquiries into the rules of nature, but set outside America or Europe, are until today discarded as inferior to the western knowledge regime.
Stemming from this Enlightenment ideology, science has been crowned with the transcendental capacity to liberate humanity from the tyranny of religion and ignorance, and establish an objective, unified truth of the world. “The theory of everything” is not merely a motion picture title, but an actual ambition of contemporary theoretical physicists; a quintessential reification of human faith in what science is capable of creating: finding a universal truth.
This idealistic perception of science was exactly what Lyotard aim to deconstruct. Globalization and the marketization of knowledge has made scientific knowledge ubiquitous and heterogeneous. Today, knowledge is generated every day, everywhere, and by everyone. While for some fields it is easy to distinguish the “correct science” from the false ones, this cannot be said for other fields. For instance, while western medicine continues to dominate the healthcare system, various types of alternative medicine including but not limited to Chinese medicine and herbal remedies are gaining both evidence of effectiveness and popularity.
Rejecting science as the 'grand narrative'
It is under this zeitgeist of technology-facilitated heterogeneous knowledge generation that Lyotard called for a rejection of the “grand narratives,” the narratives that claim this diverse world can be reduced to a single set of theories, and thus be run by a single package of strategies. What we should be replacing the grand narratives with, as per Lyotard, are the “petite narratives;” the context-specific decision-making that take into account not merely the best available evidence, but also the social values, community circumstances, and perspectives of the people this decision is to project its influence on.
Adopting “petite narratives” is abandoning the one-size-fits-all confidence in objective evidence, and recognizing the need for philosophical, ideological, and contextual considerations when appraising science. The world does not need “a theory” that governs everything, what we need is a theory for everyone who needs one.
This is not just philosophical grumbles that have no real life implication. Coming from an East Asian country, we have seen a number of medical treatments that used to be approved by our Food and Drug Administration based on research done in the western hemisphere only to be found out to have no effect when they are put into trials in local settings, either due to physiological, behavioral, or social value differences. This is just an example of how the grand scientific narratives, under the brand of objective evidence, are not actually able to satisfy everyone.
By claiming that evidence is not objective, I by no means attempt to diminish the points made by the campaigners of the March of Science: that governments need good science and they need to respect good science to make informed and accountable decisions. Nor am I trying to argue for loosening up our discipline for scientific rigor, or that one can claim whatever they wish to claim to be “science,” given there is no unbiased standard.
On the contrary, the case I am making is to impose another standard for science, a moral one. As so eloquently put by Lyotard, “knowledge is no longer the subject, but is in the service of the subject: its only legitimacy is the fact that it allows morality to become reality.” Having seen examples of science being used in the most benevolent as well as the most diabolical purposes in the last century, we should know better to not just be rallying for the objectivity of scientific truth, if there is even any, but also for the application of knowledge for good causes.
Marching not just for science, but for justice
The March for Science cannot be only a march for evidence, but also, and more importantly, a march for social justice. And it is really most appropriate that the scientists should be the ones marching for social justice and philosophical reflection. For perhaps no other people know better than we do just how our endeavors can be equally powerful for the destruction as it is for the construction of humanity.
This is the message we, as the scientific community, should be sending to President Trump, his administration, and the world, that we are not only standing for science. We are also standing against healthcare systems that condemns the poor to ill-health, the legislation that deprives men or women the right to their bodies, the exploitation of resources that threatens the survival of our children, and the violation of any human right in the name of science.
We are marching for justice at the March for Science.
Editor: Edward White