Above Photo: The New Yorker, 2017
Trusting science should not mean trusting in the benevolence of the ruling class.
During the Trump presidency, slogans like “Facts Matter” and “#BelieveTheScience” abounded. The idea was that, unlike the outright denial espoused by Republicans, Democrats recognize basic scientific truths about the world, such as the existence of climate change and the dangers of Covid-19. Because they “take science seriously,” it’s implied, Democrats will propose and enact more scientifically-informed policies. It’s been a year since Joe Biden took office on the promise that his respect for science would manifest in more rational policy solutions. So, now is a good time to ask: how’s that going?
“Follow the science” was an effective campaign slogan during the Trump years, but it was only ever a slogan. On September 20, 2020, Joe Biden tweeted, “Unlike Trump, I’ll listen to the experts and heed their advice — especially when it comes to matters of health and safety.” Now, apparently, “there is no federal solution,” and “nobody could have predicted” the Omicron variant. Biden “wish[es he] had thought about ordering” millions of tests in advance of the holiday. This is a pack of lies. Public health experts presented Biden with a plan for handling the holiday surge by ramping up production and distribution of tests back in October, which was rejected. Instead of taking any meaningful federal action, he wished unvaccinated people a very merry “winter of severe illness and death,” a salutation which also presumably extends to the 20 million children under the age of 5 who couldn’t get vaccinated.
As B.C. Daurelle and K.S. Mehta wrote at the end of last year, the entire world could be vaccinated in a matter of months, if Biden chose to exercise his existing legal powers to release the formulas and manufacturing techniques of mRNA vaccines. Biden’s refusal to do so shows just how little “trust in the science” his administration actually has. Their hyperfocus on vaccine mandates for workers in the U.S. gives away the game: keeping the U.S. economy up and running at all costs.
Similarly, in New York, the city government constantly stresses the importance of getting tested, maintaining at least six feet of distance from others, and staying home if you feel sick; yet more than one million K-12 students, plus school employees, are being forced back into crowded classrooms with few safety precautions. Despite the Department of Education’s promises of robust surveillance testing, less than 5 percent of all students are actually being tested each week. The CDC has whittled down the recommendation for distancing from six to three feet just to allow schools to operate at higher capacity. Even with such limited testing, the positivity rate among NYC public school students in the first week of January was nearly 13 percent. New York City mayor Eric Adams, another Democratic champion of “the Science,” has admitted that numbers have been kept low by testing fewer students. The characteristically blunt new mayor is more frank than most about why schools need to stay open: “Parents can’t keep their children home. They have to work.”
Governments ignoring their own public health recommendations is only the most obvious sign that “follow the science” almost never means an actual commitment to policy-making based on material reality. “The Science” itself is politically compromised, because scientific research is subject to the same capitalist pressures as the rest of the economy, as Clifford D. Conner demonstrates in The Tragedy of American Science. Science imagined as a field of pure, unrestricted inquiry, floating free from any political context, is a fantasy— one that the Democratic Party, in particular, wants to sell to its voting base. But science exists in the material world— it is done by real people, working within institutions and networks that are all shaped by capitalist society. Socialists have a particular responsibility to continuously draw attention to the way that notions of scientific credibility and objectivity are inevitably perverted under capitalism, and to point to a better alternative. If the fullest benefits of science for human flourishing are to be realized, it needs to be removed from the influence of capitalists and their governments.
Science Is Shaped By Politics
Political realities shape science from its very earliest stages. The process of becoming a researcher is steeped in class-based gatekeeping and capitalist indoctrination, as described by Mike Pappas with regards to medical students; similar pressures apply to all scientific programs through which expertise and credentials are earned. Particularly in the natural sciences, graduate students gain much of their experience working on projects initiated by established researchers, which severely limits the potential for new lines of inquiry.
More broadly, even the purview of established researchers’ work are delimited by what research can get funding. The source and motives for funding inevitably shapes the direction and outcomes of research. In the past half-century, the funding of high-level science has gone from almost an exclusive purview of government, to today’s arrangement, wherein government funds basic research and then allows corporations to patent and profit off of market-ready technologies. While many are nostalgic for that earlier era, its technical achievements were overwhelmingly driven by military interests whose exclusive goal was ensuring U.S. hegemony. Mainstay technological and scientific achievements credited to the era of government-backed research, like the Space Program, the internet, and VR technologies, all grew out of projects with explicitly militaristic ends.
By contrast, today’s paradigm — more reliant on funding from companies and foundations— puts the quest for profit more directly at the heart of what drives scientific research. Particularly since the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, even research universities have become incentivized to behave more like profit-seeking corporations, particularly in the life sciences. For instance, serious diseases that affect only a handful of people are less likely to be researched than mild illnesses that affect many people. Many of these are not baffling medical mysteries; it’s simply that funding isn’t available to study them. For similar reasons, HIV/AIDS research was a non-starter during the crisis of the 1980s, when AIDS afflicted mainly poor and non-white people. Faced with inaction from the CDC and FDA, members of ACT-UP formed the “Treatment and Data” group, which took the research into their own hands as much as possible given their limited resources. Ironically, the mRNA vaccines for Covid-19 were built using technologies that were originally developed for use against HIV.
Even the story of the Covid vaccines—touted as a miracle of scientific achievement— bears the taint of for-profit science. Early in the pandemic, there was a brief glimmer of optimism in the medical sciences: the enormity of the crisis might allow profit-seeking motives to be set aside, in the interests of unbridled scientific collaboration. But before this model could bear fruit, the shadowy villain of vaccine imperialism itself, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, stepped in to squash the effort. In its place, the Gates’ intervention produced the COVAX project, which is firmly rooted in existing IP and patent protections, ensuring gigantic profits for the private developers of vaccines, and virtually guaranteeing today’s misallocation of vaccines across the global color line.
The Misuses Of Science
Even when ‘good’ research is done, the products of that research still exist in a social milieu: not all research or results see the light of day in publication and distribution. That information must still navigate a web of entities with vested interests in the ‘outcomes’ of science. Often, when a study uncovers information that certain entities (the funding agency, the university, the government, corporations in a particular industry) don’t like, they bury or discredit the study. For example, Katherine M. Flegal has been the victim of a 15-year-long campaign to discredit her research demonstrating that being “overweight” is not actually a risk factor for health. Some resistance to her work comes from the weight loss and health insurance industries, but some of it also comes from another classic abuser of “science”: Big Tobacco. When analyzing the data from another study, Flegal found that some of the perceived risks of obesity were actually due to smoking, which had not been accounted for in the original study.
And, of course, corporations are perfectly capable and willing to fund their own studies, often laundered through partnerships with prestigious universities, to produce results tailored to serve a particular narrative. Even a smattering of evidence that casts doubt on an inconvenient scientific consensus—like the health risks of smoking or anthropogenic climate change—is a powerful weapon that corporations can use to justify nearly anything with an appeal to “science.”
Even when new findings are made public, opportunistic misinterpretations of the findings, and even outright misinformation, abound. ‘”Scientific illiteracy” forms a structural pillar of capitalist social organization, much more wide-spread and pernicious than simple, outright science denial. Many well-educated people rely on selectively curated misunderstanding, misrepresentation, or denial just to keep doing their jobs. To take just one example, politicians like Lori Lightfoot have repeatedly appealed to studies showing the psychological harms of school closures on children to justify keeping in-person schools open at any cost. The point is not that the science they cite is any less real or reliable than the data showing the spread of Omicron, but that politicians have already settled on a desired policy outcome, and they choose which “science” to rely on accordingly. The unacknowledged political imperative, prior to and overriding any scientific considerations, is that the economy must remain open. It is therefore convenient for capitalists and bourgeois politicians to frame the issue as an unavoidable trade-off between two bad options, foreclosing any consideration of alternative solutions that are equally “scientifically” viable but less in line with the interests of capital.
Acknowledging the inherently political character of science is the first step towards challenging the misuse of scientific authority. When politicians tell us to “Trust the Science!”, they perform a rhetorical sleight-of-hand that dresses a narrow set of class interests in the garb of scientific objectivity. “Trust science” should not mean trusting in the benevolence of the ruling class or its governments. In this era of crises, “taking science seriously” necessitates rescuing it from the imperatives of capital. We saw early in the pandemic that researchers, scientists, and workers are able and willing to direct research and production towards the needs of people, rather than their bosses’ profits. We can daily see the fundamentally collaborative and humanist impulse of actual scientists being stifled by the interests of profit, and we can measure its cost in lives, including every life lost because “progressive” politicians like Biden refuse to waive patent protections for the “miracle” mRNA Covid vaccines. And this is only a preview of what’s to come: the challenges of mitigating and adapting to climate change are even more impossible for profit-driven science to address. This is why socialists must take up the mantle of science. We have to contest the ideological grounds on which “following the science” is said to lead to particular policy outcomes, and expose the conflicting interests at work. Most importantly, we urgently need control over the powers and potential of science to be taken away from the bourgeoisie, and placed in the hands of researchers and scientists themselves.