Science in the service of bad politics
Shortly after the University of Johannesburg resuscitated an apartheid-era agreement with Ben Gurion University of Israel (BGU) in late 2009, colleagues at UJ who disagreed with this development sought an audience with an academic who was key to the envisioned joint water research project.
He responded by writing: "I am afraid I may not be helpful in this instance since I do not hold any particular view on the Israeli-Palestinian matter. My involvement is purely on a research basis as I am engaged in this project based on the expertise in water research at Ben Gurion University. So it is purely for academic reasons."
This snub, phrased cordially, is revealing of the mind-set of many natural and physical scientists and, incredibly, some social scientists too. It suggests a nurtured distancing of the social and political context, a privileging of technical expertise over social justice and a desire to separate the academy from societal engagement.
The neutrality of science
These academics are either naive or disingenuous because they do not understand the profundity of social and political choices that inform their work and, often, the catastrophic consequences arising from it. This was the recognition that prompted Einstein to declare that the one great mistake in his life was to suggest to Franklin Roosevelt that the atomic bomb could be made. He had no idea about its devastating effects.
Nearly all the great Western natural philosophers -- those who spoke about the value of scientific endeavour, including Descartes, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Bronowski and Einstein -- had no illusions about the role of science since they claimed social (or spiritual) purposes for it and pursued their work on that basis. The fragmenting of scientific endeavour and its ostensible removal from sociocultural and political life today has obscured what was once the norm.
In addition, individual scientists, even if they are not aware of it, come to science with perspectives informed by their social settings, history, prejudices and the choices ingrained and developed in them by socialisation. The funding of science also illustrates the important role of political choice in scientific work.
Professor Steven Rose, world-renowned neurobiologist at the Open University in the United Kingdom, was a cofounder of the Society for Social Responsibility in Science in the period when biological and chemical weapons were used in Indo-China. He has written extensively about bad science in the service of bad politics. He also wrote: "You can't solve unemployment with gene therapy or targeted drugs. The causes of misery are not predominantly biological."
The full article can be read here: http://mg.co.za/article/2011-04-29-science-in-the-service-of-bad-politics/