Contributing vs. Interfering in Science: What’s the Diff?

Leave science to the scientists, AMIRITE? If medicine is a place where medical doctors do medicine, art is a place where artists do art, and music is a place where musicians make music, then science should be a place where scientists do science. It seems clear enough. Indeed, a major goal of the recent Science March on Washington was to protest political interference in science. And there is a long history of political interference in science that would be astonishingly egregious if we didn’t currently inhabit a political world that is continually redefining astonishingly egregious. For example, politicians have called for the revocation of scientifically-reviewed grants or cast doubt on solid scientific consensus; agency officials have advised scientists to remove certain words from research proposals (hello reproductive tract! goodbye vagina!); AIDS activists pushed scientists to stop neglecting HIV/AIDS; nonprofits provide money specifically for common diseases in the global south that otherwise go unstudied, etc.

Editor’s note: These people could be singing the harmony of science together regardless of whether they have a lab coat or not. I also want to point out that I recognize they also could be zombies approaching en masse. Win-win, really.

Oh. Wait. Those last two aren’t exactly egregious, much less astonishingly so. They’re kind of great, actually, right? They show how “outsiders” have sometimes been crucial to changing science for the better, illuminating scientific malfeasance, and highlighting how science-as-usual can support problematic status quo’s (quos? quose? quoes?) (this was not tested on my Ph.D. quiz). Science for the Scientists! ends up being rather simplistic as a result, both empirically inaccurate and naive. Instead of restricting contributions to science to scientists and keeping out the brute hoards, which is an issue of who is allowed to be involved (plus an issue of me using hordes, which I feel mixed about), we could think about when or under what circumstances nonscientists/experts can be meaningfully involved, and how to adjudicate that.

How to decide when someone’s involvement in science (or other scholarship) is a contribution and not an interference? It seems hard but, luckily, scholars and experts have thought about when outsiders’ contributions should be seen as contributions, not interference. What have these experts said? One article I like to teach in my Sexuality and Science course is by Steven Epstein:The New Attack on Sexuality Research: Morality and the Politics of Knowledge Production” (click here for the article). It gives some ideas about how to judge when non-scientists should get a say in science, and these can be extended to other disciplines or areas of expertise too. Based on Epstein’s piece and much else I’ve read in feminist science studies, I decided we needed a list in bullet form because lists!

It’s a contribution, not an interference, when…

  1. People are educating themselves and learning the science they are critiquing and/or seeking to intervene in;
  2. People’s involvement will lead to more effective, efficacious, accountable, and/or better science;
  3. People provide engagements and/or critiques that are knowledgeable and relevant;
  4. People provide careful assessments;
  5. People have sincere concerns regarding scientific validity, reliability, and/or efficacy;
  6. People have local knowledge and/or lay expertise that is unique and/or valuable (this is also known as epistemic privilege and so now you know a fancy word. Was I right about lists needing an exclamation mark or what?!);
  7. People who are invested in process (by which I mean ongoing engagements and not a one-time soapbox shout-off) (which is not to knock one-time soapbox shout-offs in general because I would never offend soap);
  8. People do not misrepresent the science;
  9. The involvement is not based on opportunistic endorsement of predetermined political stances (note: this is NOT anti-political stance! It IS anti-political opportunism).

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