nicholas_a_christakis's picture
Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science, Yale University; Co-author, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives
The Unavoidable Intrusion Of Sociopolitical Forces Into Science

I am not really worried about the bad things that science might do to society; I'm happy to put aside fears about nuclear power, genetically modified foods, or even the publication of viral genetic sequences. Instead, I am much more worried about the bad things that society might do to science, and I think we should all be.

Lately, I've been seeing what seem like a lot of alarming and non-beneficial interventions by government in science—from laws prohibiting the CDC from analyzing the epidemiology of gun violence, to laws requiring the teaching of 'intelligent design' to our children, to laws governing stem cell science, to laws affecting climate science. Politicians and pundits take to the Internet and television, like priests of old, to scornfully denounce science in ways that sound almost Medieval to my ears.

Of course, ever since the Inquisition summoned Galileo, social, political, and religious considerations have affected the conduct of science. Actually, ever since Archimedes was paid to design weapons of war, social considerations have had this effect. Indeed, we could trace such effects as far back as we have records. It has always been the case that social forces have shaped scientific inquiry—what we study, how we study, why we study, who gets to study.

Nevertheless, though science has always been "socially constructed," this fact has only been explicitly characterized in the last few decades. We can now understand how scientists of centuries past could hold views (and even make "objective" observations) that were not only clearly wrong, but also clearly driven by ideology or culture. Views ranging from the phrenological causes of crime to the medical diagnosis of escaped slaves as suffering from the "disease" of "drapetomania" have all been given a scientific gloss.

But we should be really worried about this age-old and unavoidable intrusion of sociopolitical forces at the present historical moment because our health, security, and wealth depend so much on progress in science, and in ways that are not appreciated widely enough, in my judgment. How we shape science affects our collective well being.

The deep origins of economic growth are not entirely clear. One possibility is that the ultimate root of economic growth is something very fundamental within us; I remember once chatting with Nobel-winning economist Daniel McFadden about this topic, and he laconically observed—as an initial stab at an explanation—simply that "People like to shop." Another possibility is that the straightforward, inexorable rise in population size is the key driver of economic growth. When there are more people, there is more demand, more supply, and a bigger economy. A related and more intriguing idea is that, though population size might rise linearly, the complexity of social interactions (e.g., the number of possible social ties in a population) rises super-linearly with population size, and this complexity itself may be at the root of innovation and creativity, which in turn could drive economic growth. Finally, another stream of thought holds that the key driver of economic growth is not the growth in people, but rather the endless and cumulative growth in knowledge. Science and invention make us richer, and the pace of scientific discovery has been objectively surging for the last 200 years, coincident with, or causally in advance of, economic growth.

Hence, we should pay attention when science (and, relatedly, science education) becomes a plaything of politicians, or when science comes to be seen like any other interest group (the same as farmers or bankers) rather than as something altogether different. We should be worried that political interference in, and even antipathy to, science harms us all.

I am not suggesting that scientists should be cut off from society, free from moral scruples or collective oversight. But I am saying that seeing science as arbitrary or threatening and seeing scientists as (merely) self-interested—and using these excuses to restrict scientific inquiry or to distort scientific findings—is dangerous. It's like seeing those who advocate for more, better-paid judges as being like any other venal lobbying group. The administration of justice and the conduct of science generate benefits for us all.

A discomfiting irony here is that increasing amounts of government support and societal oversight are actually required, in many ways, given changes in how science is done in the 21st century. Long gone are the days when lone scientists with modest resources (Newton, Darwin, Curie, Cavendish, Cox) could make major discoveries. Doing the best science increasingly requires large-scale resources and inter-disciplinary teams.

Combine a natural change in the type and complexity of problems scientists are tackling with the size of the inter-disciplinary groups needed to tackle them, and the amount of resources required, and we have no choice but to rely on broad social support and the public purse if we are to do our work. And so political considerations are unavoidable. I don't actually think we would want—nor could we even have—unfettered, unexamined, unchecked, or insular scientific inquiry.

So there is no way out of the conundrum. To those who would say that I want it both ways—that I want the public to support science, to be invested in it, and to revere it, but also to butt out—my answer is yes, I do. I want that very much, and we should all be very worried if politicians and the public are losing sight of the fact that scientific inquiry is a public good.