Let’s begin with a story. Here in Colombia, my English lessons sometimes fall flat because of unexpected cultural differences — such as a recent class in which I used an article about media-representation issues in North America as our base-text, only to realize that my students didn’t give a hoot about seeing more Colombian representation in films and TV. (They in fact felt rather cosmopolitan from having grown up with exposure to foreign fare.)
Now, these moments are a huge part of why I moved to Colombia — the constant reframing, that is, of social-contract issues taken for granted in North America / the Western paradigm — so I enjoy the heck out of them.
But one recent reframing issue has given me tremendous pause.
One topic that my (tech-career!) students consistently show little knowledge of is… outer space. Despite planetariums being a fixture in Medellín and Bogotá, and despite the high altitude making astronomy / stargazing an easy activity even in some of the poorest barrios, most of my highly technical students could not tell you, say, which planets come out at dawn and dusk, or that Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system. Most have no idea about moon missions or the International Space Station, or anything to do with Voyagers I & II and other intelligence-gathering missions in the solar system. The recent news about phosphine on Venus? Not a single techie in my classes was intrigued.
Then again… why would they be? Just because they’re part of Colombia’s STEM contingent? Some of my students even express confusion when we come across concepts like “electives” in the course of our readings about North American education, because here in Colombia many of them had strictly polytechnic post-secondary training even at the universities. Education costs money, after all, and few can afford to waste said money on fripperies, like… lateral thinking, the sheer pleasure of knowledge, and abstracted histories of culture and ethical consequence.
But this isn’t an essay about the Colombian education system. It’s about our own, in North America, and the surrounding entertainment community that historically supported a pro-science agenda for reasons strongly related to instilling a sense of civic duty and unity during the Cold War and space race. We’ve actively trained up our citizens, that is, to be aware of, and proud of, our ongoing quest to understand/dominate other worlds.
And so, as we humanists look upon current challenges for scientific literacy, we need to remember this legacy — not as an investment in “pure” science, but expressly as a form of propaganda. Because it is propaganda. Pro-science literature and education is not neutrally advanced by any state or culture, and we need to be upfront about that reality, if we’re to have any chance of successfully confronting today’s spate of scientific illiteracy in turn.
The Cost of Western-Scientific Triumphalism
Obviously, one of the biggest issues with our outsized pride over Westernized science and its outcomes is that it leads us to rationalize away past injustices as necessary/inevitable means to an end.
For instance, gynecology is often great for people who have uteruses! But some of its leading medical researchers in the 1800s tortured slaves, and its insights are still being weaponized against vulnerable demographics — including in China against Uighurs, and in the US, according to a recent whistleblower statement about ICE practices. (Folks tend to forget, but U.S. eugenics programs preceded the Nazis.)
Likewise, vaccines are critical! But U.S. government medical researchers infected Guatemalans with syphilis and gonorrhea without their knowledge or consent in the 1940s, and only apologized in 2010. In Pakistan, too, the fight against polio was massively set back by local conspiracy theories fortified by news that the CIA had used a hep-B vaccine program for espionage.
And even our grand technological advances — in North America and China alike — come at the cost of others’ livelihoods and futures, especially in relation to the mining of rare-earth metals to prop up our everyday technological devices. When we say “research,” “discovery,” and “new tech,” what the Global South often hears is “indentured servitude,” “child labour,” and “poisoning the local wells.”
Similarly, North Americans often reveal ourselves to be less interested in the scientific knowledge itself, and more in our ability to claim said knowledge in a self-serving manner, as proof of one culture’s or individual’s dominance over all others. For instance, the supposed discovery of penicillin by Sir Alexander Fleming (who won a Nobel Prize for this) was not only reported decades prior by the French physician Ernest Duschene, in his doctoral thesis… but even Duschene was only quantifying the centuries-old knowledge of the Bedouins, after observing Arab stableboys use saddle mold to heal sores.
Suffice it to say: Where science is treated as an individualist enterprise — a way of elevating certain figures as geniuses above all others — we cannot even begin to claim that it is a “pure” or “objective” pursuit.
Yet still we wax on about the wonders of scientific progress with few reservations. And still the atheists among us roughly dismiss any reluctance about new technology and discoveries as the atavistic keening of religious yokels alone.
In Other Words, Our Chauvinism Undermines Us
As humanists, we need to do better: By owning up to the dangers of science even as we extol its virtues. By making more overt the fact that scientists are also human beings informed by their contexts, whose choices of what to study and what questions to ask are every bit as shaped by cultural bias as anyone else’s.
Oh, and we need to stop fearing the charge of “propaganda,” too.
Because you’re darned skippy that being pro-science is political. Being pro-education, pro-discovery, and pro-invention is never neutral — indeed, it’s often terrible, as in the aforementioned cases! — and even if we can wrench ourselves from the exploitative ways that science has been advanced in decades and centuries past, a comprehensive study of modern empirical knowledge (from the behavioural sciences, that is, along with physics, chemistry, biology, archaeology, and geology) will still strongly favour specific political positions over others.
(To avoid being coy about this last: Yes, modern empirical knowledge veers hard away from a great many conservative points of view about the world, much as many conservatives want to believe that the numbers justify their perpetuation of tribalist prejudices. Fiscal conservatives, for example, are rarely that — and you can tell the difference between a true fiscal conservative and just another knee-jerk moralizer the moment that they try to reduce prisons to retributive enterprise, because if they actually gave a hoot about reducing the recidivity/crime rate, improving socioeconomic outcomes, and reducing government spending… they’d be 100% for rehabilitative incarceration: the quantifiably proven means, that is, of improving individual and state outcomes after trespass, and of reducing state expenditure on maintaining law and order.)
Likewise, if people understood their scientific history better, they wouldn’t fall prey to conflating, say, “social Darwinism” and actual evolutionary theory.
NB: For the record, social Darwinism has a whole host of other, highly unscientific influences, including Lamarck, and should more accurately be titled “Social Wallacism” after Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-developer of evolutionary theory who later backed down from full evolutionary theory to suggest that humanity had to be an exception to the rule because he couldn’t imagine why else “primitive” peoples had the same brain size as Europeans. (Hitler had similar views about evolution as a vague baseline for other species, but humanity being different, and therefore requiring overt elimination pressures.)
Also, if they were better trained up in common data and social fallacies, they would be more resistant to many forms of political rhetoric predicated on innumeracy and a blurring of anecdote and meta-trendlines.
And if they were raised to understand that science is not a static enterprise — not some discrete body of infallible knowledge raised up like commandments on stone — but rather, an active system of thought, experimentation, refinement, and probability mapping that gives us best-guesses about the natural world? Then they would surely be less inclined to turn from science entirely when singular scientific assertions do not bear out in repeat testing.
So, how do we fix this?
Embracing the “Agenda” of Scientific Citizenship
There’s a lot to be done, of course, but I think the work ahead begins with reframing the problem. We often let people win arguments, after all, by taking the bait when they accuse us of having an agenda, or of spreading propaganda, such that the conversation devolves into fighting that claim instead of talking about the science itself.
Let’s stop being scared of those words, then:
Yes, humanism has an agenda. Yes, pro-science public policy is propagandist. And why shouldn’t it be? Humanism, after all, is centrally oriented around the idea that humans are the most critical agents of change in the cosmos. This is an activity that surpasses tedious theist/atheist divides. It instead says that your cosmology is less important than what you do with it, and how it enables you to think about taking action within the world.
Because if your cosmology says that humans are not worth fighting for or believing in, and that your only focus should be on your own betterment/salvation and that of your immediate community… then you’re advancing nihilism.
Meanwhile, the rest of us recognize that, in order to improve human agency — to maximize the capacity of all human beings to enact personal agency in the cosmos — we need to improve human outcomes around the world.
And to do that, we need to understand precisely what policies and cultural standards will best achieve these ends.
Which, in turn, is where having an informed populace, a thriving cultural discourse, and a widespread commitment to enhancing scientific citizenship, come into play. (Sing it to the hills, I say!)
We’re not there yet, of course — and worse yet, many folks are further behind the curve than they realize. In the atheist community, for instance, many who pride themselves on being empirical thinkers remain wilfully oblivious to the cultural blinders shaping their approach to scientific data and its conclusions. Many cannot stand even the slightest intimation that they might have personal biases, because they’re so enamoured with the idea of being seen as superior through said knowledge: of wielding scientific terminology, that is, as a means of asserting personal and cultural dominance over others. In the process, they do our collective struggle no favours.
Let’s be fearless in our self-interrogations, then.
Let’s publicly recognize the ideologies and educations that shaped our approaches to knowledge-attainment in the first place — and be open to re-forming them, as new intel comes our way.
Let’s do better in speaking about science in general, too, as an ongoing process advanced by human beings in specific cultural contexts, with specific preoccupations shaped by state policies and cultural ideologies.
But above all else?
Let’s not flinch at the charge of making science “political.”
“Political” comes, after all, from the Greek politikos: of citizens and public life.
Of people, that is, and their interactions within communal spaces.
Where in blazes else should a humanist’s attention lie?