The Politics of Science


No one can doubt that the production and consumption of scientific knowledge are major enterprises in the operation of the modern state and in civil society. Societies too impoverished to create their own science and technology use and feel the impact of those activities in their economic and political interactions with others, even if it is only to employ those technologies as weapons against their own creators. The penetration of science into political and civil society, however, poses a special problem for the operation of the democratic state. On the one hand the behavior of the state is supposed to reflect the popular will, as determined either by a direct appeal to the opinion of the people or through the intermediary of their elected representatives. On the other hand, the esoteric knowledge and understanding required to make rational decisions in which science and technology are critical factors lie in the possession of a small expert elite. Even within the ranks of “scientists” only a tiny subset have the necessary expertise to make an informed decision about a particular issue. Whatever their view of my ideological biases, no one can deny my understanding of the scientific questions involved in the genetic engineering of crops, but I am incompetent to decide whether Edward Teller or his opponents among physicists were right about the possibilities of building an X-ray laser that was to be the center of the Star Wars missile defense.

The eighteenth-century theoreticians of representative democracy understood that an educated electorate was an underlying assumption of the well-functioning democratic state, but they could have had no conception of what such an education would entail two centuries later. How is the democratic state to function if the mass of the citizens is dependent on the expert knowledge available only to a tiny elite, an elite that in its formation and direct economic interest comes to represent only a narrow sector of society? Why would the Salvadoran immigrant woman who cleans my office believe that she and the Alexander Agassiz Research Professor at Harvard have sufficient commonality of interest and world view that she ought to trust my opinion on whether her meager hourly wage should be taxed to support the Human Genome Project?

There are two interrelated issues in the confrontation between expert knowledge and social and political action. First, how are we to go about acquiring socially relevant knowledge? While there remain a few vestiges of the belief that knowledge of some aspects of material nature can come from divine revelation, these do not generally impinge on the interactions between the believers and the physical world. Apparently even the most devoted adherent of fundamentalist faith agrees that one must go to flight school to learn how to operate an airplane. Since the activities of research and development that produce scientific knowledge and its technological applications require the expenditure of a good deal of time and money, hard decisions have to be made. Should $4 billion be spent from federal funds on the Superconducting Super Collider, an atom smasher whose scientific purpose was to acquire a fundamental understanding of the structure of matter? Or should $3 billion be spent on the Human Genome Project in the hope of learning what it is to be human, not to mention curing an unspecified list of diseases?

Who should decide? Congress? Scientists? Congress in consultation with scientists? Which scientists? Second, once knowledge is acquired as a consequence of the first set of social decisions, how are we to introduce that knowledge into the process of making further social decisions? How can legislators, judges, juries, school boards use knowledge of which they can have only an imperfect, if not distorted, understanding to make decisions? Of course, they must ask the experts.

For both questions, what knowledge is worth acquiring and how we are to apply the knowledge when we have it, there is a tension between the ideal of democratic decision, the power of which is vested in the “people” and their representatives, and the demand for expert knowledge, the power over which is vested in a small elite. Just as democratic institutions intervene twice, once to decide what is to be studied and then to decide what is to be done with the study, so the elite possess a double power, first to assert their exclusive competence to acquire knowledge and then to use the authority of that same knowledge to influence social action.

In the Gorgias, Socrates takes it as unquestioned that, rather than listen to political rhetoric,

When the city holds a meeting to appoint doctors or shipbuilders… in each appointment we have to elect the most skillful person. Again, in building walls or constructing harbors or arsenals our only advisers are the master-builders.1

Unfortunately, we are not told what to do when doctors disagree or when we have to choose between an arsenal and a wall. Nor does Socrates consider the possibility that experts have their own agendas that conflict in particular instances with the aims of the democratic polity and that they have a unique power, the exclusive possession of craft knowledge, to further their ends.

What Plato left unconsidered is the subject of Philip Kitcher’s Science, Truth and Democracy and Daniel Greenberg’s Science, Money, and Politics. For someone not previously acquainted with their work, it would not be hard to guess from the book titles which of them is the philosopher and which the science journalist. Kitcher, in what seems to me a self-consciously Socratic dialogue with himself, builds an ideal image of how the political institutions of the democratic state and the elite institutions of science ought to confront each other in a cooperative process that satisfies the demands of both. He does not pretend that it really works that way but, rather, offers a model against which actual practice is to be measured. Greenberg, on the other hand, does not require of us the careful construction of an ideal, but assuming, quite correctly, that we all know corruption and self-interest when we see them in their most egregious manifestations, tells it like it is. He shares with Kitcher a notion of what science is, but believes that democracy becomes politics and truth becomes money.

The center of Kitcher’s structure, around which the rest of the book revolves, is Chapter 10, “Well-Ordered Science.” In it, he describes an ideal of science in a democratic society that he agrees we will never reach but that he believes can serve us as a model toward which we ought to strive. Critical to the construction of that model is the notion of a group of deliberators who come to have “tutored preferences.” These deliberators, whom he likens to a family (presumably not a dysfunctional one), share an overriding desire for the common good despite certain particular self-interests. They begin their deliberations in partial ignorance of the needs, desires, and values of the other deliberators and of critical facts of nature. As they deliberate they acquire knowledge of the preferences of others and of the material world, and so change their own preferences until a consensus is reached. The model of the operation of well-ordered science then consists of three elements.

First, the agenda of science, the assignment of resources in short supply, is set by a deliberative process engaged in by parties who are technically knowledgeable and are “representative of the distribution of viewpoints in the society,” but who have arrived at tutored preferences. This is a model that shares little with the deliberations of the United States Senate and is much closer to my town meeting in Vermont, but even that romantic ideal of participatory and neighborly democracy is afflicted, alas, with examples of such ignorance and unenlightened self-interest that they fail to be persuaded by my informed rhetoric. It may even be that my very claim to elite knowledge stands in the way. When I was first learning to drive our fire engine I came too close to a tree and did some superficial but expensive damage to the body work. My instructor, who drove trucks for a living, said, “Dick, you’ll never learn to drive a truck.” I replied, “Come on, Donny, do you think I was born with some mental defect?” His response was, “There’s some people as can teach school and there’s some people as can drive trucks.” I got the message and we reached an unspoken social contract.

Second, the strategies of actual investigation are chosen to make the most efficient use of available resources, subject to the constraint that they meet the ethical and moral demands set by our ideal deliberators. Kitcher does not provide us with an example. The Tuskegee syphilis study, which was done cheaply on volunteers who were deceived into believing that they were receiving adequate medical care whereas, in fact, the research team was watching them die, is an extreme counterexample. Third, the applications of the outcomes of research must be those that the ideal deliberators envisioned when they agreed in the first place on what research was to be done. That is, the knowledge generated by science must be used in a socially agreed-upon agenda of social action.

To make this, or indeed almost any, model of how a society of divergent interests and knowledge can converge on a course of rational action, Kitcher must first dispose of a metaphysical problem, namely whether there is anything to know in the first place. If we believe, like Protagoras and the most radical of the modern social constructionists, that “man is the measure of all things,” that everyone has an individual but valid truth about nature, then no elite claim of knowledge can be made and the contradiction between knowing the truth about nature and the demands of democratic decision-making disappears. Since, as we know from polls, the majority of Americans do not believe in evolution, the very least that could be demanded in a democratic society is that evolution and intelligent design should both be taught in the schools.

Kitcher finds no difficulty in rejecting the extreme subjectivism of this belief, but he is not so naive as to suppose that claims about nature are uncontaminated by social understandings and history. It is a feature of the material world that the forms of life on earth have been changing, diversifying, and becoming extinct continually over the last two billion years, and will continue to do so long after the human species has disappeared. We should not be surprised, however, that the theory of natural selection of forms that are more fit to survive a constant struggle for resources in short supply arose in the culture of exuberant nineteenth- century capitalism, rather than in the Île-de-France five hundred years earlier. Kitcher arrives at a “modest realism” that recognizes both the independent status of material relations in the world outside human consciousness and the cultural and historical contingency of the significance of those relations for human action and of the way in which we describe the material world. The chemical structure of DNA and its involvement in the manufacture of proteins by the cell are undoubted material facts of nature. But the description of DNA as an all-powerful molecule that has the ability to replicate itself and to create us body and mind is not a description of material nature, but an ideological gloss on the facts. The significance of that description is that it leads us to look to changes in DNA for the cures to individual and social ills. It is the ever-changing significances of material facts that are relevant to the political problem.

Scientists make two kinds of arguments for the significance of their activities. These are the basis for their claim on a share of the available public and private resources to pursue their activities, and they also are meant to justify their expectation that they will be consulted when public policy is formed. One argument is on the basis of epistemic significance: that is, a thing is worth knowing because it will help us explain or understand something else. “But why,” asks the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, “is that something else worth knowing?” “Because,” testifies the Nobel laureate, “it will help us understand yet something else and that will help us to understand….” But such an argument has limited power in the political process because it gives the natural scientist no greater claim on public resources than the philosopher or cultural anthropologist who must subsist on the meager resources of the National Council on the Humanities. It is this dogged insistence on epistemic significance—as opposed to possible practical benefits in, say, the generation of electric power—that led to the demise of the Superconducting Super Collider.

At the very least the network of epistemic significances (what Kitcher calls the “significance graph”) must connect someplace with the price of bread. When the three-dimensional structure of DNA was first described by Watson and Crick in 1953 it was immediately apparent that it explained the two salient properties of genes, that is, that large numbers of identical copies of a given gene could be produced in the formation of sperm and eggs, and that an individual’s entire set of genes could have a sufficient variety to account for an organism’s diverse heritable characters. The structure of DNA then had immense epistemic significance and on that basis alone justified the expenditure of considerable public funds on molecular biology. But that justification ran out and the billions spent on both the public and private versions of the Human Genome Project were not really justified by the rhetoric of “knowing what it is to be human,” but by the promise of protection against those natural shocks that our flesh is heir to. In Kitcher’s model of Well-Ordered Science the tutored preferences of his ideal deliberators would change as the significance graph of the science evolved. In 1953, molecular biologists would have had only epistemic arguments, in addition of course to the hackneyed claim that “one never knows the value of an unborn baby” (or of its future destructive evils). The deliberators of 2003 would need to consider the cost of Medicare.


The last section of Science, Truth and Democracy contemplates the ideal of Well-Ordered Science reflected in the distorting mirror of the real world. There are some problems. How are we to assemble those deliberators who are a fair representation of the various interests? In a report of the Institute of Medicine of 1998, meant to improve the input of public guidance into NIH funding, it was suggested that public advisory groups “should be selected to represent a broad range of public constituencies.”2 “Who could disagree?” Kitcher observes with some hauteur, but the philosopher offers us nothing more concrete. And even if such a representation could be found, is it realistic to think that living, breathing deliberators will submerge their own special interests and most deeply held ideological presuppositions to produce a consensus that is not vacuous? Who is to tutor the public in the needed elite knowledge? After all, scientists have a vested interest, including the academic scientist whose status, salary, and research funds depend ultimately either on the availability of public funding or on an engagement with private capital.3

Moreover, scientists disagree about the content of science and on the significance of various directions of research and development. The public cannot possibly have a deep understanding, reached independently, of scientific questions, so the different rhetorical powers of their tutors become critical. These and other similar questions are raised by Kitcher but, not unexpectedly, there are no answers. He returns in the end to the model of Well-Ordered Science as an ideal against which we can measure the degree of our approach to perfection. But there is a structural problem here.

When I sit on the benches of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua and contemplate Giotto’s depiction of the Seven Virtues and Seven Vices, I can ask myself to what extent my life exemplifies the model given by the Doctors of the Church. The fourteen ethical items that I use to calculate my ethical quotient can be judged independently. That in fits of Gluttony I gorge myself on sweets in no way detracts from the Justice and Charity I display in writing recommendations for my students. The Vices and Virtues are a simple list of elements with no structure. The proper intertwining of elite knowledge and democratic practice, however, is a structure that fails at its weakest link. Well-Ordered Science is a like a well-ordered watch. No matter how great the will to a consensus, if those who make decisions have acquired an ideologically distorted or economically self-serving view of nature, the result may be catastrophic.

If the deliberators do not free themselves of their narrow self-interest, or cannot reach a consensus on the public good, then no degree of sophisticated understanding of nature will serve. There already exists a working model of deliberators with tutored preferences in science. It is the peer review system by which money for science is dispensed. Congress funds the NIH and the NSF; but the decision about which research is to receive the appropriated money is made by rotating panels of working scientists who review proposals sent in by other scientists, and who make what are, in practice, the final decisions on which research is to be funded. They do so after much discussion, compromise, and consensus on what is in the best interest of their science. The problem is that this is a peer review process in which the deliberators are the expert representatives of the science community, not of the society as a whole. Molecular biologists will undoubtedly benefit immensely in their professional lives from billions poured into expert human genome studies. But the proportion of all the ill health and death in the United States that stems from simple genetic disorders that are potentially curable by a “genetic fix” (of which we do not yet have a single successful example) is very small, as compared with what can be done by less damaging workplaces, less pollution, and better nutrition. Magna Carta was all very well for the barons, but it didn’t do much for the peasantry.

Science, Truth and Democracy ought to be read together with Daniel Greenberg’s Science, Money, and Politics for a comparison of the philosophical ideal with an important aspect of the real. Greenberg’s new book, in turn, must be read together with his thirty-five-year-old The Politics of Pure Science4 because together they provide a history of the modern American relation between political and scientific institutions that cannot be understood from the present work alone. Indeed the new book has an ahistorical air, because nothing much seems to have changed since 1953, when Greenberg begins his present analysis, except for a relentless increase in the budget for R&D.

The state of American science and its relation to the American state are a product of war. The first official recognition of science as an institution was the creation of the National Academy of Sciences by Lincoln to provide technological advice during the Civil War. In World War I President Wilson, finding that an honorary academy of ancients was ill-suited for providing the technical advice that modern war required, added a new operating arm to the NAS, the National Research Council, which could draw on the up-to-the-minute knowledge of the active core of American science. But the peacetime support of scientific research by the state was essentially nil, with the exception of a large federal and state commitment to agriculture. Then, between 1940 and 1945, there were radar and atomic fission, but even these wonders did not prevent a major decrease in state expenditure on science soon after the Japanese surrendered. In 1946 Truman was unable to convince a skeptical Congress to create what was eventually established as the National Science Foundation. The Korean War, and, most important, the cold war changed all that.5 Since 1948, federal expenditures on R&D have been continually increasing from an immediate postwar low. In the absence of wars against political enemies, metaphorical wars are declared—the war on cancer, the war on drugs. In the name of fighting these wars the federal budget for academic research and development grew, in constant dollars, from $730 million in 1953 to $14 billion in 1998, over half of which went to the National Institutes of Health.

Against this background of the commitment of resources, Greenberg describes a national politics of science that is, on the one hand, just what one might expect, but on the other hand baffling. Predictably, the transfer of so much money from the public purse to private hands and civil institutions has led to the growth of a corps of politicians of science. They make up the administrative cadres of federal agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, or are recruited from the academy and industry to play temporary but repeated roles as ad hoc report writers and advisers to government agencies, or are representatives of large scientific membership organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science or of elite quasi- governmental agencies like the National Academy of Sciences.

At the apex there is the President’s Science Advisory Committee, abolished by Nixon, but reinstated by his successor. As Greenberg shows, a major activity of this corps has been to warn repeatedly of the catastrophic consequences to our economic and bodily welfare of a cut in science funding that never, in fact, showed any signs of taking place. But, of course, this is not the crass lobbying of an interest group ignoring the public welfare. A commission appointed by the National Science Board of the NSF concluded that

In accepting society’s support, the scientific community naturally assumes an obligation to be…responsive to national needs. Concern…sometimes conjures up a choice that budgeting is decided on the criteria to please scientists or to serve the public. In reality these criteria and interests are convergent.

So Kitcher could have saved himself a lot of trouble. We are already in a state of well-ordered science.

What is baffling in the intersection between science and politics is that, with the exception of Nixon, no administration has been honest in admitting its disdain for the opinion of the scientific community and its politically appointed representatives on matters of public policy. Congress will continue to fund the NIH because everyone gets sick, suffers, and eventually dies. It is a foolish member of Congress who votes against health. But whether or not an administration decides to push an antiballistic missile program, or cut emission standards, or bury radioactive wastes in a salt mine has seldom, if ever, depended on the analysis of its appointed scientific advisers.

The documentation of the impotence of scientists in their attempts to influence public policy is the feature of Greenberg’s tale that is not often told. It illustrates too how the amour propre of senior scientists seduces them into accepting empty offices. One after another, senior scientists have accepted appointment to the Presidential Science Advisory Commission, despite the widespread knowledge of their impotence to sway decisions in the face of the powerful demands of politics. They “understood that when summoned into the service at the highest levels of government, where politics and administration are intertwined, they must serve the cause of politics—rather than what they perceive to be the higher truths and values of science.”

Of course, their culture encourages it. Greenberg wittily observes that “as a medal-giving enterprise, science is perhaps exceeded only by nursery school graduations and the military services.” His hope is not for a well-ordered science but for a more disorderly one, in which scientists in large numbers will, even at the risk of their funding and status, engage in real political struggle. But why should they risk it?

A possibility not considered by analy- ses like Kitcher’s or Greenberg’s is that the product of science could actually change the very nature of the political process. That has been left to the science fiction of Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984, now joined by Francis Fukuyama’s Our Posthuman Future. Fukuyama was made famous by his previous announcement that the triumph of liberal democratic capitalism, being the inevitable consequence of human nature, was the End of History, but he soon discovered that this was a serious career mistake. After all, having declared the end of history, what is left to write?

Fukuyama has now solved that problem by arguing that history can indeed continue if human nature can be changed by the scientific manipulation of the human central nervous system. To cash out such a claim he argues that there is indeed a basic “human nature” that constrains human institutions and that the properties of that nature result from neural pathways in the brain largely determined by genes, but alterable in gross ways by manipulating the chemical state of the body. We now know how to alter genes, and can selectively breed and even clone particular genetic types, and we already know how to alter human behavior by mood- and mind-altering drugs so that, in Fukuyama’s view, the stage is set for producing post-human history by producing post-human nature. There are several large difficulties with this story.

First, what is human nature? Fukuyama is not so foolish as to claim that all humans are alike. His picture is one of constrained individual variation around a modal tendency that describes most people, but not all. But is that mode and its variation the same at all times and in all places? We are fortunate indeed that the thuggish mode for tenth-century Iceland as described in Egil’s Saga does not apply to the run of our present daily lives. Second, given a mode and its variation, what is lacking is any understanding of the effect of that variation on human history. If anything could be thought to characterize human nature it is the famous “instinct for self-preservation.” Yet the existence of a surprisingly large minority willing to blow themselves up or to present themselves to be beaten bloody by the police in the interests of changing history, and their success in doing so, makes a theory of history based on modal human nature rather dicey.

Third, Fukuyama, in pursuit of his vision of a world ruled by cloned genetic aristocrats, continues to perpetuate a vulgar misunderstanding of the meaning of the heritability of a trait. He makes a great deal of reported high heritability (up to 75 percent) of IQ scores and spends a lot of time reviewing the ancient literature on the issue of heritability. But, in an illustration of the great difficulty posed by the vulgar misunderstanding of expert knowledge, he misses the point. The heritability of IQ is irrelevant to the question of how easily it can be changed by social and environmental arrangements. Heritability is not a measure of the determinative power of genes. It measures the proportion of variation of a trait that is a consequence of genetic variation in a particular population in a particular distribution of environments; but it makes no prediction about how much new environments might alter the trait. There is, moreover, an illogic in the fascination with genes. Suppose genes really were so powerful in determining social power. Then surely the European aristocracy of previous eras must have had genetic superiority on the average to their social inferiors, a superiority built up and consolidated by their selective interbreeding within their own ranks and the natural selection for superior genes that would result from the murderous struggles for succession. We are not told how adding some cloning would have saved them from being extinguished on the Place de la Concorde and in the cellars of Ekaterinburg by the unwashed masses and their bourgeois leaders.

Finally, although Fukuyama provides a quite good summary of the current state of neuropharmacology, the claim that we will change history by drugging people seems oddly nonhistorical for a teacher of Advanced International Studies. British and American power in nineteenth-century China was greatly promoted by the opium trade through which vast numbers of Chinese were drugged and addicted. But it cannot have escaped Fukuyama’s notice that the Shanghai Bund and Hong Kong are now under Chinese control.

The remaking of human history by the technological manipulation of the human nervous system belongs to the literature of science fiction, the Gedanken experiments of social science that may illuminate history but not change it. When it comes to having the power to make history Fukuyama can have the neuropharmacology laboratories. I’ll take the madrasas.

  1. 1

    Plato, Lysis, Symposium, Gorgias, translated by W.R.H. Lamb (Loeb Classical Library, 1925), pp. 287–288. 

  2. 2

    Scientific Opportunities and Public Needs (National Institutes of Health, 1998), p. 52.  

  3. 3

    Neither Kitcher nor Greenberg have much to say about the effect that the involvement of academic scientists with profit-making enterprises has on their advice to the public and the state. For an illuminating exploration of this question in the context of health-threatening pollution see the forthcoming book Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution by Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner (University of California Press, 2002). 

  4. 4

    New American Library, 1967. 

  5. 5

    For an analysis of the effect on universities of cold war expenditures on science, see Richard Lewontin, “The Cold War and the Transformation of the Academy,” in The Cold War and the University, edited by Andre Schiffrin (New Press, 1997).