Ship of the Imagination from Fox's rebooted Cosmos with Neil Degrasse Tyson
Ship of the Imagination from Fox’s rebooted Cosmos with Neil Degrasse Tyson

While I was, and still remain, a Beakman’s World partisan, I have fond memories of watching Bill Nye The Science Guy throughout the 90s. It is unfortunate that the just-so-happy-to-be-doing-science character of my childhood has turned into another angry white dude occupying a rectangle on a cable news show. Undoubtable he has a lot to be upset about: not enough Americans agree that the future will be marked by resource scarcity and vastly altered climates and even fewer are convinced that the way we live our lives can’t be sustained. Understandably, many of us (and cable news producers especially) turn to Science Guys like Bill Nye or Neil Degrasse Tyson for answers to society’s most important questions: What is the future going to look like? How can we make it better? Why are so many of us not agreeing on what needs to be done? This impulse is dead wrong.

Why do we defer to scientists when it comes to questions about the future? More specifically, why do we think scientists are the best people to make sense of climate change, natural disasters, industrial disasters, or disease outbreaks? Why do we value their opinions and prescriptions at all? Science seems to be implicated in most of these problems, so why ask a bull to fix all the broken china in the tea shop? After all, it was scientists and engineers that figured out a way to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico and didn’t seem to have a good way to clean it up when their drill broke. It was scientists and engineers that invented the industrial processes that gave us polluting cars and factories. Without scientists, it doesn’t seem like we’d have these climate problems in the first place.

Anyone that regularly enjoys the Discovery Network, the Cosmos series (new and old), museums,  XKCD, PhD Comics, or any of the tumblr blogs that have some variation on the phrase “fuck yeah science” is probably ready to throttle me right now; to say nothing of the patrons of ThinkGeek, Edmund Scientifics, and SparkFun; or anyone holding an advanced degree in the natural sciences. It is unfair, you might be saying, to write off something as big and diverse as Science just because past scientists did their jobs to the best of their ability. Environmental catastrophes are the regrettable yet ultimately inevitable consequences of the kind of innovation that aims to make all 7 billion of us happy and healthy. The scientific method and the collection of knowledge it produces, you might say, isn’t inherently bad or destructive. We should blame or seek to reform/eliminate greed, capitalism, or some other thing that employs science to do its bidding.

I mostly agree with the above sentiment. In fact, I’ve even advocated not too long ago for a massive increase in federal spending for scientific investigation. Much of the problems we face locally and globally are the product of very complicated science and engineering practices and cannot be sustainably undone or corrected without some kind of advanced expertise. We stand little chance of abating or adapting to climate change without this practice we call science. At the same time, we must also recognize that science is more than the sum of its facts, or even the process by which it uncovers those facts. Science, as the previous paragraph should irrefutably demonstrate, is a social process and a culture.

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The culture of science can look like stale hotel conferences or slick primetime network TV shows. Its contours are shaped by bacteria plush dolls and science fiction novels. The culture of science is shot through with race, class, and gender politics in ways that are too numerous to go into here. For now, it suffices to say that like any culture, science can make people feel a sense of belonging as well as alienation. It can bring order to an otherwise chaotic reality, or it can come off as a profane interruption to an otherwise peaceful whole. Cultures can also be contested from within, have internal contradictions, and be made up of strict orthodox adherents and skeptical radicals.

Science loves to talk about skeptical radicals. One might even say that the orthodoxy of science is radical skepticism. Every time Bill Nye debates a young earth creationist or a Heritage Foundation economist he puts the audience in the uncomfortable and confusing position of seeing True Believers as skeptical radicals in an otherwise scientistic society. Nye’s own framing is what lets fundamentalist Christians and Reaganite economists make believable claims to embattlement and persecution. It is Bill Nye’s own condescending arrogance of the facts that can make Judeo-Christian worldviews or neoliberal economics seem like breaks from a well-worn orthodoxy. Worse yet, I have yet to hear a single person swayed in either direction after the debate is complete. This is because both Nye and his opponents’ are different sides of the same coin. Nye’s smugness forms the secular background of creationists’ romantic rebel story. Nye just sits there, impervious to other standpoints or interpretations and recites green house gas emissions.

Which is not to say that climate change isn’t happening, or that the underlying science isn’t rigorous and an accurate depiction of what is actually happening to our planet. The problem comes from the negotiating position. Science Guys ask us to question everything and everyone but them. Or, more precisely, they are but mere men (almost always men) delivering a message that they see as self-evident. For example consider the opening lines to Fox’s Cosmos reboot hosted by Neil Degrasse Tyson:

…imagination is not enough because the reality of nature is far more wondrous than we can imagine. This adventure is made possible by generations of searchers strictly adhering to a simple set of rules: Test ideas by experiment and observation. Build on those ideas that pass the test. Reject the ones that fail. Follow the evidence wherever it leads and question everything. Accept these terms and the cosmos is yours. Now come with me.

Tyson then flies away in a gleaming, vaguely penis-shaped spaceship.

We must never forget that the “reality of nature” that Tyson claims is “more wondrous” than our own imaginations is in fact science’s account of nature. It is a depiction, arrived at through a social process and inscribed onto a green screen and lovingly produced by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane; a man who uses paternal authority as his primary medium. In the MacFarlaneverse Dad is always right, whether he’s talking about the Big Bang or who farted.

The authority is tantalizing yet almost invisible because we are lovingly invited to see the universe as the scientist sees it. We have a hard time questioning anything we are being told because we are seeing it with our own eyes as the scientist tells us it’s true. To reject what Tyson is telling you, is to reject your own perception of things. You accepted the terms, he granted you the eyes with which to see the cosmos, and you must continue to follow him or you will be left blind.

The process by which observable phenomena turn into scientific facts, which are then made into evocative and entertaining images, is obscured or ignored. We are only told to trust that this is the true depiction of events. That another interpretation must be from something other than the testing of ideas by experiment and observation. To assume, as Science Guys do, that anyone with the same set of facts would come to the same conclusion is naive, and yet that is precisely what they demand of us.

I am not saying that science is only as true as you believe it to be, or that anyone can do astrophysics without prior training. What I am saying though, is that the worth of scientific facts, and the particular way science determines what is worth paying attention to, should be continually explained and justified. Science is not as self evidently useful or true to every single person in every single instance. This isn’t because people are wilfully ignorant, backwards, or superstitious, but because science –for lack of a better term– comes with some baggage. Science is powerful and can also appear as a mysteriously alien force coming down from on high. It can often seem as though it arrived off of a (penis shaped) spaceship. And like any foreign invader, it might have a routine method of exploring the unknown but has no way of identifying salient characteristics to a problem the way a native can.

There is a huge body of literature on the subject of public understanding of, and engagement with science. Much of what I’ve already said is indebted to this body of literature and I’ve included a list of the major works at the end of this essay. Not only does this body of literature severely undercut Tyson’s whig history of how science has worked in the past (i.e., what happens when its unclear whether your test is broken or your idea doesn’t comport with nature?) it also gives a much more helpful depiction of how science and the public interact. Brian Wynne, one of the foremost voices in this field observes that many people experience “contradictory identities and beliefs,” when it comes to scientific accounts of the world around us. There are often competing ways of knowing or experiential knowledge that doesn’t comport with scientific accounts. To “side” with a scientist’s account of events can also “disrupt local relations” and cause further community strife.

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The denial of scientific observations in favor of “keeping the peace” or siding with your neighbors in a debate over the source of pollution or the cause of a disease outbreak might sound anti-intellectual, but the scientific community does this all the time. Wynne notes that when institutional science encounters a contradiction between what is scientifically true and economically viable, those institutions tend “to externalize them on to others through forms of routine denial.” In other words, science might not study something, or pursue a line of inquiry purely because it is too expensive or too complicated to fully enact. Why can’t individuals do the same?

Instead of asking Science Guys about abstract matters of concern [PDF] we should turn to those directly affected by the issues up for debate. Instead of arguing over an IPCC report, we should be discussing what can and should be done for those communities that are already profoundly affected by rising tide waters and recurrent drought. The South African farmer can just as easily mobilize the observations made by science while also telling us what needs to be remediated immediately and perhaps even how to adapt to the new normal in the future. The farmer experiencing her fourth straight year of drought is much more capable of talking about the action that is needed to water her crops, than a world-renown astrophysicist, a tv personality, or a combination of both. If she also notes that (thanks to a scientists’ research) it has been proven that the petroleum-heavy farming practices in the United States is directly related to her plight that’s a much more tangible and compelling argument than a bow-tied scientist saying “but I have the truth.”

This is not an argument to let the young earth creationist speak. It is, however, a demand that we make room for accounts of the world that are not fully sanctioned by or are the product of scientific authority. Or, at the very least, those who are so committed to popularizing the contents of science give equal attention to elucidating the process of scientific inquiry so that we may have a larger and more informed conversation about what scientists take into account. We can no longer afford to divide the world amongst Science Guys, capitalists, and religious fanatics. There are so many other ways to take account of the world: there are midwives, cattle ranchers, philosophers (more on that later in the week), urban farmers, and tribes of people that have spent thousands of years developing a culture tied to a very specific part of land. These are just as valid and viable ways of knowing that do not necessarily fit into the three categories that get the most screen time. They are also ways of knowing that belong to, and are accessible by, a much wider range of humans. If, as Carl Sagan famously said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself,” then we shouldn’t limit ourselves to a single way of knowing.

 David is on Twitter and Tumblr.
Below is a list, In alphabetical order by last name of author, of books and journal articles that may be of interest to people who want to pursue research into the politics of public engagement with and understanding of science. Most of these books require a passing knowledge of the social sciences with an emphasis in epistemology, ontology, and public sphere theory. More accessible ones have been given an asterick.
  • *Bauchspies, Wenda K, Jennifer Croissant, and Sal Restivo. 2005. Science, Technology, and Society: A Sociological Approach. 1st ed. Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Campbell, Nancy D. 2007. Discovering Addiction: The Science and Politics of Substance Abuse Research. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Collins, H. M, and Robert Evans. 2007. Rethinking Expertise. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • *Collins, Harry M., and Trevor J. Pinch. 1998. The Golem: What You Should Know about Science. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press.
  • Fleck, Ludwik. 1979. Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Frickel, Scott (Washington State University), Sahra (University College London) Gibbon, Jeff (University of Texas-Arlington) Howard, Joanna (Rutgers University) Kempner, Gwen (Chemical Heritage Foundation) Ottinger, and David (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) Hess. “Undone Science: Charting Social Movement and Civil Society Challenges to Research Agenda Setting.” Science Technology & Human Values.
  • Golinski, Jan. 2005. Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • *Gould, Stephen Jay. 1996. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton.
  • Hess, David J. 1997. Science Studies: An Advanced Introduction. NYU Press.
  • Kleinman, D.L., and A.J. Kinchy. 2003. “Why Ban Bovine Growth Hormone? Science, Social Welfare, and the Divergent Biotech Policy Landscapes in Europe and the United States.” Science as Culture 12 (3): 375–414. doi:10.1080/0950543032000118450.
  • Kuhn, Thomas S. 1996. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. University Of Chicago Press.
  • Pickering, Andrew. 1995. The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Sahlins, Marshall D. 1977. The Use and Abuse of Biology: An Anthropological Critique of Sociobiology. 1ST ed. University of Michigan Press.
  • *Sismondo, Sergio. 2010. An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies. 2nd ed. Wiley-Blackwell.
  • *Tavris, Carol. 1993. The Mismeasure of Woman. Touchstone.
  • Woodhouse, Edward J. 2006. “Nanoscience, Green Chemistry, and the Privileged Position of Science.” In The New Sociology of Science, edited by Scott (Washington State University) Frickel and Kelly (Loyola University) Moore, 1st ed., 148–81. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Wynne, Bryan. 1996. “Misunderstood Misunderstandings: Social Identities and Public Uptake of Science.” In Misunderstanding Science The Public Reconstruction of Science and Technology, edited by Alan Irwin and Brian Wynne, 1:19–46. 3. Cambridge University Press.
  • ———. 2008. “Elephants in the Rooms Where Publics Encounter ‘Science’?: A Response to Darrin Durant, ‘Accounting for Expertise: Wynne and the Autonomy of the Lay Public.’” Public Understanding of Science 17 (1): 21–33. doi:10.1177/0963662507085162.