Science. Is. Political.

This concept will probably be easy to absorb for the regular readership at Cyborgology. It’s a topic that has been discussed here a time or two. Still, as truisms go, it is one of a very few that liberals and conservatives alike love to hate. The fantasy of apolitical science is a tempting one: an unbiased, socially distant capital-s Science that seeks nothing more than enlightenment, floating in a current events vacuum and unsullied by personal past experiences. It presupposes an objective reality, a universe of constants that can be catalogued, evaluated, and understood completely. But this view of science is a myth, one that has been thoroughly dissected in the social sciences.

As often as the myth of scientific apoliticism comes into conflict with the messy reality, it is no wonder that scientific and technical expertise is often questioned in the policymaking realm. The term “anti-science” gets thrown around a lot in the United States, especially in reference to the Trump administration and the majority-Republican Congress so eager to curry favor with him.

One organization is attempting to move the needle away from anti-science policy. Founded by a STEM professional and entrepreneur, 314 Action is a political action committee geared specifically toward getting more scientists to run for elected offices at all levels of government. The PAC takes its name from the first three digits of pi, because “[p]i is everywhere. It’s the most widely known mathematical ratio both inside and out of the scientific community. It is used in virtually everything we encounter in our daily lives.” If science can be found everywhere, the logic goes, then science definitely belongs in the halls of power and decision-making as well.

From the PAC’s website:


Strengthen communication among the STEM community, the public and our elected officials;

Educate and advocate for and defend the integrity of science and its use;

Provide a voice for the STEM community on social issues;

Promote the responsible use of data driven fact based approaches in public policy;

Increase public engagement with the STEM Community through media.

314 Action champions electing more leaders to the U.S. Senate, House, State, Executive and Legislative offices who come from STEM backgrounds. We need new leaders who understand that climate change is real and are motivated to find a solution.

We need elected officials who understand that STEM education is the new path forward, vital for our future and will ensure that our educators have the necessary funding to teach STEM curricula and our students have the resources to learn. That is why 314 Action will advocate for a quality, adequately funded STEM education for every young person in the United States.

But this begs the question: can placing more STEM professionals in Congress save science policy, or will it only produce more lifetime politicians?

In politics, anti-science and pro-science aren’t opposites. They’re two strategies toward the same end of winning and keeping political power. The struggle between these two political stances is a constant, dynamic, situationally contingent negotiation between the social prestige of scientific evidence and the political necessity to control the vocabulary and optics surrounding a given policy topic.

Anti-science doesn’t mean that politicians don’t believe in science. It means that they have a hard time reconciling scientific findings with more pressing political concerns, like fundraising from special interest donors and mollifying their constituencies. These day-to-day political tasks require total control over a political narrative with a kind of hyperreality and spectacle that leaves little room for the slow pace and uncertainty of scientific research.

And, pro-science doesn’t necessarily mean a belief in the power of science to craft good policy. As my own research has shown, scientific debates often stand in for debates about money and legislative instrumentation, because scientific debate is easier to sound bite and quicker to digest across the voting public. I have found elsewhere that political actors, at least in the climate change political sphere, most often cite sources of expert information from other actors or organizations who a priori align with their political ideologies.

The candidates 314 PAC aims to mobilize are trained scientists and novice office-holders. They are not politicians. In fact, the point is largely to recruit people who have never held office before. There’s a certain amount of purity attached to a scientific expert who has never dabbled in politics. At the same time, someone willing to risk the credibility and safety of that purity seems, in this narrative, to be a brave and competent candidate. It’s like the Madonna-whore complex of science policy.

The 314 Action fundraising page acknowledges this to some extent: “Most of our candidates will not come from the traditional career paths of politicians, and will need different channels for funding and support. 314 PAC intends to leverage the goals and values of the greater science, technology, engineering and mathematics community to give these new recruits the resources they need to become viable, credible, Democratic candidates.”

And there’s the crucial point in all of this: the advocacy of 314 PAC is aimed at liberal scientific political engagement, not greater STEM engagement overall. While it is perfectly acceptable for a PAC to pin itself to a particular ideological position, it is dangerous to conflate an acceptance of scientific principles with a liberal political mindset.

Ben Carson is a brain surgeon, celebrated as a visionary in his field, but has demonstrated time and again his tenuous grasp on history, political science, and reality. Former US Representative Todd Aiken—he of the “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” infamy—was a leader in the Army Corps of Engineers. Rand Paul is an ophthalmologist who ran for president on a platform of small government— so small that it had little room at all for research and development. The lesson here is clear: being in the STEM fields alone does not make you pro-science, being pro-science alone doesn’t make you smart, and being smart alone will not make you an effective policymaker.

None of this is to say that scientists and engineers should stay away from politics. Far from it; democracy thrives when rooted in a diversity of perspectives and consideration of all available evidence. See the first line of this post. Exposure and intersectionality are critical foils to a democracy that has grown comfortable with status quo politics and ideological purity. And scientists are human beings, voting citizens, paying consumers. They deserve a political opinion, and indeed can’t help but have one.

Furthermore, the efforts of 314 also seem to be having the unintended consequence of inspiring more women and people of color to run for office from within the STEM fields. 314 Action’s founder, Shaughnessy Naughton, is a woman who ran for the House of Representatives in 2016 on a pro-science platform. That women and people of color are more acutely aware of the politics present in science than their white male counterparts is no surprise, but it’s good that these scientists have a path forward for translating this awareness into political change.

Most importantly, I would point out that there is value in scientists running for office, even if they don’t win. Campaign events are major sources of information for voters, and the shiny optics and well-scripted hyperreality of a scientist’s campaign could go a long way in educating a constituency about a topic of scientific importance, even if it doesn’t sway votes that way. As I’ve written elsewhere, the novelty of a pro-science platform from either party could effectively shift voter attitudes in the age of anti-scientific policymaking.

The danger here is not in scientists running for office and losing. It is in scientists running for office, winning, and being unprepared to participate in the political process because they ran on an “I’m a scientist” platform. Congress has already shown itself to not only be open to the label of anti-science, but in many cases, has actively courted it. To assume that the prescription for political change is a critical mass of scientists in elected positions is to ignore the very messy social dynamics mediating the interfaces between science and politics.

Policymaking cares little for methodology, and even less for control conditions. Neither the constitutionally inscribed forward-facing process nor the subtler backstage deal-making that go into crafting policy are interested in scientific uncertainty and its sometimes glacial pace of innovation. Scientists should absolutely run for office. They should also march in demonstrations, write letters to their representatives, and engage in democracy as every other citizen has a right to do. But they—and the organizations supporting their candidacy for office—should be prepared for the contentious and sometimes fact-free atmosphere of US government.



Joe blogs and is on Twitter.

Image Source
Image Source

Bioethics—the code by which scientists are bound in the conduct of their research for the human good—have been a major field of contention among experts for most of a century. The latest topic to divide this community is also the oldest: Are bioethics ultimately doing more harm than good?

That was the question posed by Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker in an editorial published in the Boston Globe earlier this month. Pinker couches his piece in a discussion of CRISPR-Cas9, a recent and much-hyped advance in genomic mapping and editing. Experts have suggested that this technology could allow doctors to “fix” DNA sequences for any physical ailment. For biotechnologies like CRISPR, it seems as though the sky’s the limit.

“Indeed, biotechnology has moral implications that are nothing short of stupendous,” he begins. “But they are not the ones that worry the worriers.”

Fair enough. No one has ever argued against a technology because of the “stupendous” implications it offers the world. The speed of development worries them, sure, as does the lack of concurrent political and cultural progress. Unintended consequences are always terrifying. But not the moral improvements themselves.

But Pinker continues:

Biomedical research… promises vast increases in life, health, and flourishing. Just imagine how much happier you would be if a prematurely deceased loved one were alive, or a debilitated one were vigorous—and multiply that good by several billion, in perpetuity. Given this potential bonanza, the primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence.

Get out of the way.

A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.”

A lot to unpack there.

First, there is a means/ends argument being made here that is precisely the kind of philosophical proposition against which scientific ethics were established. As the perennial IRB training courses I am compelled to take remind me, research ethics are rooted in attempts to prevent a recurrence of past human rights atrocities, events wherein the powerful have exploited the weak for what was ostensibly the greater good.[i] How and why science chooses certain bodies as sacrificial speaks less about best practices than it does about how hegemony seeks to order the world.


This is uniquely true of bodies that do not consider themselves sick, bodies for which their genetically contingent ailments are a facet of identity and a nucleus of community. In the United States, Deaf Culture is perhaps the best-known example. What some identify as a genetic problem in need of biotechnological intervention actually serves as the basis for linguistic, historical, and social cohesion. Indeed, biotechnological “fixes” have been a point of contention within the community because they threaten that cohesion. See also the work of Virtual Ability, Inc., a non-profit organization that provides greater access to the online space Second Life for people of various physical and cognitive abilities. In so doing, this organization provides previously unattainable levels of autonomy and social support (and trampoline dance parties) to individuals who would be otherwise marked as “debilitated” and forgotten.

Second, this argument assumes an equitable global distribution of technological goods. This is an optimistic perspective: the technology in question could increase life, health, flourishing, vigor! For billions! Forever! Shockingly optimistic, considering that this scenario presupposes a world in which billions of people will have access to such technologies. The US Census Bureau estimates the world’s population today at around 7.2 billion people, and places only about twenty percent of those billions in the developed world. That leaves just over 1.4 billion people who live in nations with any hope of importing the boons of biotechnologies like CRISPR. This figure also belies the staggering inequalities within those nations, which preclude whole swaths of inhabitants from seeing the benefits of biotechnology. Not even an optimist could support an estimate of “billions.”

That also says nothing about how biotechnologies will (likely not) benefit these societies “in perpetuity.” According to University of Chicago sociologist James Evans and colleagues:

[H]ealth research follows the market, but likely not just because of the market […] Health researchers are sensitive to problems they are treating, to problems around them, to Grandma’s problems. Countries want to fund research that burdens their populations. Where this leads to inequality in health knowledge is that the disease burden of rich and poor countries are different, and that rich countries obviously produce much, much more research.

In other words, the diseases afflicting poorer people in poorer countries get the least amount of attention. This is not only because wealthier countries can afford greater research, but because the diseases impacting wealthier countries are labeled as more imperative to study. “Unlike disease burden alone, the global market for treatment showed a strong relationship with research: For every $10 billion in wealth lost to a disease, the number of research articles on that condition rose by 3 to 5 percent.” Inequalities within countries as well as between them virtually guarantee that the applications of such biotechnologies as CRISPR will always privilege the wealthiest segments of the wealthiest nations, whatever their medical needs may be.

But the third—and I think the most important—point surrounding Pinker’s argument is the target itself. Pinker and his supporters level attacks at “bioethics.” However, a closer reading of their position reveals bureaucracy is their true target. Equating bioethics—a communally-derived rulebook for how to give maximum benefits at minimum harm—with the institutional systems by which bioethics are arbitrated is a mistake.

“Bioethics” was, a century ago, a philosophical endeavor attended to by scientists, medical experts, lawyers, and theologians. Originating in Germany (in tandem with the rise of the Frankfurt School of critical social theory), bioethics began as an attempt by experts both inside the academy and out to balance the physical and spiritual needs of humanity with the academic and political impacts of science. Early bioethicists enacted change through close mentorship with young scholars and by the mid-twentieth century, bioethics was fully absorbed into university curricula.

Bioethicist Carl Elliott points out that bioethics didn’t take off in the United States as a significant academic discipline until the 1960s. Unlike its origins in Europe, however, American bioethics started within the university and grew out from there. Writing in 2005, Elliott suggests that bioethics is the most robust academic discipline in the United States, “colonizing new areas even where it is unfamiliar, unexpected, and unwelcome.” To explain this robustness, he points to the close, mutually reinforcing relationship between American bioethics and institutional bureaucracy.

In Elliott’s view, the close relationship between bioethics and bureaucracy has crafted an academic discipline that moves fluidly between disciplinary boundaries, invites collaboration between academic institutions and the state, and can standardize knowledge across contexts.

Elliott asks:

What will this mean for bioethics? First, it is reasonable to assume that the duties, allegiances, and professional identities of bioethicists will be shaped by the institutions in which they are employed. (The first purpose of the bureaucrat, after all, is to serve the bureaucracy.) As bioethicists move from the classroom into hospitals, government entities, professional bodies, pharmaceutical companies, and other organizations, they will naturally begin serving the interests of those institutions. […] This… may also affect the content of the field—the actual positions that bioethicists take on ethical issues themselves.

What Elliott described ten years ago as key element to the strength and robustness of bioethics, Steven Pinker now sees as getting in the way of a bright technological future. Pinker’s dismissively quotation-marked “dignity,” “sacredness,” and “social justice” in his statements above come off as intentionally provocative but fail to hit their mark. Even if you share Pinker’s revulsion towards things like dignity, does it really make sense to wage war against an abstract concept? Actually changing (or eliminating) the role bioethicists play in innovation would involve attacking the institutions that bioethicists use to carry out their philosophy.

Pinker situates these concepts as being contrary to the functioning of bioethics because he is focused on the functioning of bioethical bureaucracy. Institutional bureaucracies cannot care, they can only codify and implement values like dignity, social justice, or sacredness. Or, in Weberian terms, institutions codify concepts like these in terms that benefit the operation of the institution; ascribing dignity, for example, to labor and individual interest but not to social welfare or the pursuit of pleasure. What Pinker calls “nebulous but sweeping” notions of dignity are, then, notions of dignity that are not bureaucratically codified, or else are coded as resistive. And so, in bureaucratic terms, confronting this dignity is disruptive. Marked concepts like these create fissures through which the unequal distribution of institutional power becomes visible.

I don’t want to paint the philosophical body of bioethics as an innocent victim in all of this. Bioethical principles, like the science and technology they critique, are reflective of a very narrow set of (mostly Western, mostly European) values. Many segments of society remain excluded from the imagined community that bioethicists aim to protect. Bioethicists should think critically about how their sociocultural blinders effect the role of marked concepts like dignity and sacredness and social justice. One way to do so, as this article [paywall] suggests, involves moving those concepts out of the realm of the abstract and into the real, material contexts surrounding emergent biotechnologies. This so-called bio-knowledge will provide a basis for discussing the material implications of biotechnology that is rooted in discourses about human rights.

Disentangling bioethics from the bureaucracy that controls it is also an important step. This article [paywall] points out that bioethical processes cannot stop at “value clarification”; that is, arguing about where the boundaries are between what can and cannot be done in the name of science. Instead, bioethicists must add to their duties the integration of seemingly incompatible elements—for example, the sacredness of human life and the importance of stem cell research, as the author discusses. In so doing, bioethicists can resolve conflicts on the basis of common ground among all parties involved, rather than passing down verdicts from above. Bioethicists must also work on the critique of scientific institutions and processes, including a critical look at the Western, European values that dominate modern science.

If there is a moral highroad here, it falls upon bioethicists to take it. Attacking bioethics because it operates within a bureaucratic framework is, at best, myopic. At worst, it reinforces the very power relations which lead to complex and unequal institutional processes. After all, power is operating most efficiently when we don’t recognize that it is working at all. By rallying for bioethics to “get out of the way,” Pinker only makes more space for ideas on how best to silence unfamiliar, marginal notions of dignity and sacredness and social justice, in the name of streamlining the research oversight process.

The highroad is usually also a long one. We’ll know we’re on our way when dignity, sacredness, and social justice no longer need quotation marks around them when discussing technological progress.


Joe Waggle is a doctoral candidate in sociology and a research fellow in the Program for Society and the Environment, where he occasionally blogs. He is also on Twitter.

[i] That’s as close to a discussion of early human research ethics I can get into without invoking Godwin’s Law. See Nikolas Rose’s The Politics of Life Itself for a much braver accounting.


(Image from the People’s Climate March Facebook page:

When it comes to data analysis, sometimes non-findings speak louder than findings. Particularly when non-findings shine a light on questions that aren’t being asked.

 On 21 September 2014, UMd Professor of Sociology Dana R. Fisher took a small army of friends and graduate students to New York City to survey demonstrators at The People’s Climate March (PCM). The PCM survey is part of a longer thread of Dr. Fisher’s research, which surveys protestors to get a better understanding of who protests, how they are mobilized, and how their participation in protests relates to other forms of civic engagement they may partake in. Nate Silver’s data-nerd playground sent a film crew to follow us to make a short documentary of our experience. The doc is part of their series The Collectors, a look at how scientists can apply rigorous research methods to a variety of unique settings outside of the laboratory.

The PCM’s greatest appeal—the thing that got us all up before dawn on a Sunday to take a bus from DC to Manhattan—was the sheer volume of potential data it made available to us. While more conservative estimates put the number of demonstrators at around 100,000, PCM organizers themselves suggest that it was closer to four times that. In any case,, who planned the march in collaboration with a long list of partner organizations, trumpeted the event as the “largest climate march in history.” By all accounts, they were right; the PCM was the brightest star in a constellation of nearly 2,600 simultaneous climate protests happening all over the world that day.

This thing was big, it was global, and it mobilized a lot of people.

Part of’s plan was to arrange protesters into neat blocks, according to where they fit along a spectrum of participant identities and organizational affiliations. Their hope was to organize participants into city-block-sized sections that would each represent a single unified ideological or social position. The map below details what these blocks were supposed to look like, and who was supposed to fill them during the assembly period before the march began.


(Image from People’s Climate March website:

 While this framework is problematic—queers and communities of color to the back of the line, please!—the idea was intriguing. Could and their partners not only mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to demonstrate, but also organize them according to their membership in different industries, communities, and schools of thought? Could the organizers realize their vision that, “To Change Everything We Need Everyone”?

To figure this out, we collected block-level data to uncover not just who showed up, but where they assembled along the march route. This is, as far as we know, the only set of protest data that allows for block-level analysis (and if we’re wrong about that, please do let us know).

The results of the preliminary analyses have been fascinating (and you can check out the descriptives here). If protest mobilization and organization are your thing, stay tuned for write-ups in the near future. But right now, I want to share a particular finding that stuck out to me as being rather important in its unimportance.

In response to the question, How did you hear about the protest?, respondents were offered a range of answers. We recoded answers into three categories: social network (word-of-mouth with family, friends, co-workers, or classmates); mediated non-Internet (such as radio, television, newspapers, flyers, and); and Internet or social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, listservs, and so on).

As the table below demonstrates, there was no statistically significant relationship between the block where the respondent assembled for the march and how they heard about the protest.


In other words, people who read about the march on a flyer in the subway were marching alongside people who heard about it on NPR, right alongside people who were following on Twitter.

Significant differences may yet exist that predict how specific groups heard about the march—younger protesters may have been more likely to hear about the PCM from social media than from newspapers, for example. But at the block level, there is no clear clustering on this variable, and that speaks volumes.

What it says is that protest mobilization—getting people sufficiently riled up to take to the streets—works just as well offline as it does online. In fact, these data suggest that there is no purely online or purely offline experience at all, as social and non-Internet mediated communication often invokes Internet-mediated communication, and vise-versa. It’s not uncommon, for example, to see a QR code on a poster, or hear a hashtag being advertised in a radio commercial.

This non-finding affirms what others at Cyborgology have called the digital dualism fallacy, which has been taken to task many times before. Nathan Jurgenson and others have proposed in its place the notion of augmented reality—the “merging of material reality with digital information, as well as the augmentation of digitality with materiality”—and the table above seems to reveal that the notion applies just as well to mobilization in large-scale demonstrations. What we may be looking at here is augmented mobilization confronting the fallacy of digital dualist protest organizing.

Of course, one possible interpretation is that both online and offline forms of communication are equally bad at making people stand in line where they’re supposed to. I would argue that this interpretation relates more to the expectations of the organizers than their modes of communication: whether you advertise it in an email or through a bullhorn, maybe people just want a little more freedom to move around than your plan may grant them. We must also not ignore structural roadblocks; race, gender, and class-based inequalities at least partially determine mobilities, regardless of organizers’ expectations.

Still, the lack of significant clustering in our variable supports previous work on online activist organizing, slacktivism, and digital tactics, all of which suggests that digitality can enhance mobilization and offer greater options for protest, but neither exists outside of material conditions nor overrides the impact of material mobilization efforts.

More importantly, this non-finding suggests that current questions about mobilization and protest are predicated, at least in part, on digital dualist assumptions. Moving forward with large-scale protest research may require a new approach. This means critically evaluating digital dualist assumptions, interrogating the reflex to study digital and material mobilization tactics separately, and designing new techniques toward an understanding of augmented civic engagement.



Joe Waggle is a sociology doctoral candidate and a research fellow in the Program for Society and the Environment, where he occasionally blogs. He is also on Twitter. He would like to thank his colleagues Anya Galli and William Yagatich for their help in collecting and organizing his thoughts for this post.