Why does science view the external critique so negatlively?

“I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it.”  (George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant.”)

Reading through Donovan Hohn’s New York Times Article on Marc Edwards, “Flint’s Water Crisis and the ‘Troublemaker’ Scientist,” bought to mind George Orwell’s comments on the British Empire in his famous story “Shooting an Elephant.”

Orwell’s story focuses on the moment when he, as a young British Colonial Police Officer in Burma, realized that the British Empire was morally wrong and unsustainable.  He describes how he had to kill an elephant that had gone rogue, killed a man, and then calmed down.  He kills the elephant not because it poses a danger, but because a watching crowd of Burmese is watching him, and he has to maintain his status.  Because the story was published in 1936, a year before he went to fight as a volunteer with the Republicans in Spain, he takes a moment to mention that the flawed British Empire is still not at the level of fascism.

The narrative of Professor Edwards, and science in general, as the hero of the Flint Water Crisis, or of other environmental crisis, is a difficult one to dismiss.  Hohn does portray Professor Edwards as a hero, but as one with flaws, and as one whose hero status has come at the expense of others whose contributions were critical.  In spite of this, Professor Edwards’ status as the hero of the crisis has remained strong in scientific and policy-making circles.  His experience, and outspokenness, are held up as an ideal for how scientists are to behave in such situations.

Part of the reason why a larger narrative, where Professor Edwards is not shown as one of many contributors, is that the scientist-hero narrative is so extraordinarily useful.  It is useful not just to the scientific community, which holds him up as a hero even as he brutally critiques the values of 21st century academic authority.  A figure like Dr. Edwards is incredibly useful to anyone fighting for clean water, or accurate environmental data.  The Flint residents whose suspicions Dr. Edwards confirmed are less useful in creating this narrative.

For all of these flaws, then, Dr. Edwards is pushed through as the hero of the crisis, because of the very real risk that a flawed empire based on hierarchical expertise will be replaced by one that permits even more destructive behavior.  Bruno LaTour’s 2004 article, “Has Critique Run out of Steam?  From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” raises a similar point.  LaTour wonders if critiques of scientific knowledge, which have the potential to improve science, were instead allowed to become excuses for undermining certainty, and positive action, in areas like climate.

The question for a scientist interested in the environment and health protection reading a critique of scientific expertise is this: will it lead to a better science, or will it lead to an undermining of scientific authority so complete that action on the environment, or public health, becomes impossible.  Perhaps part of the answer depends on how successful science is in absorbing an embracing the critique- but would even that be complete?

(Note: Originally published with an incorrect title for George Orwell’s story.)

6 Replies to “Why does science view the external critique so negatlively?”

  1. Fascinating analysis.

    Intriguing comparison with Orwell. Is it “Shooting an Elephant”?

    Lots of food for thought here. I am especially struck by your statement that: “A figure like Dr. Edwards is incredibly useful to anyone fighting for clean water, or accurate environmental data. The Flint residents whose suspicions Dr. Edwards confirmed are less useful in creating this narrative.” I wish you could write more about this, unpack it.

    As someone who is fighting for clean water and working with others doing the same, I can say that a figure who is a reputable scientist willing to share reliable scientific information is indeed “incredibly useful.” However, I think that is fundamentally different from saying that what is “incredibly useful” is a narrative portraying such a figure as a “hero” and, in the process, potentially masking multiple and important realities by:

    a. Perpetuating powerful but misleading and reductionist myths about science and scientists;
    b. Silencing and obscuring the work of affected publics who, as we have seen, have been and continue to be the drivers of the fight for environmental justice;
    c. Perpetuating and reinforcing collective ignorance about the history and power of health social movements in the US.

    So, my question to you is: For whom is the “hero” narrative “incredibly useful”? When it comes to Flint, the “hero” figure seems now at odds with community members who assert that the water is still not safe to use. However, the “hero” narrative seems, indeed, to be popular among individuals and institutions inside and outside STEM who have the power, resources, and motivation to keep feeding and perpetuating it. Why do you think this is? Because hero figures are really needed to achieve clean water or obtain accurate environmental data?

    In the end, are we stuck with a dark binary whereby to preserve the rightful authority of science we have no choice but to acquiesce to “hero” narratives and accept all the harm that these can bring? Or are there alternatives to such a construct?

  2. First, thanks for the correction on the title of George Orwell’s story.

    I personally hope that science is strong enough to absorb the critique, and embrace the larger story of Flint. “Hero” figures are certainly not needed to obtain accurate environmental data, However, my own experience leads me to believe that the overwhelming majority of practicing scientists will view a call for a larger narrative as a threat.

    I think there are elements of race and power at play here in why Dr. Edwards reaches hero status, while residents of Flint who had suspicions of lead being at fault were not.

    There is a also an element, I think, of protecting the “hero” scientist because the incentives are (99.9%) of the time set against scientists taking the activist role that Dr. Edwards did. I think there is a fear that pointing to Dr. Edwards as a flawed hero will be seen as sending the message to scientists that life is better back in the lab.

    I agree that a better science incorporates the truths that you point to. I just worry that science may be too fragile to fully absorb these truths, or may see itself as too fragile to even try, especially in 2017. I’d argue that science’s failure to absorb these truths is part of what is shaping 2017, but that’s a bit like yelling at a drowning man for not having learned how to swim.

  3. Does the critique make for better science or does it hurt science? Yes, that is the rub, but it seems much more complex. What if it is science critiquing science? Or, politics critiquing science? Or more to our point, the community critiquing a science that is not listening to the people being affected by the science. This raises another question for me – with 99% of climate scientists agreeing on climate change, a large portion of America still doubt it exists. On the other hand, 99% of all doctors agree that lead poisoning is bad for you, and yet a large portion of America do not want to believe they are being lead poisoned, when the data suggest otherwise. Seems backward? How do we flip these public views?

    1. Good and important questions! How do you imagine a justice-centered critique of science could hurt science?

      Regarding your last question: Is the need always to “flip” public views when they diverge from expert views? What about the environmental justice and health social movements we have been reading about?

      Agreed — most doctors are trained to believe that lead poisoning is bad for you, but most doctors are also trained to believe (and many in high government positions continue to state publicly) that lead in drinking water poses only a minor, if any, risk to children’s health. Whose views need “flipping” in this case?

      Also, what responsibility would we be assuming if we embraced the idea that it is “we” who must flip public views about science? Whom does the “we” include and how do we know that in cases of scientific controversy, the opinions of the members of this group are science-based? Reliable? Trustworthy?

  4. Good and important questions! How do you imagine a justice-centered critique of science could hurt science?

    Regarding your last question: Is the need always to “flip” public views when they diverge from expert views? What about the environmental justice and health social movements we have been reading about?

    Agreed — most doctors are trained to believe that lead poisoning is bad for you, but most doctors are also trained to believe (and many in high government positions continue to state publicly) that lead in drinking water poses only a minor, if any, risk to children’s health. Whose views need “flipping” in this case?

    Also, what responsibility would we be assuming if we embraced the idea that it is “we” who must flip public views about science? Whom does the “we” include and how do we know that in cases of scientific controversy, the opinions of the members of this group are science-based? Reliable? Trustworthy?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *