This is derived from a longer essay originally published on Cyborgology on Monday, May 12, 2014.
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.
While I believe all of that to be true, I am not exactly “anti-science.” Just a few months ago, I advocated 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 is a social process and a culture.
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.
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.
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.