Scitech | Democratizing Science

A historical look at interactions between science and society

“The cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research,” Albert Einstein once wrote. “Only those who realize the immense efforts and, above all, the devotion without which pioneer work in theoretical science cannot be achieved are able to grasp the strength of the emotion out of which alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life, can issue.”

Einstein believed in the ideal of science, in the unbending search for truth with a “deep conviction of the rationality of the universe.” Inherent in his beautiful, almost spiritual portrait of scientific inquiry is a wall, a division between ‘us’ and ‘them’, between scientists and the rest of the world.

But Einstein’s vision is never quite what we see on the ground.  The pursuit of science does not exist in isolation. Whatever gaps in understanding exist between the vanguards of knowledge and its consumers, the advancement of science has always been tightly and irrevocably intertwined with the impetus of society. There is no determining where one ends and the other begins.

1844, London, England
An evolving world

Robert Chambers, publisher and amateur geologist, anonymously publishes a book titled Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. The book suggests that the world as we know it, rather than being the result of intervention by a divine creator, is the product of “transmutation” resulting from natural forces. The book is promptly lambasted by scientists and clergy, who claim that it is rife with scientific errors, wholly speculative, and carries more than a whiff of foreign French materialism.

But the book is a must-read in Victorian parlors. Popular science is in vogue, and while scientists are leery of popular publications blurring the lines between science and pseudoscience, the public is hungry for a new world view. When Vestiges is published, the gentry are suddenly entertaining what were recently considered radical ideas: atheism, materialism, and science subsuming the authority of the Anglican Church.

Some are fearful of the consequences. “I can see nothing but ruin and confusion in such a creed,” geologist Adam Sedgwick writes of Vestiges in 1850. “If current in society, it will undermine the whole moral and social fabric, and inevitably will bring discord and deadly mischief in its train.” 15 years later, Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species, a more rigorous exposition of evolutionary theory. Vestiges paved his way, laying groundwork for the public to accept his portrait of humanity as the product of an indifferent natural world.

The consequences of these ideas reach into the next century.  Science is no longer a spectator’s sport –  it is being used to redraw the world.  In 1912, the First International Eugenics Conference is held in London.  In 1932, Aldous Huxley paints frightening visions of human genetics in the grasp of a technocratic state in his book Brave New World.  The last International Eugenics Conference is held in 1933, just before the Nazi Party rises to power in Germany.

1939, Long Island, New York
Keep calm and do science

Following decades of social and economic upheaval, world powers find themselves drawn into another world war. Over the past few years, Nazi Germany has been fostering ties with eugenicists in the United States, whose own forays into Social Darwinism resulted in the forced sterilization of thousands of women. Using pseudoscientific rhetoric, the Nazis garnered support for their campaign of “racial hygiene.”   Once, wars were fought in the names of gods and kings.  Now, they are fought under the flag of science.

Meanwhile, Albert Einstein signs a letter to President Roosevelt, one he would later regret.  “It may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated….This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs.”

His letter recommends continued research into the new substance, and ends with the ominous suggestion that Germany is already attempting to harness the element for themselves.

Roosevelt complies with the scientist’s request, although it takes another three years of convincing before the Manhattan Project is established.  Einstein never shakes a sense of liability for the outcome.  “I made one great mistake in my life,” he later admits, “when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made.”

Despite his regrets, Einstein acknowledges that the arms race necessitated the development of an Allied bomb. The dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 precipitates four decades of technological rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. In between the witch-hunts and the fear of the Cold War, both East and West put their trust in the transformative power of science to gain a foothold over the enemy.

1962, New York City, New York
The right to know

Now deep into the Cold War era, this decade will see the invention of the artificial heart, the development of string theory, and the first man to walk on the moon.

In 1962, the New Yorker publishes an anecdote of an imaginary American town.  A sweet, pastoral vision is ravaged by death and illness, heralded by the mysterious disappearance of the birds.  “The people had done it themselves,” writes author and biologist Rachel Carson.

Two more installments of Carson’s work would be published in the New Yorker that summer, while the full book, Silent Spring, would be published in the fall.  Through extensive research and powerful rhetoric, Carson traces the devastating consequences of pesticide overuse.  While she doesn’t argue for the complete eradication of pesticides, she does furnish a quote from Jean Rostand: “The obligation to endure gives us the right to know.”

When the book becomes a hit, the chemical industry stages a massive backlash. It levels attacks against Carson’s credentials and her character, but to no avail. Carson’s book had exposed an ugly side to scientific progress, and in its wake, the United States government establishes the Environmental Protection Agency, and eventually bans the insecticide DDT from use in the U.S.

Silent Spring also launches the modern environmental movement. The movement champions the “balance of nature,” urging humans to live harmoniously with the natural environment rather than trying to control it.  Despite having roots in the environmental sciences, the movement harbours a deep mistrust for advances in science and technology. It was science, after all, that brought on our present environmental woes.

2009, Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia
Fragile trust

In 1999, Benny Haerlin and Doug Parr of Greenpeace contend that “The relationship between the scientific community and the general public has never been worse in living memory.”  A decade later, that relationship plummets to a new low.  A hacker attacks a server at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU), releasing thousands of emails exchanged between climate scientists. Extracting quotes from the missives, the blogosphere explodes with ‘proof’ that climate change is a scientific conspiracy. They accused the researchers of colluding to hide evidence that anthropogenic climate change does not exist.  The scandal is dubbed “Climategate.”

Over the following months, scientists at the CRU receive death threats. The controversy threatens to stall the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. The scientific community defends its colleagues, stating that the scandal was spurred by a small, vocal minority. Several independent inquiries clear the researchers of any wrongdoing, but the damage is already done.

The scandal demonstrates a new change in the way science is portrayed to the public.  The damning emails were first released on climate-skeptic blogs, and spread rapidly to mainstream outlets.  New social media give audiences fast, unparalleled access to groundbreaking science, “but we don’t have good filters for social media yet,” says Dr. Renée Sieber, an assistant professor with the McGill School of Environment. “We’re in this intermediate space where we can’t tell the good from the bad, we can’t tell the wheat from the chaff.”

2013, worldwide
Where to next?

Like Victorian audiences of the past, the public is hungry for science. But science is not just a curiosity confined to French salons or English parlors. Nor is it simply a tool or weapon for governments to wield against one another. We know from experience what a profound and often direct impact science and its application have on our lives, and today’s audiences demand to know what that impact will be.

Science has a strange sort of authority on this front. Its unbiased objectivity is well placed to find “truth,” as Einstein envisioned it, but it remains ill-suited for telling people how to act. Part of the problem, Sieber and others argue, is a lack of scientific literacy among lay audiences. Some of the blame for this rests on the science establishment. The academic system that provides tenure and prestige does not reward researchers for taking time to educate the public. Thus, the chaff becomes more prominent in the media, with few means to filter it out, further eroding public appreciation for good science.

The other problem is uncertainty. Science favours healthy skepticism as a crucial component of objectivity. In a 1996 Commentary to Nature, John Ziman of the University of Bristol wrote, “The complex fabric of society is held together by trust in [sciences’] objectivity, exercised openly by scientific experts.” At the same time, this skepticism can leave scientists vulnerable to critics who are bent on maintaining their own preconceptions. Yet, any knee-jerk attempt by scientists to squelch uncertainty is met, in its own turn, with skepticism from the public at large.

For scientists to maintain public trust, it will not be enough to attempt to spin certainties out of the unknown. Instead, there is a growing movement to engage the public in the scientific process, through citizen science initiatives, like GalaxyZoo and Fold.It. Active and ongoing debate between scientists and the public is another avenue for ‘democratizing’ science, as are hands-on, community-level projects.

The past centuries of scientific progress have seen people act both as consumers of science and as disgruntled witnesses to its outcomes. But the future will see them converted to producers of science, and acknowledged players in the pursuit of knowledge.

Comments posted on The McGill Daily's website must abide by our comments policy.
A change in our comments policy was enacted on January 23, 2017, closing the comments section of non-editorial posts. Find out more about this change here.