New Clear Vision

constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted

Why I Didn’t March for Science

April 26, 2017 By: NCVeditor Category: Devon G. Pena, Ecology, Economy

Whose Interests Are Being Served? 

by Devon G. Peña

I consider myself an “ethno-scientist.” The methods and practices I follow in the fields of agroecology, ethnoecology, and related areas reflect my grounding in millennia of indigenous knowledge and study of ecological processes in the human-nature interrelationship. The two cultures divide that C. P. Snow lamented because it separates the humanities from the natural sciences remains a central concern for me as a practitioner of community-based collaborative and interdisciplinary research.

Yet, I did not participate in the March for Science. And it is not because I am anti-science. I am against continued widespread reductionism of and in science (e.g., the geneticization of all phenomena); I am against continued service of scientists in the capitalist control of knowledge production and the deployment of technologies that place our health, safety, and well-being at higher risk. I am certain many of the scientists who marched will feel the same way; but this is a minority worldview.

The scientists who led the march are basically calling on us to collaborate with the current kleptocracy with hopes this regime will grant respect and support for “free” (qua, de-politicized) scientific inquiry. But the history and philosophy of science reveals how scientific inquiry has never been “free” in any meaningful sense as a culture and practice community separated from economic and political forces and institutions.

The M4S (March for Science) has espoused two principal narratives and goals:

(1) The march organizers called on the administration to restore the role of science in setting public policies and regulations. This call legitimizes what is essentially a murderous, criminal regime of billionaires whose principal objective is to dismantle the so-called “administrative state.” Wishing this call will somehow lead to the restoration of science-based policy-making is dangerously naïve and riddled with contradictions, erasures and silences. From a decolonial stand point, these contradictions can be understood to stem from the continued “unbearable whiteness” of the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

A message to potential white allies and accomplices: Please do not stop reading this because you take offense at my use of the “unbearable whiteness” phrase, which I have actually borrowed from a white feminist scholar criticizing the alternative food movement. A failure to read on would also indicate for me an abdication of our shared need for continued and growing correspondence; a retreat from our engagement via accusations of reverse racism would constitute an expression of another problem, the discursive strategy of “white fragility” which in the end silences the critical “parrhesiastic” voices.

(2) A declaration that the goals of the march are not political or partisan is an important thread in this narrative and the M4S effort represents a call to rid politics from interfering with the conduct of “objective” (value-free, neutral) scientific discourse and practice. This is another dangerous liberal ideology and obscures the manner in which the powerful force of market institutions long have reduced scientists to the roles of willing or unwitting “servants of power,” to borrow a phrase from Loren Baritz (1960).

The call should instead involve a plea for non-cooperation with capitalism or a regime that will always disagree and suppress scientific knowledge that contradicts selfish economic interests; the billionaires running the current regime and will never respect, especially, the climate scientists and climate justice communities seeking to align themselves to collaborate across the “two cultures” divide.

Scientists need to withdraw from collaborating with federal, state, or corporate interests or agencies that are not just anti-science but anti-health, anti-safety, and anti-Earth. Scientists need to consider a strategic boycott and a withdrawal of their labor; they must not remain subservient or obsequious under the empire of a capitalist dictatorship over the planet.

Critics of the M4S note the march was but a self-interested response to Trump’s war on science and how it lacks grounding in broader mass-based movements against the capitalist anti-ecological rationality of the extant global neoliberal regime. Too many of these (mostly white male) scientists are disconnected from the struggles of indigenous and peoples of color as well as other vulnerable communities.

Some critics are correct to note a long chain of “science-related crises” like Flint and #NoDAPL during which the larger scientific community failed to provide direct or mass support for our most vulnerable.  J. Ama Mantey is among the critics who have recently brought attention to racism within the liberal scientific community. Please read Mantey’s eloquent op-ed piece, “#MarginSci: The March for Science as a Microcosm of Liberal Racism,” appearing in

However, critics like Mantey do not go deep enough. The problem with the M4S is bigger than a righteous critique of the liberal attitude of self-interest and a pandering to diversity initiatives that at best clone students into the same occupation that serves the continued corporate domination of scientific research.

Scientists in the federal fold, many of whom circulate between governmental and corporate jobs, have missed numerous opportunities to collaborate with mass social movements and key campaigns against the politicization of science which too often operates in the service of extractive capitalist industries. When did the broader science community express relational solidarity with Standing Rock? Too busy trying to make a livelihood from fracking perhaps?

But let’s go deeper: Even Rachel Carson, back in the sixties, forgot to mention the United Farm Workers because she failed to recognize the relevance to science of the farm worker anti-pesticides campaign (1965-71). Missed opportunities for relational solidarity with our most vulnerable communities have a long history even among the most liberal or progressive members of scientific circles. This is indicative of how scientists are creatures of their social location which places many of them in a culture of white privilege that is itself a creature of previous political projects tied to the rise of colonial empires of all sorts.

I wonder how many IT technologists have left our universities for jobs designing near-light speed algorithms for hedge funds seeking to capitalize by nanosecond calculations off investments that spawn hunger, malnutrition, or climate chaos for that matter? I wonder how many are people of color? Like I said, servants of power.

Scientists may presume themselves as somehow entitled to be recognized and valued as makers and movers of a system based on an objective model of the so-called “free market of ideas,” which for me is but a corollary of an unstated faith in the “invisible hand” of the market. In other words, this is ideology not science.

The M4S organizers declared they were responding to massive cutbacks in federal funding for scientific research. Let me be clear: The scientific community needs to develop a better understanding of the nature of institutionalized racism, to be sure, but critics overlook the additional problem of insisting that scientists develop a clearer understanding of capitalism.

What I have in mind goes beyond a call for ethical reflection as an appendage to science instruction. Instead, scientists need to understand how capitalism is the principal force that has always politicized and shaped scientific inquiry; from the get go.

Scientists need to understand how science has always been market-steered and therefore politicized. The strange and iconic case of Francis Bacon illustrates this. The “father of the modern scientific revolution” was also a technologist. He fancied himself a true objective rationalist and individualist who was ready, willing, and able to deliver the actual means and methods to serve the expansion of the British Empire. He was also quite adept as a witness in the witch trials conducted at a time when men like him were actively plotting the takeover of medicine and surgery by persecuting women healers as demonic threats to the cause of “objective” scientific rationality.

The problem is more than the fact that Baconians are still among us and are the penultimate liberals. This is the heart of the contradiction of a faith in the liberal free market place of ideas: The longstanding political (and also corporate) control of funding of scientific research produces a market-steered science agenda. This has always been the case. Social scientists — including sociologists of knowledge and students of the philosophy and history of science and technology — have long made an alarming call for clarity about who gets to define what science is; what knowledge gets qualified as such; how it is to be produced; and the broader applied purposes it should serve.

In the 1970s, as a student at the University of Texas, I was introduced by my mentor in the graduate program in sociology, Gilberto Cardenas, to the work of Gerard Radnitzky, the author of a book,Contemporary Schools of Metascience, that remains a relevant intervention for understanding the politics of science. Radnitzki (1970) viewed the practice of science as a part of the “knowledge-producing industries” and he outlined how these industries operate with “a complex set of role-types which aim for market share in the market place of ideas, practices and programs” (von Eckartsberg 1992, 84; commenting on Radnitzky).

In other words, the political and ideological values of capitalism, which are not science-based, exert powerful pressures that shape, mold, and constrain scientific research agendas, methods, adopted interpretive schemas, and even the questions asked or hypotheses posed. The organizers of the M4S appear to understand this much and yet they willingly subject us all to the continued reign of the empire of capital and so the need for a delinking of knowledge production from coloniality is not addressed. This idea is far from being discussed let alone internalized as part of the normative infrastructure of science.

The science historian, Rolf von Eckartsberg, long ago noted how, “Our contemporary world-market civilization certainly makes the economic metaphor of knowledge-production and knowledge-distribution, knowledge- and discourse-competition … relevant. [Scientific] [p]aradigms … compete for acceptance just like political ideologies do” (1992, 85).

The same process also shapes the transformation and application of scientific research findings into practical (exploitable) technologies; in this sense, science has always been interlaced with the activities of political and economic elites. Understanding this history is critical to what the scientists who marched, can do to move toward a call to action that is explicitly anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and anti-sexist and not just “pro-science.”

In closing, I note there was a San Francisco group that participated in M4S as an anti-capitalist bloc. I will join the march when scientists engage in relational solidarity as accomplices and stand together with diaspora and immigrant rights advocates; Black Lives Matter activists; the defenders and water protectors of the thousands of Flints and Standing Rocks across our ravaged landscapes; and the food chain workers who no doubt serve the scientists in their university cafes and more exclusive redoubts. When that day comes I will no longer have to ask, whose science do you serve? And I will march.

Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, is a Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the moderator of the Environmental and Food Justice blog, where this essay originally appeared.

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