Science is not objective or apolitical
Science isn't "neutral", it's an oppressive system shaped by global power dynamics
Majority of people who are “pro-science”, including scientists and doctors responded to widespread vaccine hesitancy during the pandemic and justified decades long mistrust of the scientific and biomedical community by bolstering the idea that “science is objective” and insulting anyone who denied this. When called by Palestinians to join the academic movement to boycott Israeli occupation & apartheid, many scientists claimed that science was “apolitical” & politics shouldn’t taint it. Human ego is at the center of these sort of flawed arguments, rather than any real awareness of history or geopolitics that clearly show that science has always been shaped by past & present power dynamics of colonialism & capitalism.
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On one hand, I am a clinical microbiologist and infectious diseases researcher who is part of the scientific/ medical community and on the other hand, I come from communities in the Global South who have been/ are abused & ravaged by science. I am viscerally aware that modern systems of science & healthcare are really western capitalist systems borne out of European colonialism while Black, Brown, Indigenous systems were violently wiped out. This is the sociopolitical context of science that many are too egotistical to admit because they’d much rather uphold the reductive, ignorant claim that science & medicine are merely systems that “save lives” because it makes them look superficially benevolent. Under late stage capitalism, it isn’t the substance that matters, it really is the cover of the book that people focus on embellishing to give the illusion of “good” because that is what is profitable.
I think it is deeply unethical for anyone in science & medicine to claim that we are neutral or that the systems we work within are neutral. I’d rather not be enslaved to the framework of capitalist healthcare & scientific systems to be my primary guide in how I practice medicine or conduct research. I’d rather not uncritically follow these oppressive systems that prioritize profits over our communities & attempt to pretend they have no real capability to change the social conditions that lead to negative health outcomes in our patients. I know I am never objective which means I’d rather intentionally practice science thru a political, abolitionist framework that prioritizes the health of our communities BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY and not profit. As a scientist or care provider, you have to choose to be an abolitionist or a cop & killer by proxy.
Science is a tool— that can be used for harm or good depending on the incentives & foundations it works thru
Science (like everything else) doesn’t occur in a vacuum of society- it is a political entity just as our existence itself is political. At best, mainstream science admits that people can be racist but science itself is neutral, apolitical & solely used for the good of humanity. Except, racism & other forms of systemic oppression aren’t things that have infected science that can be excised to return science to its pure form again. Science itself has been & currently is a system of oppression that has been used to build hierarchical power structures. Science is instrumental in creating social constructs like race, gender & other forms of bioessentialism to justify exploitation, subjugation & violence against certain people. Flawed scientific studies have been leveraged to “prove” race, for example, as a real biological difference between humans where non-white people are the “inferior race” (with Black people at the bottom of the ladder). This is why much of the biomedical field STILL uses race as a real biological variable which fortifies structural racism & colonialism.
Those in power decide how science is conducted & fund science that will produce results that uphold current hierarchical oppressive systems & maintain their power
Who gets to do science and what systems of science are dominant?
People who get to do science have to “climb the elitist ladder” of academia. This means most are born into privilege and intergenerational wealth & continue to be unfairly advantaged (hint: colonialism has allowed people with certain identities to have generational privilege) while minorities have stumbled on some luck which grants them some eventual privilege in an eternally uphill battle to navigate systems never built for us. By design, however, today’s dominant, well-resourced & well-funded global systems of science are colonial/ western systems because Black & Brown systems were crushed by European colonialism, replaced & never allowed to evolve or progress. Those of us who care to use the scientific method to develop testable hypothesis to understand our world have to assimilate & conform into western systems of education, science & medicine. We have to take on the dominant ideologies of our oppressors which are passed off as the hallmark of science itself as though alternatives ever existed.
Under capitalism, science prioritizes profit & power over people
We can only do research if we are granted funding, largely by the government or capitalist biotech/ pharmaceutical industries. Both are incentivized by profit maximization, power & control, and not by doing “good” for humanity. Truly caring for people’s health requires us to address the social conditions in which bad health emerges. However, capitalism & the nation state cause these bad conditions in the first place by commodifying and objectifying everything on this planet to be a tool to generate profits. A system where no one is guaranteed life as a human right isn’t one designed to preserve health or “do good” simply for the sake of doing good. However, this system is designed to exploit & extract as much as it can for its own gain.
Which issues are interrogated by science is dictated by those in power
Public health gets < 2% of global science/ medical funding which embodies where the priorities of those in power lie. The best healthcare is preventative & addresses the community collectively- however, this is the most underfunded. Similarly, we struggle to get research on infectious diseases funded because 1) they are currently the number one cause of death in low-income “developing” countries (colonized by 19th/ 20th century European empires & still indebted to/ controlled by their ex-colonizers) and disproportionately target the poorest, most marginalized communities in rich countries (i.e. the rich are not hit the hardest), and 2) funding the discovery of new diagnostics or antibiotics, for example, means actually funding CURES (people are treated, get better, and rarely have to rely on the medical system for that same infection again) which isn’t profitable. The most profitable drugs are those that people are chronically dependent on for the rest of their lives. Capitalist healthcare systems are designed to profit off of sickness & this incentive shapes show/ what gets funded.
These problems were highlighted during the COVID-19 vaccine apartheid when pharmaceutical companies refused to let go of their patents which made vaccines inaccessible to the Global South.
How science is conducted is shaped by outcomes that those in power desire so they can continue to hoard wealth
Science, historically & today, has been used as a tool of population control. The state funds endeavors that allow thee rich elite to continue hoarding wealth & power while manipulating the masses into exploitation (in the form of work) & suppressing rebellion. This is best embodied in modern mental health systems like psychiatry which pathologize logical human responses to oppression using the “diagnose and drug” medical model. Under the medical model, individuals are blamed for their distress & adverse health outcomes as they are diagnosed (to be labeled as “abnormal” & exiled or deemed defective) and treated with psychotropic medications. This is why the government funds studies that attempt to show that our mental distress is rooted in biological defects or disorders which rids the government & the rich of any accountability for the oppressive systems that are killing us.
Keep in mind medical systems only see patients after the injury has occurred and often when it is too late because working class people largely lack access to preventative care. Living in a society that meets your basic needs & provides you with food, water, shelter, healthcare, etc without you having to earn the right to live is basic preventative care but under capitalism, the baseline brutal assumption is that no one deserves that. So you can imagine why the poor get poorer and the rich get richer— our adverse health outcomes are a form of intergenerational trauma that is compounded with each generation.
Annihilate the myth of objectivity: Science is as flawed as human beings are & riddled with all the oppressive biases that shape society
People do science. People decide which hypothesis are explored experimentally. People decide which topics are investigated. People decide which statistical threshold can be used to determine which patterns in data are “significant”. People decide what data goes into data analysis. If people shape each and every aspect of science, then it is extremely inaccurate/ ignorant to say that science is objective. We are not objective. No one is. We are shaped by our experiences, perceptions of the world, and the beliefs we’ve been socialized with. To illustrate how everything is in fact subjective, I like using the “fishbowl” analogy that Stephen Hawking used to explain the limits of our empirical knowledge, the value of spirituality & why we must always be humble in the face of the unknown.
Imagine you are sitting in front of this fishbowl and roll a ball towards the fishbowl in a straight line. To the fish inside the spherical bowl, however, it will look as though the ball was rolled along a curved path because of the path of light from outside to inside the fishbowl is itself curved. Therefore, using these observations, the fish would conjure a completely set of laws & theories about how the universe works compared to us outside the fishbowl. Does the ball move in a straight or a curved line? Well, it depends on the perception of the observer. Both are true, technically. What I mean is we are always guided by our perceptions of the world & limited by what we know since there is always going to be so much more that we do not know.
We think that the fish's view is distorted due to the glass and the water it is surrounded by; the fish can counter argue our view is distorted by air and other factors in the atmosphere. Just like the fish is trapped inside the tank, we are severely limited by another view. Do the bacteria that I’m growing & observing in my petri dish understand & perceive that there is a whole world outside their petri dish? No- the petri dish IS their world. Similarly, the whole universe can be a tank for a third, and more superior beings than us that are amused right now at how our tiny, uncomplex minds are making theories based on our limited perspectives.
The only way to do good science is to accept our own limitations with humility & dismantle the elitist superiority complex built into science
What we know today, we did not know yesterday. When Newton brought the concept of gravity forth, everyone including the scientific community mocked, riddled & silenced him. How could there be an invisible yet observable & quantifiable force that keep our feet on the ground & also shaped the waves of the oceans? Sounds pretty wild right? Yet, today people who claim to be “pro-science” use that stance flex their superiority over others mocking & ridiculing concepts that have not be “proven” by mainstream western scientific systems. For example, many “pro-science” people ridicule astrology or non-western Black & Brown systems of healing as being backward, primitive, & “unscientific”. So I’ll repeat again- what we don’t know today, we will know tomorrow. Yet, there will always be so much more that we don’t know. We are always limited by our biases, our current perceptions of the world & this is why science needs a STRONG political foundation & framework to be conducted on.
Science has been rooted in colonialism & capitalism so far— however, it can be rooted in abolitionist, anarchist, social justice values for it to be a tool enabling collective liberation
Like I said, science is merely a tool like technology is. Science & technology have created weapons of war/ mass destruction that have decimated communities & murdered millions of people. Science created bombs. Science created the psychological torture techniques used by the CIA. Science has leveraged psychology to develop state propaganda and tools of population control. So there isn’t any point to pretending science is the holy grail of objectivity that is solely about “doing good”. Science has & continues to do a lot of harm. It is the primary tool leverage by capitalism & the nation state to oppress & coerce people into obedience.
One thing is clear- modern western, colonial systems of science & medicine must be abolished as we gradually build collectivist systems
Science can be bridged with social justice to be leveraged as a tool for collective liberation. This is why I choose to pursue science & medicine today- to be an abolitionist. There are many scientific discoveries that indeed have the capacity to save lives- like vaccines. However, when layered with capitalism & global power dynamics, we get the vaccine apartheid that was responsible for the deaths of millions in low-income countries. If you are someone in science & medicine or someone who considers yourself “pro-science”, it is is time for you to politically radicalize & integrate social justice values into your understanding of science. It is time for you to let of of the myth of objectivity & accept that we are complex & limited beings who are eternally restrained by the unknown.
Science has taught me humility- to be viscerally aware & humble in the face of how much we don’t know and will never have the capacity TO know. To that end, of course science is compatible with spirituality. None of us understand how the universe really works & we never will. None of us understands where we go after we die, how human emotions really work, what the soul or mind are & what the force is made of the invisible threads of love that connect us all & hold our communities/ ecosystems together. Relative we what we know, we don’t know ANYTHING. So what the hell do we have to be arrogant about? My political foundations are the moral compass thru which I choose to pursue science- not for me to prove how much more clever I am than folks who turn to “unscientific” methods, but to try to explore the unknowns of our universe, try to understand how our world works & how we can use these tools to ensure that we are all free. If we accept that we are all subjective, we can begin to take responsibility for our subjectivity & approach science thru a political lens.
P.S. If you’re interested, I take a deeper dive into explaining what I mean by “science is not objective” using flawed psychiatry studies as an example
Here’s the episode of disorderland on this if you haven’t listened yet:
This this this everything about this. I have worked in ~academic medicine~ for the past two years, thinking that I wanted to become a clinical neuropsychologist. The labs that I worked for were almost solely populated by very wealthy White PIs who think they're championing DEI initiatives (lol!) by creating studies that try to uncover ~*social determinants of health*~... and I'm sitting in these meetings like, um, aren't these ~*social determinants of health*~ obvious, not requiring government-funded research grants to the tune of MILLIONS of dollars to uncover? What are we doing here? And when they're finding these ~*social determinants of health*~, why are they literally doing nothing of substance about them other than writing MORE grant applications to look DEEPER into these MYSTERIOUS DETERMINANTS? Such a "the emperor has no clothes" moment. I couldn't take it anymore and have doubled-down on my abolitionist work instead of pursuing academic medicine and clinical psych - I couldn't rationalize the current system of utter wheel-spinning and navel-gazing on a road to nowhere. Maybe someone has the patience to embed themselves to work towards dismantling it from within, but I'm not it! Best decision that I ever made. I am so grateful for your work and the community that you're building around this.
Oh my god this was soo good. I just got brutally fired tdy from my first ever job as a research assistant in a well-reputed uni in singapore for not being "objective" even tho i supported my writing with published theories and just wrote up the findings as they were and i have only been given the opportunity to write 1 paper draft in the past 1.5 years. The project was about participatory health communication/engagement with South Asian migrant workers in Singapore. They literally told me to not write about the structural problems and inequalities that migrant workers themselves cited as reasons for their poor health; while over-exaggerating the "success" of the project- and these are very well-reputed doctors. Just made me realise how fake everything is- how people can present a front of working for/with a community and use the right words and give just enuf to keep the employees and volunteers from leaving. I'm pretty sure I was the token minority in the team. Reading this was so healing; it made me feel less lonely and isolated amidst all the gaslighting and narratives of "doing good for the community" and "saving lives". Also, the elite need not only be white people, can also be the internal colonisers in each country (In the case of Singapore, it is english-educated chinese people).