Another Science is Possible makes a passionate plea for decelerating the pace of scientific activity.
Isabelle Stengers’ demand ostensibly arises from the dismissal of a colleague who took a stand as a citizen-scientist against genetically modified foods (potatoes!). Her compassion for a fellow academic is laudable, but no current data regarding GM foods – which are more than 30 years old – suggest that they pose risks to human health. The outcome may have been unfortunate for Stengers’ associate (especially because her contrarian and minority opinion would be unlikely to gain any attention from experts in the field) but, for scientists, efforts to feed the planet and reduce pesticide use are already taking quite long enough.
Stengers goes on to ask for less scientific “arrogance” and a movement away from “protecting the public from doubt”, which she suggests that scientists unnecessarily do. Perhaps her viewpoint comes from a genuine misunderstanding of scientific training: she admits that she never got beyond an undergraduate year of chemistry studies. So she may benefit from knowing that scientists are less arrogant than introspective and very unlikely to protect anyone, including colleagues, from uncertainty.
Rather, scientists choose not to speak to the lay public because their statements are frequently taken out of context and wildly misunderstood. This is not arrogance: it is caution. Because scientists cannot modify their data to suit the public’s feelings or misunderstandings, disengagement is often prudent.
When Stengers suggests that scientists fail to understand “the relevance of a knowledge”, she ignores (or is unaware of) the fact that scientists are endlessly being asked to assert such relevance to universities, review boards, ethics committees and research sponsors. Her apparent misunderstanding of science is also revealed by her use of terms that are never or rarely used. For instance, “sound science” is not common parlance except when referring to the study of acoustics. The notion of “hard” and “soft” sciences does not incorporate value judgements, as Stengers appears to believe, but makes a distinction (well understood by scientists) between quantifiable basic sciences and softer or qualitative fields such as social sciences.
Finally, as a pharmacologist, I’d argue passionately against additionally slow science while patients die, waiting for new therapies mired in the red tape of approval. The public may also agree that science is grindingly slow as their impatience for life-saving cures encourages them to try experimental clinical treatments, desperate to enjoy the remainder of prematurely shortened lives.
Thus, I posit that science, even with its protracted and painstaking rigour, is already sufficiently slow. What we need more than slower science is a more educated citizenry that can understand our work and facilitate our efforts. Certainly, scientists are part of the communication problem, but it is one of which we are aware and increasingly motivated to address. I have yet to meet a scientist who believes that our field will solve all our problems, yet we remain optimistic that we can, through the scientific process, improve our time on earth and leave our planet a more verdant and prosperous place.
Jennifer Schnellmann is associate professor of pharmacology at the University of Arizona.
Another Science is Possible: A Manifesto for Slow Science
By Isabelle Stengers
Polity, 220pp, £50.00 and £15.99
ISBN 9781509521807 and 1814
Published 15 December 2017