Talking to a student at Western during the first semester, I heard some words that I would replay in my mind time and time again. “I don’t think it is a good idea to speak about politics.” Her reason? “It is dangerous because someone may not like what you believe in.” This is a view shared by many students, both at Western and at other Canadian universities.
You are studying in a field based on objective facts. Science is based on empiricism; it is supposed to be rational and unbiased. However, its very foundation has gone against societal norms and the political interests of various parties throughout history. A basic example of this is how Galileo was condemned by the Vatican for proposing that the Earth and other planets rotated around the Sun because it opposed the widely accepted theory of Copernicanism. Societal norms have also dictated who becomes a scientist and whose work is worthy of recognition.
The scientific knowledge conferred by research has a raw power that has been sought to be controlled by governments and key power players throughout the centuries. As a result, the science that we choose to focus on is influenced by what governments choose to deem important. Research by universities and government institutions is funded by tax money in the aim of establishing a country’s role in a certain field, improving its economy, and hence, increasing its soft power in relation to other players in the international community. Scientific discoveries are directly influenced by the politics of our age. The scientists of the Renaissance were patronised by powerful families to receive support and financial assistance for their research. In turn, this provided their patrons with social standing. We would not know how to split neutrons if it were not for the political ambitions of the government of the United States of America that drove it to create the Manhattan Project. The discovery of this knowledge conferred military power. The theories and the scientific facts that we learn in the lecture halls of our campus is information that was decided to be worthy of investment, and hence, worthy of knowing. Perhaps, the very face of science would look very different with a different set of priorities.
What is the role of the scientist in this complicated labyrinth? Although the pursuit of research is built on curiosity, the scientist is not like a child whose only role is to satisfy their own curious mind. There exists the philosophical debate about what it mean to be “right” and what it mean to be “wrong”? What is the “right” thing to do? What is “acceptable”? The scientist’s mind takes comfort in the empiricist nature of science; only facts should be accepted. To the scientist, all statements should be falsifiable. Theories should explain observations. This is the very reason why science is biased. It is biased against viewpoints that seek to have science accommodate them. It is the responsibility of the scientist to reflect on the moral implications of their scientific discoveries. Who do these facts serve? And how will it affect communities across the globe? The danger of science is that it is inherently political. It is important for scientists to be engaged in our democracy and the political process, and in order to do this, they must speak about politics.