about the march for science


Very dead looking cat in front of the Universidad de Sevilla

I didn’t go to the march for science.


As you know, here on randform we try to refrain from too many pure “opinion pieces”. However since I decided not to go to the “march for science” I feel kind of obliged to give some indications of why. So here some thoughts I had about the march for science (aka “science march”) especially in Germany and about science and academia in general.

At least here in Germany (and I think most over Europe and may be even the world? (Here some examples)) the “march for science” was perceived by many as a more or less clandestine “march for academia” or at least as a “march by scientists”, i.e. rather a “march of science” (and its proponents and institutions) than “for science.” This was for example pointed out by Martin Ballaschk in a commentary in the science magazine “Spektrum der Wissenschaft” or e.g. in the headline “Wissenschaftler in Sachsen gehen auf die Straße” (“scientists in Saxonia are on the streets”) by a saxonian TV station. In that vein Nikolas Keyser-Bril found it useful to retweet the link to his long blog essay “The collapse of academia” on the day after the march of science. I don’t agree with a lot in Keyser-Brils essay (especially this which concerns education), but the essay reflects also a bit on the overall discontent with academia and within academia, it puts it into a historical framing and I understand his timely retweet as a kind of commentary to the science march, seen as a “march of science.” I won’t discuss the essay, but make some comments.

Despite as it was perceived, the march for science in Germany was however originally not thought as a “march of science” but mainly as being a kind of support and solidarity march for people in the US who struggle with an increasingly science-hostile way of thinking -at least if I understand the organizers correctly.

Well- both are somewhat related that is at least partially the hostility towards scientific thinking is related to the ways how scientific thinking is funded (i.e. academia etc.) and what effects scientific thinking has on society.

Is science a business?

Scientific thinking has to quite an extend been funded by “the public” (mostly taxpayers). That is the costly ways of evidence-based “science epistomologies” (here: ways to acquire knowledge) like giant collaborative experiments in physics, the storage of historical artefacts and knowledge, the brain intensive way of thinking, the long education, the high risk investments into uncharted territories is often only then funded by private institutions/companies if there is at least some glimpse of a concrete economizable outcome. This by the way holds also true for students, who -by investing private time and money into their education- expect to gain something out of it. And something usually includes not only some abstract elucidation, but aptitudes which allow e.g. to make a living.

The acceptance of the public to fund scientists, i.e. to fund people who are thought to be especially good scientific thinkers was sofar to a not too small extend rooted in the knowledge that funding will rather likely bring benefits for many. And even if it is disputed that there is approximately every 60 years a major science breakthrough which provides an economy boost (see Kondratiev cycle) it is trivially clear that scientific findings have giant macroeconomic and societal consequences and a lot of them helped people to live at all and to live easier lives – whether this is an empowerment is another question. In short, the following paradigm seems to hold to a great extent: Funded science is expected to boost the personal importance and power of science funders. (By the way -coming back to Keyser-Brils essay- I think this holds to a great extend also true for the historical science and academia funders – finally “truth” and in particular “religious truth” -finding was often related to a “godly empowerment”.) Or in other words: science is not quite a business, but on average it is somewhat expected to be something like a business, even if the “profits” may not be so easily quantifyable in terms of some currency. It is clear that e.g. a hard working cleaning worker wants to know, what’s happening to the share he or she pays to “science” via their taxes.

What is a scientific “profit”? Which “profit” is wanted by society?

But then upon accepting this paradigm the following questions and problems immediately pop up: If it is not necessarily money which empowers societies, i.e. if the scientific “profit” is not necessarily monetarily quantifyable, then what are the criteria for science funding? How important should that part of scientific profit be which provides a future monetary/economic gain? What share of the science mediated “empowerment-gain” should be donated to further empowerment, i.e. to science? Does science have a right to obtain a certain share? Is there a limit to human empowerment? Do the funded scientists work “properly” for the (public) money? What is properly? Which part of “science” produces most of this alledged “societal gain”? Where are the boundaries to real businesses? Should science be run like a business? Furthermore: scientific findings had not only positive effects on mankind and the negative effects seem to be increasingly problematic. It is not exagerated to say that some scientific findings may be a threat to mankind itself (depending on how they are applied). Sometimes it is not even clear how threatening the findings are going to be. And increasingly there are scientists who think that the possibility of the extinction of mankind -at least in its current and prospected natural evolutionary form – has to be accepted. So as a human should one fund science with increasing detrimental effects on and opinions about humans? At what point do the negative effects outweigh the positive effects?

Scientific “profit” and it’s effect on science

Anyways it’s been now almost 10 years ago that I warned that the public increasingly doesn’t see whats in for them for the money they’ve been giving to academia and that scientists themselves are increasingly under pressure to find for themselves projects with “successful outcomes” and I think things got way, way worse since then. I don’t know if academia is “collapsing”, but it is meanwhile in a state that I think in particular it may not be advisable to organize something as the platform I had proposed roughly 10 years ago -at least not in that form. And to speak clearly: some very unpleasant phenomena of academia including fraud and deception have in the past recent years grown to an amount which appears to me quite out of control. Likewise the question to what extend science, especially certain parts of it, is beneficial to society seems to be getting more and more difficult. Like meanwhile many others, I also do think that the prospected monetary gains of science “products” (including “human capital”) and the alledged “efficiency pressures” which steer current science funding play a role in that. Like if procuring science funding by more or less private organisations is a quality criterium then it is likely that there is an emphasis on research with an outcome which is likely beneficial for the corresponding organisations but not necessarily to society on the whole.* Likewise I think it is questionable wether all science products should be (unmoderated) disseminated, even if they might look “empowering” (see the discussions about nuclear energy). What is efficiency in this context? How useful is a citation impact with regard to the decision whether a technology is beneficial to a society? Those questions display also that measurements about the quality of science are questionable if there is no consent about the nature of scientific “profit”.

*It should also be remarked at this place that the broader dissemination of a technology is in a lot of societies (especially western) very much related to which “organisational types” are available for that task, i.e. private or public businesses or organisations etc. This is in particular a question of how to control dissemination.

Science, the question about it’s applications and their effects

There is an important remark to make here. Science is applied via technology and so some people see the problems rather not in science itself but in how it is applied, i.e. amongst others in technology and the corresponding societal decisions.
There is a point to that but then there are two things to keep in mind. Firstly- I find it that it is not always easy to distinguish between science and technology, finally a lot of science research is concerned with technologies. Is CRISPR/CAS a technology or a scientific finding? Are concrete AI or quantum computing algorithms technology or science? So if I speak about science I see technology included – at least to a great extend. And then coming to the second point -yes- it is important to keep amongst others in mind that a lot of threatening technologies, which originated from scientific findings, are finalized/realized by private organisations, like companies. Likewise the decision to deploy weapons is mostly a societal one. There are thus eventually “science outcomes” which were unwanted by “science” (in an academic context). However -for the public- science is often seen as the originator of those outcomes and thus as the more or less responsible causator. Moreover as pointed out above sometimes the lines between “pure science” and businesses are quite blurred. And so secondly I think there is some right to see science as a “more or less responsible causator”. That is science “products” are sometimes a bit like drugs deposited somewhere (without much thinking) and then whose responsibility is it to prepare for the effects of the drugs’ eventual distribution?

Conclusion

Concluding, I think it is less that people think that scientific thinking has not been “successful” or is unjustified crap, finally -apart from the totally ignorant- everybody knows that airplanes, mobile phones, cars, medicine etc. wouldn’t exist without science, so I don’t think it is necessary to promote the power of scientific thinking per se (Am I wrong here ?**). I think though that people are increasingly discontent with the current modalities of science funding, i.e. with academia/science organisations and institutions and in particular with the outcomes of this fundings, let it be because of the high costs, because of peoples ignorance or unawareness about the necessary scientific efforts for a technology, because of unkept promises, because of too high expectations, because of increasing unavailability of some technologies for masses, because of existence-threatening technologies/applications, because of academic fraud and “false” privileges etc. and I find it increasingly hard to defend academia. It is also clear that academia is very torn and there are certainly parts which I would find more easy to defend, than the whole.
And so it happened that I found it so hard that I even didn’t want to go to a pro-academic march. And frankly – alone the perspective to walk together with certain people for promoting academia made me feel rather uncomfortable.

**I hope that citations, as cited by Keyser-Bril, which were made by “academicians” and parliamentarians and which stated: “The role of universities is to “supply human capital and incubate start-ups” or “the main mission of universities was to “integrate graduates into professional life” are outliers. Furthermore I hope that there are still people in power who know that there are quite some challenges waiting for humanity (and those challenges are not necessarily man-made (example)) so who should meet those challenges and find “truth”, i.e. empower humanity (and its derived life-forms) for survival if not scientists?

One Response to “about the march for science”

  1. AIBot Says:

    You didn’t understand a thing about new technology
    AI and Robotics Will Power the Next Industrial Revolution:

    “Each wave of technology sweeps away what has been put in place before,” says John Bi, CFO at Zhong An Insurance. All these things—robotics, AI, VR, new financial technologies—add up to massive changes on a global scale. But, notes historian Dr. Peter Frankopan, Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College in Oxford, England such changes are not something to fear. “Change is absolutely normal,” he observes. “There is nothing you can do about it.”

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