Science provides objective answers to questions about the world, but that doesn’t mean that science is an entirely objective enterprise. Science exists within a world dominated by human needs, biases, and prejudices which means that science can be impacted by the same political, discriminatory, and mistaken judgements and decisions that any other human activity can be overwhelmed by. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari shows how this happens when it comes to selecting scientific research topics, setting the priorities of science, and when objective conclusions flow into the world where they can be used by less than respectable actors.
Harari writes, “science is unable to set its own priorities. It is also incapable of determining what to do with its discoveries.” Part of the reason why science cannot set its own priorities because science is expensive. Especially as we continue to make new discoveries, the subsequent steps require more time, energy, and resources. To discover the next quantum particle will require an even more impressive supercollider. To discover the next secret of the Amazon river will require taking new technology further up river. The cost grows, and individuals conducting research need to be able to convince those with resources to commit those resources to their particular interests. This means that science doesn’t unfold uniformly or in equal ways. As Harari puts it, “to channel limited resources we must answer questions such as what is more important and what is good? And these are not scientific questions.”
But even when good science is done, and even when accurate and objective measurements are obtained with reasonable conclusions drawn from those measurements, the impact of science can be unpredictable. Many scientific studies and results are obscure, with very few people outside a select expert community ever hearing about the results. But other conclusions can be taken out of their original context and can become part of the cultural zeitgeist. How studies and their conclusions are understood can get away from the researchers, and can be used to further specific political or economic goals, even if those goals really don’t have a real relationship to the original conclusion that was drawn. Harari demonstrates how this happened with scientific conclusions being merged with racist ideas about the inferiority of non-white people. He writes, “racist theories enjoyed prominence and respectability for many generations, justifying the Western conquest of the world.” Whether researchers were explicitly racist or not, their research was adopted by people who were, and used to justify unsavory political ends. The science became wrapped up in a political culture that wanted to justify discriminatory and prejudiced behaviors and attitudes.
This doesn’t only happen with racist ideas, though those ideas can be the most prominent and dangerous. Small scientific findings can be taken up by militaries, by corporations, and by media organizations which may use the research and findings in ways the authors could not have predicted. Research on technology that helps improve light detection could find its way into a guided missile, into mass surveillance systems, or onto the grocery store shelves to be used by advertisers. The science itself cannot control the way that results end up being used in the real world, and that can be problematic.