Naturalization of Politics (or, When Assholes Use Science)

by Jon

Science studies has been on the receiving end of a great deal of criticism from self-proclaimed defenders of science. One of the most common targets of that criticism is the examination of science’s social dimensions. It has been thoroughly demonstrated that the authority and legitimacy that science and scientific explanations enjoy is not simply the product of science’s unique access to the Truth, but arises out of a set of historical, social, and political circumstances that have led people in Western societies to trust science over other forms of understanding. One of the projects of science studies is to examine those circumstances and tease out the kinds of work that science is doing socially and politically (whether or not scientists are aware of that work) in addition to its quest for knowledge of nature.

Those who see these lines of inquiry as an assault on science tend to see science exclusively as an epistemological program and perhaps the body of knowledge derived from that program. To these critics, the role that science serves as a legitimator of ideologies or beliefs is either invisible or made up by radical relativists who (for mysterious reasons) are out to discredit the most successful intellectual program in human history.

What’s ironic is that these same people who bristle at the suggestion that there’s more to science that the discovery of awesome facts about nature are also often on the front lines of the fight against misappropriations of science and scientific accoutrements by the purveyors of alternative medicine, self-help gurus, and psychics, not to mention politicians and pundits who see science-y sound bites as an invaluable tool in advancing their agendas.

A prime example of the latter can be found in a recent statement by current US Representative and Senate candidate Todd Akin[1], who asserted that “the female body has ways” to prevent pregnancy resulting from “legitimate rape.” Akin’s statement does a lot of work to advance his agenda using the role of science in our society. By putting his opposition to abortion alongside a (completely spurious) biological fact, he is framing his political aim as arising out of biology and medicine as opposed to his (very real) rank misogyny. Even better (from his perspective) is that in doing so, he is taking the standard misogynistic distinction between “legitimate” rape (by which he almost certainly means the violent rape of an otherwise chaste woman by a complete stranger) and other rapes (marital or partner rape, incest, date rape, rape of a woman who is drunk/promiscuous/wearing slutty clothes/otherwise asking for it) and making it a fact of nature that is recognized by the human body independently of legal or political concerns.

The naturalization of political ideology is a time-honored tradition. For centuries, science (or its forbearer, natural philosophy) was used to naturalize racial disparities, justify policies ranging from slavery to eugenics, and absolve the white European and American elites of any responsibility for racial injustice (and, as anyone who follows right-wing intellectual trends knows, these activities haven’t gone away). Science has also been used to justify the institutionalization and sterilization of homosexuals, the mentally ill and incompetent, the poor, and criminals of all stripes.

What’s so frustrating about the people who want to save science from those who would critically engage with it, is that they are usually keenly aware of the appropriation of scientific legitimacy by practitioners of homeopathy or creationists but they are unwilling to accept any questioning of “legitimate” scientists or scientific institutions, even though history demonstrates that “legitimate” scientists can abuse scientific legitimacy just as effectively as charlatans and quacks (more so, actually). We as a society have granted science a great deal of authority, and thus power. The study of the social dimensions of science isn’t an attack on science, but rather a necessary check on those who would misuse the power we have given them.

[1] This is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the same asshole who recently suggested that we should “look at or overturn” the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. A class act all the way.