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Should researchers be activists?

By René König

For the longest time, scientists were idealized as objective observers of the world. Today, this ideal appears not only somewhat naïve, it is also increasingly regarded as not desirable. Instead, scientists are expected to be active members of society and vice versa; science is seen to be in need of becoming ‘democratized’, for instance, by involving citizens in some way in the research process. The lines between science and other sectors of society have become blurry. The FemLab.co project itself in an example for that: It is our stated mission not only to observe but to facilitate change. And we´re not alone. We´re conducting a stakeholder analysis on actors dealing with the Future of Work. Already at an early stage, we identified a number of research projects which also play a role as activists: Fairwork, Data Justice Lab and Datactive to name just a few. This made me reflect on my own education and work experience. I wonder: Should researchers actually be activists?

Scientists as activists (Image credit: Ivan Radic)

I worked in Technology Assessment (TA) for over a decade. It is an interdisciplinary and diverse field that emerged in the 1960s when societies became increasingly aware of the risks and ethical concerns related to technological developments. On the one hand, TA’s mission was very successful. There are now countless mechanisms for this purpose: Ethics boards, parliamentary control groups, scientific risk assessment, participatory procedures involving laypeople in decision-making processes etc. On the other hand, there is still a pervasive idealization of technology as some kind of savior that should help us overcome our worst problems, while mocking TA and related concepts as “technology arrestment”. Today, this perspective is particularly prevalent in Silicon Valley and critics like Evgeny Morozov have attacked it as “solutionism”.

This much is clear: the relationship between science, technology and society is complex, diverse and controversial. There are no simple answers. Working in TA, I saw this not just as a theoretical question but an everyday, practical problem. I experienced this field as one in a permanent identity crisis. Not only because of the complexity of these questions but the ambiguity of TA’s role itself. TA seeks to provide decision-makers with impartial expertise. But if technology is not neutral, such advice can hardly be neutral either, and perhaps the expectation that it should be is wrong.

Entire books have been dedicated to these questions. The conundrum is reflected in the ongoing struggle to position TA within the complex relationship between the many stakeholders that contribute to shaping science and technology. In the end, these tensions seep into areas beyond TA and emerge in debates around the role of social science in general. Social scientists are unavoidably closely connected to what they are researching: society. It will always remain hard to navigate between being a truth-seeking observer and an active member of what we try to understand.

There have been long and intense discussions on how this problem should be tackled. Prominently (at least in German Sociology), Niklas Luhmann and Jürgen Habermas disagreed about the discipline’s purpose. Habermas pleaded for a rather ‘interventionist’ role, a perspective rooted in the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School. Luhmann on the other hand, was convinced that this normative approach would be limiting as it would bind the discipline to certain assumptions instead of aiming at a general theory and understanding of society.

While this theoretical debate was mostly concerned with the narrow disciplinary circle of sociology itself, wider audiences too have debated about actual or alleged normative biases among (social) scientists. In 2018, Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian effectively hoaxed numerous academic journals with a series of fake papers, including a chapter of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” rewritten to take on a feminist perspective. Their motivation was to reveal the biases of some parts of academia they labeled “Grievance Studies”. They stated:

“Scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances has become firmly established, if not fully dominant, within these fields, and their scholars increasingly bully students, administrators, and other departments into adhering to their worldview. This worldview is not scientific, and it is not rigorous.”

Pluckrose et al. saw their point confirmed when some of the papers actually passed the peer review process, including the rewritten chapter from “Mein Kampf”. The story was picked up by several larger outlets, including The Atlantic and Wall Street Journal. Critics were quick to fire back, dismissing the hoax itself as being unscientific and ideology-driven.

Notwithstanding the merit of this particular case, the fear that political motivations may hinder academic rigor is certainly neither new nor unfounded. While Nazis in Germany and elsewhere attempted to justify their murderous policies through racist pseudoscience, the sociologist Robert K. Merton reflected on what the underlying ethos science is – or rather should be – built on. Among the “institutional imperatives” that he detailed is one that appears to be the extreme opposite of contemporary approaches like action research: disinterestedness. Merton saw the goal of science in the “extension of certified knowledge” (p. 270) and regarded an institutional and functional detachment from society and its political drivers as one of the keys to achieve this. He glorified this detachment as a benefit that science enjoys and barely concealed his disregard of laypeople:

“The scientist does not stand vis-a-vis a lay clientele in the same fashion as do the physician and lawyer, for example. The possibility of exploiting the credulity, ignorance, and dependence of the layman is thus considerably reduced.”

(p. 274)

We have come a long way since Merton wrote this, in 1942. Today, the metaphor of the ivory tower is frequently applied to parts of science that detach themselves too greatly from society. In fact, it has become desirable to deliberately involve laypeople in the production of scientific knowledge. Action research, co-research, citizen science, are some of the concepts one could mention here. As a way of coping with the risks that science and technology have created, there is an urge to ‘democratize’ science. Moreover, it is increasingly recognized that science has contributed greatly to global inequities and more and more call for a decolonization of different fields of knowledge and practice. Thus, the question posed in the title of this essay could be countered with another: How can researchers not be activists? How can researchers ignore increasingly obvious injustices, especially if their discipline was somehow involved in perpetuating them? 

It is important to notice that neither Merton nor Luhmann wanted researchers to be disengaged and apolitical. Rather, their point was to separate the institutional function of science from that of the political sphere. Arguably, the authority of science can be to a large extent attributed to its universal and non-partisan commitment to truth-seeking. The instances where the principles of science were violated or academic knowledge was abused for oppressive purposes only serve to emphasize their importance. These are arguments for more scientific rigor, not arguments against science as an institution. However, in the last few decades, we have learned some important lessons: Firstly, truth in itself is not a value. It doesn´t direct us as a society. Secondly, science does not happen in a vacuum. The authority that this type of knowledge has gained makes it very powerful and we need to use it responsibly.

In this sense, researchers absolutely should be activists. They should care about the consequences of their work as well as for society. But that does not mean they should sideline scientific principles in favor for the causes that move them. Perhaps another of Merton’s principles can help here: “Organized Skepticism”. As Merton explains: “The scientific investigator does not preserve the cleavage between the sacred and the profane, between that which requires uncritical respect and that which can be objectively analyzed” (p. 254). Sympathy for a cause should never allure scholars to lose their critical edge. In fact, giving up rigor in favor for loyalty towards a group or cause will most likely backfire in the end, as it detracts substantially from the power the research could have. Researchers can be activists but that binds them even more to scientific principles as they need to be cautious and skeptical towards their own biases – especially if they want to help their cause.