Science isn't woke, but it is political

The U.K.’s science minister vowed to kick “woke ideology out of science”. While it might sound like a sensible policy to keep science and politics apart, in practice that’s impossible. Many key decisions in science require an appeal to moral and political values, argues Stephen John. But it shouldn’t be the government policing which values are acceptable.


Science minister Michelle Donelan’s speech to the Conservative party conference stated a bold aim of “kicking woke ideology out of science”. These remarks were in the context of a complex culture war around sex and gender, but they raise intriguing and important questions, relevant well beyond this case: can science be free of ideology? And should it be? 

Here’s one way of understanding Donelan’s remarks, suggested by her claims to want to “depoliticise science”: “woke” science is bad science because it’s influenced by a political or moral ideology, and science should be free of all of that, an unadulterated, unbiased pursuit of the truth. But a different way of understanding her eagle-eyed focus on one set of issues is that “woke” science is bad science because it’s influenced by bad values. On the first view, we should kick all values out of science; on the latter, we should kick out the wrong values. The first proposal is impossible, the second undesirable. 


Given that science is done by humans, its research agenda inevitably reflects what humans care about.



The impossibility of value-free science

The idea that science isn’t or shouldn’t be influenced by social or political values at all is non-sensical. Consider Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s promise at the same conference to stop cigarette smoking in the UK. This policy stems from the scientific consensus that smoking is a major cause of a wide range of diseases, most notably lung cancer. That research was primarily motivated by non-scientific, humanitarian concerns: to stop people dying horrible deaths. Given that science is done by humans, its research agenda inevitably reflects what humans care about.

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Still, you might think that there’s a difference between ideology influencing what we research and a more pernicious form of influence, where ideology corrupts “good scientific practice”. That’s true. Obviously, scientists shouldn’t go around denying well-established empirical claims solely on the basis of political expediency. That’s more the speciality of certain politicians, as so painfully illustrated by refusals to admit our climate is changing.

But we should be careful not to move from common sense injunctions against wishful thinking and cognitive bias, to a broader claim that scientific justification can always be non-political. Many aspects of scientific research involve a degree of freedom. This is particularly true in the biological, human and social sciences, where we are dealing with complex systems. There is more than one way to operationalise a concept like “aggression” or “health” – consider, for example, heated debates over whether conditions like ADHD are a “disease”. Even more strikingly, given that scientific claims are rarely (perhaps never) known with 100% certainty, there’s always a question about how certain is “certain enough” to accept a scientific claim.

Of course, scientists have conventions to deal with these challenges; for example, how to decide when a result is “statistically significant”. Still, given that there are no straightforwardly scientific reasons behind these conventions, even the central practices of scientific research can be challenged on broadly political grounds. In deciding, for example, when we have “enough” evidence to say that smoking causes lung cancer we are also deciding how to balance the risk of not making the claim if it is true – leading to many needless deaths – against the risk of making the claim if it is false – leading to a needless drop in tobacco companies’ profits. It’s hard to think about those questions without, ultimately, appealing to political or social concerns.

By now the evidence in favour of the smoking-cancer link is so overwhelming, it’s hard to imagine anyone could think we aren’t certain enough to accept that claim. Still, things aren’t always so clear. Consider Sunak’s other aim of cracking down on vaping, an area where we are far from a consensus. I don’t know whether that policy are justified, but I do know that the question of whether we are “certain enough” to say that vaping is harmful cannot be answered without thinking hard about social and political values. There is no values-free evidence we can point to, to help us decide when we are certain enough.


Whose values?

So, a completely depoliticised science is an illusion. Maybe, though, Donelan was concerned about something else: the “wrong” values are affecting science. That may be a successful line to the party faithful, but it faces issues once we leave the conference hall. We might worry about whether values can be “right” or “wrong” in the first place. Even if it were true that some values just are “right”, it’s not clear how we can know that. And, even if some people can identify the right values, democratic norms demand tolerance of opposing viewpoints. 

But perhaps more importantly, even if we grant that, by some miracle, philosophers managed to prove that woke values are clearly, objectively dreadful values, it doesn’t follow that woke science is therefore bad science.

Consider, again, cigarette smoking and lung cancer. This link was first proposed in the 1930s by doctors working in Nazi Germany. Specifically, these doctors made this suggestion in large part because they were sympathetic to a worldview which stressed notions of bodily purity and was suspicious of allowing “foreign agents” to cross borders (both bodily and political).

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Of course, we should be careful not to generalise too far from this example. There are excellent reasons to be alert to the ways in which unacceptable ideologies may shape our scientific concepts, and to question them accordingly. Clearly, we should not endorse Nazi racial “science”, and we should be alert to the possibility that such ideologies shape contemporary, apparently respectable, research.  Still, this example it’s a striking reminder that bad people can do good science. Even worse, sometimes bad people can do good science precisely because they are bad people. So, even if you hate “woke-ism”, it doesn’t follow you must hate “woke science”.     


If we think that clashes of ideologies are an inescapable aspect of the political world, and that science cannot be entirely insulated from politics, then we should expect a wide range of perspectives in science.


Pluralist Science

The notion that kicking out “woke ideology” leads to good science is, at best, silly and, at worst, meaningless. Still, the considerations above suggest a slightly more nuanced conclusion

Often, complaints about “woke ideology” are not just about what the “woke” say, but a perception that the woke want to police what other people say. In Donelan’s speech, she spent little time saying what the woke get wrong precisely, and more time invoking a world of self-censorship and cancel culture. There is intense debate over whether this image is correct. (And, as you might have expected from everything above, those debates over the facts are, themselves, heavily coloured by ideology).

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But these debates shouldn’t obscure a more fundamental issue. If we think that clashes of ideologies are an inescapable aspect of the political world, and that science cannot be entirely insulated from politics, then we should expect a wide range of perspectives in science. And if, as democrats, we think a clash of worldviews is not only inevitable, but valuable, we shouldn’t just expect, but preserve and promote a wide range of perspectives in science.

Of course, there are limits to scientific tolerance, just as there are limits to political tolerance. There are some red lines, even if difficult to strictly define, dividing the ideologies and political influences we should not allow.  However, if we want science that isn’t skewed by one particular ideology, we should be very wary of kicking anyone out.

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