Sandy Starr: The Political Importance of Science and the Scientific Importance of Politics

Sandy Starr is Communications Officer at the Progress Educational Trust, a registered charity that works to create an environment in which research and practice in genetics and assisted reproduction will thrive. He is an evangelist for the view that political, scientific and cultural endeavour can - if permitted to - transform humanity’s circumstances for the better.

In recent years, I’ve read a lot of books and articles and listened to a lot of speeches about what makes science important. When scientists and science communicators set out to explain the worth of science, they often observe that science can provide us with impartial truths about the world we inhabit, truths that can be beautiful and completely at odds with our preconceptions. These truths are also universal - applicable to and usable by everyone, regardless of their background or beliefs.

Sometimes, these same advocates of the merits of science go on to explain that scientific truths are provisional, but that this makes them more rather than less valuable. In other words, science provides us with models for understanding and predicting the world, but these models are constantly being tested via the scientific method. Sometimes scientific models are tested to destruction, and are then supplanted with new models. In its ideal form, this process involves a generous rather than pejorative attitude by scientists towards their precursors. We think no less of Issac Newton and his achievements because Albert Einstein devised explanations for the world that supplanted Newton’s, nor do we think less of Einstein when his own explanations are tested by quantum physics.

All of these points about science and its worth are very important, and they’ve certainly played their part in enthusing me. But I think there’s another, less remarked upon aspect of science that we need to be reminded of - namely, the political aspect.

At this point, I must acknowledge that I’m not a qualified scientist by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, I’m a science enthusiast or science evangelist (no I don’t think that’s a contradiction in terms), someone who thinks science is a good thing and spends much of his time saying so. My interest in science stems largely from my prior interest in human-centred politics, and in changing the world for the better. And despite all its claims to provide us with impartial working models of the world, I happen to think that in some ways, science is no more important - indeed, is perhaps less important - than politics. When I say ‘politics’ I don’t mean it in the narrow sense of party or formal politics, but in its broadest sense - the process whereby humanity deliberates about its affairs and its future.

For me to say that science might be subordinate to politics is pretty unfashionable today, when the reverse is often assumed to be true. For one thing, ‘politics’ has become a dirty word, even among politicians. This was demonstrated in a recent Parliamentary debate where UK prime minister Gordon Brown accused opposition leader David Cameron of making a political point, and Cameron then asked Brown to retract the accusation - as though it were an insult!

For another thing, if ‘politics’ has become a dirty word, then ‘science’ by contrast is fast acquiring the status of holy writ. One hears constantly in political debate about the need for ‘evidence-based’ policy, where scientific evidence is used as a source of unimpeachable authority that (it is implied) dispels petty political prejudices. Or to use another example, protesters calling for the authorities to do more to avert catastrophic climate change have taken to using the slogan ‘the science has spoken’, as though science represents the final word on the matter.

Well, I for one am not enamoured of this version of ‘science’, which takes everything I find exciting and dynamic about science and ossifies it into static, unchangeable ‘truth’. I don’t believe that science sits above politics on morally neutral or morally high ground, in the way that is often implied today.

For me, the very concept of science has a deeply political notion embedded within it - namely, the notion that the world can be understood by humans. And the application of science (otherwise known as technology) has a further deeply political notion embedded within it - namely, the notion that the world can be changed by humans.

In short, I think that humanity and a positive political conception of it are the sine qua non of science - the things without which science cannot, in any meaningful way, exist. Science, as this enthusiast understands it, is a profoundly humanist enterprise. Science exists to serve and advance humanity’s interests.

It follows from this understanding that attempts to use science in an anti-humanist spirit, drawing up scientific evidence to belittle or disparage humanity and its affairs, are a non sequitur. Using science in this way is no less absurd than a man building a pedestal in order that he might reach for the sky, only to then scrabble around in the earth once he’s standing on it.

Granted, there are many challenges and apparent contradictions thrown up by the relationship between science and politics. One such challenge is negotiating the distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘social’ sciences, as reflected in the divisions between various academic disciplines. The problem here is how best to apply scientific principles to what might be conceived of as the non-human and human, or the ‘inanimate’ and ‘animate’ worlds. These two domains are connected but also separated in important ways, which do not seem to me to be adequately addressed by the way each domain is studied. A surfeit of jargon is often used in an attempt to bridge the two fields, but this jargon tends to obscure as much as it enlightens.

Another challenge is the philosophical conundrum of whether order and structure are intrinsic to the natural world, or whether these are actually properties of the way that humans understand the natural world. But such challenges don’t pose insurmountable obstacles to scientific or political understanding. Rather, exploring and grappling with these challenges stands to enrich both forms of understanding, locating what is essentially human about science and politics alike.

The objective component of science - its power to establish impartial truths accessible by all of us - is crucial, as many of its supporters have observed. But this objective component can only work in our interest if it is understood in tandem with the subjective component of science. This subjective component consists not in our fragmented, partial view as individuals (as postmodern relativists might have it), but rather in our enlightened view as a collective - in the idea that humanity, in the aggregate, can be the author of its circumstances.

A good example of both the political value of science and the scientific value of politics can be found in the Copernican Principle. This is the hypothesis, proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus in the sixteenth century and developed by Galileo Galilei in the seventeenth century, which in general terms means that humanity’s position in the universe is unlikely to be special and in particular terms means that the Earth orbits the Sun rather than the other way around.

The Copernican Principle is an objective, observable truth that - taken in isolation from the subjective component of science - appears to have some pretty bleak implications for us humans. The principle states that humanity and its home do not occupy any sort of privileged position in the universe. In doing so, the principle describes a natural state of affairs that appears to circumscribe us and everything we do. If we aspire to be political animals who shape our world, then this comes as a bit of a knock.

But thankfully, it’s only half the story. There is a subjective as well as an objective truth to be found in the Copernican Principle - namely, that if a privileged position in the universe is neither our natural (as über-atheist Richard Dawkins would have it) nor our God-given (as the Catholic Church that persecuted Galileo would have it) state of affairs, then this is a situation that it falls upon humans to remedy. In other words, if it’s not a given that our place in the universe is special, then it becomes incumbent upon us to make our place in the universe special.

The Copernican Principle illustrates that science proceeds from politics, inasmuch as a political belief in our ability to find and face facts is the starting point for a scientific understanding of our world. But the Copernican Principle also illustrates that politics proceeds from science, inasmuch as using science to establish the state of affairs in which we find ourselves is the starting point for using politics to establish the state of affairs in which we wish to be.

And whether your interests lie in science, in politics, or elsewhere, that’s quite an important thought - not to mention an inspiring one.


  1. Posted April 27, 2009 at 1:19 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Science Knowledge is very important to man and the universe;
    Scientifically things are discovered.

    Without science natural resources cannot be discovered. science knowledge is required and cannot be negleted.

    In the field of Science and Technologies many things have been manufactured e.g Television, computer, phone etc

    Medically, some apparatus like thermometer, Barometer, and lots more have been produced for use.

    Science Knowledge is Important to Man and his environment.

    check more on my blog

  2. Posted May 21, 2011 at 3:12 PM | Permalink | Reply

    i love science....

  3. isiaka nasiru ojo
    Posted May 24, 2011 at 4:40 PM | Permalink | Reply

    i love this expression you gave about science. Science is complex and is applicable to different areas of life.

Post a Comment