Testing the limits of universalism in science

This essay was first published by Areo magazine on 23 November 2018. 

Science traditionally aspires to be universal in two respects. First, it seeks fundamental knowledge—facts which are universally true. Second, it aims to be impersonal in practice; identity should be irrelevant to the process by which a scientific claim is judged.

Since the era following the Second World War, a great deal has come to rest on these aspirations. For not only does universalism make science a reliable means of understanding the world; it also makes scientific institutions an obvious basis for cooperation in response to various grim and complex challenges facing humanity. Today, these challenges include environmental damage, infectious diseases, biotechnology and food and energy insecurity. Surely, if anyone can rise above conflicts of culture and interest—and maybe even help governments do the same—it is the people in the proverbial white coats.

And yet, lately we find the very principle of universalism being called into doubt. Armed with the tools of critical theory, scholars in the social sciences and humanities assert that science is just one knowledge system among many, relative to the western context in which it evolved. In this view, the universalism that enables science to inform other peoples and cultures is really a form of unjust hegemony.

So far, this trend has mostly been discussed in an educational setting, where there have been calls to decolonize scientific curricula and to address demographic imbalances among students. But how will it affect those institutions seeking to foster scientific collaboration on critical policy issues?

An argument erupted this year in the field of ecology, centered on a body called the IPBES (Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services). I suspect few readers have heard of this organization, but then, such is the unglamorous business of saving the world. The IPBES is one of the few vehicles for drawing governments’ attention to the rapid global decline of biodiversity, and of animal and plant populations generally.

In January, leading members of the panel published an article in the journal Science, announcing a “paradigm shift” in how it would approach its mission. They claim the scientific model on which the IPBES was founded is “dominated by knowledge from the natural sciences and economics,” and prone to adopt the “generalizing perspective” of “western science.” Consequently, they argue, it does not provide space for the humanities and social sciences, nor does it recognize the knowledge and values of local and indigenous peoples.

The article, which sparked an acrimonious row within the research community, came after several years in which IPBES papers and reports had developed “a pluralistic approach to recognizing the diversity of values.” The panel has now officially adopted a new paradigm that “resist[s] the scientific goal of attaining a universally applicable schema,” while seeking to “overcome existing power asymmetries between western science and local and indigenous knowledge, and among different disciplines within western science.”

 

Science, Policy, Politics

 It is easy to dismiss such terminology as mere jargon, and that is what some critics have done. They claim the “paradigm shift” amounts to “a political compromise, and not a new scientific concept.” In other words, labeling a universal outlook western science is a diplomatic gesture to placate skeptics. Recognizing “a diversity of values” does not alter the pertinent data, because, however you frame them, the data are the data.

But here is the problem. When it comes to organizations whose role is to inform policy, this neat separation between science and politics is misleading; they often have their own political goals that guide their scientific activity. For the IPBES, that goal is persuading policymakers to conserve the natural world. Consequently, the panel does not merely gather data about the health of ecosystems. It gathers data showing how humans benefit from healthy ecosystems, so as to emphasize the costs of not conserving them.

This strategy, however, forces the IPBES to make value judgments which are not straightforwardly amenable to scientific methods. To assess the benefits of nature, one must consider not just clean air and soil nutrients, but also nonmaterial factors such as religious inspiration and cultural identity that vary widely around the world. Can all of this really be incorporated into a universal, objective system of measurements?

The IPBES’ original paradigm tried to do so, but, inevitably, the result was a crude framework of utilitarian metrics. It sought to categorize and quantify all of nature’s benefits (including the religious and cultural) and convert them into monetary values—this being, after all, the language policy makers understand best. As the Science article states, drawing on a substantial literature, this reductive approach alienated a great many scientists, as well as local people, whose participation is crucial for conservation.

All of this illustrates some general problems with universalism as a basis for cooperation. Firstly, when a scientific institution directs its work towards certain policy outcomes, its claims to objectivity become more questionable. It might still produce knowledge that is universally true; but which knowledge it actually seeks, and how it translates that knowledge into policy tools are more contentious questions.

This problem arises even in cases of solid scientific consensus, such as climate change. Rising temperatures are one thing, but which consequences should scientists investigate to grab the attention of policymakers or even voters? Which economic policies should they endorse? Such judgments will inevitably be political and ideological in nature.

Moreover, some subjects are simply more politically and culturally contentious than others. There are many areas where, even if a universalist approach can be devised, it will nonetheless be regarded as an unwelcome and foreign way of thinking. As we have seen, nature is one of these areas. Another obvious example is gene editing, which Japan has recently allowed in human embryos. Any attempts to regulate this technology will likely require a debate about religious and cultural mores as much as hard science.

 

The Limits of Pluralism

The question is, however, does the pluralism now advocated by IPBES offer a viable solution to these problems? It is highly doubtful. The influence of critical theory, as seen in a fixation with knowledge as a proxy for power, is itself antithetical to productive cooperation. Rather than merely identifying the practical limitations of the scientific worldview, it pits science in zero-sum competition with other perspectives.

The problem begins with a slide from cultural pluralism into epistemological relativism. In the literature that laid the groundwork for the IPBES “paradigm shift,” knowledge systems are treated as “context specific,” each containing “its own processes of validity.” As a result, the prospect of compromise recedes into the distance, the priority being to “equitably bridge different value systems, eventually allowing processes of social learning.”

As critics have warned, there is a danger here of losing clarity and focus, leading to less effective advocacy. IPBES papers and reports now bulge with extensive discussions of cultural particularism and equity, threatening at times to become an altogether parallel mission. Yet in 2016, when the panel delivered its most comprehensive assessment to date, the summary for policymakers included barely any information about the economic costs of ecological damage.

Indeed, despite its supposed skepticism, there is an air of fantasy surrounding this discourse. Even if there are areas where it is inappropriate to impose a purely scientific outlook, it is disingenuous to pretend that, with a particular goal in view, all perspectives are equally useful. Likewise, no amount of consultation and mediation can negate the reality that, with limited resources, different values and interests must be traded off against one another. If scientists absolve themselves of this responsibility, they simply pass it on to policymakers.

Universalism has practical limits of its own: it cannot dissolve cultural differences, or remove the need to make political decisions. But, provided such limitations are understood, it surely remains the most useful default principle for collaborative work. Even diverse institutions need common goals: to treat values as fully incommensurable is to invite paralysis. And to politicize knowledge itself is to risk unraveling the scientific enterprise altogether.