How to control science: a case study

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By David King

Time and again, in debates about genetics, we hear two refrains. On the one hand, `science is progressing faster than society's ability to deal with its consequences', and yet `you can't stop science'. Both the feeling of being on a runaway train and claims about the inevitability of scientific discovery were particularly prominent in the recent debate about human cloning: Nature published a cartoon suggesting that critics of cloning were like King Canute, attempting to stop the tides. Critics of biotechnology seem trapped in a reactive mode, constantly rushing around trying to put out fires, and easily being labelled as `Luddites' or `professional doom-mongers'.

If we wish to find a way out of this impasse, there will be no alternative but to assert some form of control over the process of knowledge generation, before we are presented with faits accomplis, like Dolly. This is undoubtedly a daunting prospect, but not, I would suggest, an impossible one.

The dominant model of science and society

The idea that science advances inexorably, driven by its own internal impetus, is based on the dominant model of science as being something basically outside society. According to this liberal model, which is constantly reiterated by scientists and the science media, scientists' role is to uncover knowledge, which is defined as inherently good. Bad consequences can only arise from the `abuse' of scientific knowledge by society. Even critics often seem wedded to this model, with the bad guys being identified as profit-driven corporations. In this model, science resembles a black box, or, perhaps, a factory, surrounded by barbed wire fences and constantly spewing forth goodies, some of which may be tainted: society's only role is to consume the goodies and try to make sure that not too many people get poisoned.

This conventional model is hardly an accurate reflection of what goes on in the real world (see below), and it is not intended to be a serious description of reality. Rather, its political function is to suggest that those undertaking scientific research, unlike all other human activities, should be exempt from thinking about the consequences of their actions, and entering from into risk/benefit calculations. By defining what they do as good, and blaming all bad consequences on others, scientists are essentially telling the public, `go away and leave us alone to do our work'. Typically, this posture is justified in terms of academic freedom, or even freedom of speech.

Yet there is a crucial difference between multi-million pound research projects and speech. The plain fact is that the development of scientific and technological knowledge is one of the key driving forces of our civilisation. From the stirrup to the nuclear bomb, historical change has always depended on technical knowledge. The compilation of scientific knowledge is always an act of constructing the future, the future of our society. The development of the ability to clone and genetically engineer human beings, for example, has massive social and historical implications, and as such, is a matter of public policy. Yet under the existing system, the negative social consequences of scientific research rarely, if ever, feature in decisions about which science should be funded.

Research on `IQ genes'

The recent example of research to identify genes which influence IQ provides interesting insights into the way science funding institutions deal with these issues, and the way that the conventional science/society model shapes the strategies of critics. This is an unusual situation, in that there was a direct challenge from a citizen group to a specific scientific project, at the funding stage, which forced the various participants to explicitly spell out positions which are normally left vague, or expressed in coded form. In response to a research proposal to identify genes which influence IQ, the Campaign for Real Intelligence (CRIT1) lobbied the Medical Research Council (MRC). CRIT argued that the research should not be funded `because a) it is based upon a false identification of intelligence with IQ, b) it would encourage genetic determinism and associated harmful social consequences, such as selectiveness in education, c) it opens up huge possibilities for eugenic abuse and d) it would divert funding from research with a genuine medical benefit'. Arguments b) and c) are arguments about outcomes, about what will happen when the factory produces the goodies, ie. they are couched within the conventional model.

The initial response of the Medical Research Council to CRIT's arguments is typical: `... we do not believe that where - as in this case - research has potential health benefit, it should not be funded because of the potential misapplication of the findings.'2 As CRIT pointed out, when expressed clearly and openly in this way, the MRC position is hardly tenable, for it implies that any medical benefits, however minor and uncertain outweigh negative social consequences, however inevitable and severe. (In other words, the MRC not arguing that it had undertaken a risk-benefit analysis, but rather that it has the right to be exempted from that analysis.) The MRC has failed to respond to this point in subsequent correspondence, and has simply reverted to the conventional posture: `Measures to avoid unacceptable uses of research and to allay fears will be needed. But we must not ignore the benefits that this research could bring.'3 According to this view, negative social consequences are either preventable, or due to unjustified fears. Although this is not the place to enter into detailed discussion of this particular case, I would argue that the harmful impacts of identifying IQ genes, in a free market society, are neither preventable, nor difficult to forecast.

A modest demand

Thus, it seems an eminently modest and reasonable demand to place before science funders that all scientific research proposals are subject to a social risk/benefit analysis. If taken seriously this would require the opening up of the science funding procedure to a far wider range of expertise, and ultimately to some form of democratic control. This is the traditional demand of liberal and progressive science activists, including some scientists. The recent MRC public consultation on behavioural genetics (See GEN 16, p1) is a small step in this direction.

However, this approach has a number of pitfalls and limitations, which scientists are often quick to point out. Firstly, because the idea that all knowledge is good is so entrenched in our society, it is easy for scientists to portray those who argue against any particular piece of research as censors. A second problem is that such risk/benefit analyses are an attempt to predict the outcome of research. Scientists often argue that, as Dan Quayle famously remarked, prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.

While it is, of course, true that complete prediction is impossible, broad outcomes are often easy to foresee. Firstly, it is a condition of acceptance of almost all project grants that the research is designed to answer very specific questions, and the contribution that the research will make to the field is clear. Secondly, in Britain the last government spent millions of pounds on elaborate `Foresight' exercises, in which leading scientists attempted to predict the future direction of scientific discovery, in order to direct research funding in ways that would enhance industrial competitiveness. Clearly, then, prediction is not an entirely futile exercise. In aiming to control the runaway train that we feel ourselves to be on, to create some kind of rational and democratic system of science management, we need to recognise that science is already intensively managed, in all countries, primarily in order to satisfy the needs of industrial corporations.

The critique of science itself

However, the main defect of asking for social or ethical considerations to be taken into account in science funding, lies in failing to examine `the science' itself, and the supposed benefits it will bring. When we do this, we act as passive consumers of science as the conventional model expects us to. In order to go beyond this, it is necessary to take seriously the ways in which scientific ideas and the choice of scientific problem are influenced by social ideas and interests. Science is claimed to be the only source of true and incontrovertible knowledge, because of its supposed objectivity. Attempts to question these claims appear to scientists to be far more dangerous to the current science regime than asking for social outcomes to be taken into account, because it is a challenge to the professional expertise of scientists, and to their claims to authority. The ferocity of the `Science Wars' between scientists and sociologists, which have erupted in the US, shows how dangerous such critiques seem to scientists.

In its response to the recent MRC consultation on behavioural genetics, CRIT argued that there are severe conceptual and methodological problems with both the psychological and genetic aspects of behavioural genetics, which derive from the reductionist nature of those sciences. While thanking CRIT for its views on ethical and social issues, MRC chief executive, Professor George Radda responded brusquely to its critique of behavioural genetics: `The context of our consultation.... is to consider the ethical and social framework for behavioural genetics research...The Group [the MRC's ethics committee] is not constituted to consider the views of your organisation on the quality of this science. That assessment has already been made [by MRC scientists].'4 Radda's letter shows how scientific institutions have evolved mechanisms for dealing with issues that can be labelled `ethical'. These issues are relegated to ethics committees, but except in extreme cases, are not, as a matter of principle, allowed to interfere with the progress of science. By contrast, suggestions that there is not just one science, that there can be other scientific paradigms than those handed down to us from our scientific institutions, are perceived by those scientists working within the dominant paradigm as a mortal threat, which can only be dealt with by exclusion from consideration.

An example of such a critique of science is CRIT's argument, mentioned above, that the project of identifying `IQ genes' is invalid, because it is based upon the false idea that IQ equals intelligence. This point is widely accepted (at least in Britain), and is a major reason why IQ testing is not much used. In business, for example, aspects of intelligence such as communicative and teamworking ability, common sense and ability to productively manage emotions are far more valued than the ability to get high scores on IQ tests. However, an understanding of the history of IQ testing provides an excellent example of how scientific concepts are shaped by social forces. IQ tests are generally a composite of seven or eight sub-tests, which measure different abilities, which are correlated to varying degrees. Although the process of their construction tends to be obscured, IQ tests have been manipulated over the past 80 years specifically in order to produce a bell-shaped distribution of scores. But, as has been pointed out5 there is no reason to believe that nature is obliged to produce bell curves. The IQ test is, in other words, an artefact, an administrative convenience, useful for ranking individuals for purposes of social administration. The belief that IQ tests measure `something real' about a person is a classic example of reification, the illusion that because we have the ability to abstract some aspect of the performance of a complex system (in this case a human being), and assign it a number, we have identified a `real thing'.

Behavioural geneticists have expended great effort to show that IQ score is a good predictor of income and general success in US society, but one wonders why they have bothered, because the statement is, in essence, a tautology. IQ tests were invented and have been refined to measure those mental abilities which are most valued and rewarded in Western bureaucratic/technological societies. They measure the ability to manipulate abstract symbols (letters and numbers). They were designed in the early 20th century, during a period of rapid development of bureaucratic systems for management of society, in which employment for the middle classes became centred around offices. This is still the dominant way to `get on' in such societies. In other words, IQ is middle class intelligence, the ability to solve the kinds of problems that middle class people need to be able to deal with, for example, currently as information workers. The scientific work involved in developing IQ tests was an act of shaping the future, in a way that is itself more an act of censorship than of knowledge generation. Responding to the suggestion that opposing research to identify `IQ genes', put opponents in the position of the Pope, censoring Galileo, Chris Goodey has argued that, `In even seeking to find "IQ genes" these scientists are actually creating certain social values behind closed doors, and seeking to dictate to me what kinds of mental capacity I should develop and how I should behave, and the same for my fellow citizens. That makes cognitive and behavioural geneticists the true descendants of the Pope. The censorship is inscribed in their technology.'6

The illusion of inevitability

Although the above is by no means the only analysis that can be made of IQ, what it reveals clearly is that the supposedly `objective' measure of human abilities is heavily coloured by social ideas and interests. The history and sociology of science has produced many other examples, which illustrate of the point that there is not just one `science', but many different competing scientific paradigms. Some sociologists and post-modernists have argued that this means that all claims to truth are equally valid. In my view, this goes too far. But the appearance of a single, monolithic, science which `can't be stopped' is an illusion, promoted by scientific institutions and their publicists as a means of obscuring the social power relations which influence science. The reality is that the funding of science, like all other areas of life, consists of a struggle between competing ideas and interests. If this is not apparent, it is partly because one paradigm and set of vested interests is so dominant that it has succeeded in making itself almost invisible, and has created an appearance of inevitability. Nonetheless, the struggle for resources between competing scientific paradigms, disciplines and cliques is always already happening. In entering this fray, campaigners are not seeking to impose some new censorship on knowledge. Such censorship is already happening. It may indeed be that all knowledge is good, but, as those who control the science funding purse strings know, some knowledge is better than others.

So far in this article I have pitted two different approaches to controlling science against each other, in order to make the point that the approach which attempts to insert some consideration of social consequences into science funding decisions is, by itself, inadequate. Those who wish to achieve some democratic and rational control over science must also have a critical understanding of science itself. However, the two approaches tend to be complementary, because the harmful outcomes flow naturally from the social factors which influence scientific concepts. This is readily apparent with IQ: the eugenic consequences which would flow from the `IQ genes' project would not be an accident, but would arise because IQ as a concept springs from the bureaucratic project of social control which is the essence of eugenics. Thus the work of CRIT should not be seen as an isolated campaign: CRIT has argued against the project not merely because its consequences would be dangerous, but as part of an ongoing struggle against eugenics. In many political areas debate and campaigning neglects the level of knowledge generation, because campaigners tend to feel that nothing can be done in this area. The success of CRIT, a very small group of citizens, in achieving at least a considerable postponement of a major scientific project, suggest that this pessimism is unjustified.


1. David King is a member of CRIT.

2. Letter to CRIT from MRC chief executive, Sir Dai Rees, 16/5/96.

3. Genes and the Mind, MRC consultation document, May 1997.

4. Letter to CRIT from MRC chief executive, George Radda, 12/6/97.

5. Rose, S. Kamin. L and Lewontin 1984 Not in Our Genes.

6. Chris Goodey, paper delivered at `Has science gone far enough?' conference, University of East London, 1997.

From GenEthics News 19, August/September1997.

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