Thursday, January 31, 2013

URGENT! (a note on bourgeois science rhetoric)

The other day we saw reportage of a story by some anthropologists that showed how deeply, and subtly the current science culture has become a lobbying and advertising culture, even as it tries, genuinely, to answer questions about Nature.

Barefoot Pheidippides along the Marathon Road
This particular story was an investigation of some African peoples that was done to support the authors' idea that running barefoot, rather than Nike-shod, is good for us because that's how we evolved (barefoot, not Nike-shod, nor Avia-shod either!).

We're not commenting on the merits of the story, because we have no reason to doubt the authors' analysis or data.  They are capable people and the question, though not earth-shaking, is a legitimate subject for looking at the effects of our evolutionary past.

No, what got our attention in regard to MT commentary was something the authors said to the reporter at the end of the interview.  Rather than claiming that with this research we now understand about the evolution of human running, they pointed to inconsistencies or incompleteness in the data, and said that this shows how much we still "need' to learn.


They didn't say 'how much we do not yet know' or how difficult it is to answer such questions relating to the past.  No, we need to know more.

This is the seepage of subtle, relentless lobbying into the fabric of contemporary science.  We have absolutely no 'need' for this knowledge.  It also tends to suggest that what they have learned so far is of some vital importance to humankind, rather than simply what it should be viewed as, a perfectly interesting question about human function and evolution.  But  it's pretty far down the need list.

These authors are not particularly blameworthy for slipping this kind of rhetoric in when describing their work.  It is routine, indeed part of the tactics, of scientists these days.  Most papers and nearly every interview with the media, stresses how we 'need' to do more research, and these days that clearly means larger, longer studies.  The genetic basis of disease X, no matter what it is or how rare or  how serious, is treated as if we urgently 'need' to work out what we don't yet know.

Saying that it would be helpful to know more, that there is always more that can be learned, or that we'd like to continue working on this project are perfectly legitimate views.  It's up to society to decide which cases are pressing enough to be given the funds.

But to claim that understanding cancer, diabetes, or what makes someone a good athlete are in any sense 'urgent' is to play a game of self-importance.  Certainly it might be good if we could eliminate, say, diabetes or cancer and, for those of us alive and with the years ticking, the sooner the better for us.  But for society?  There are many more short-term problems that in the same sense could be called 'urgent', such as world hunger and many traits that truly are genetic, rather than the ones grabbing the bulk of life-science funds these days.  Of course we rant about this regularly.

And there is the inevitable fact that if we did actually use genomics to eliminate cancer and diabetes, those of us who pushed for this because it was urgent (for us personally), some other, later, longer, more lingering diseases of even-older age would replace them.

Meanwhile, think of the impact on quality of life of so many children here and worldwide because of the way we use our resources.  And perhaps we might consider--just consider, mind you!--moving funds to energy or climate or ecological or infectious disease or social-epidemological efforts, to do what we can about problems that we perhaps more sensibly really do need to address.

No comments: