This is an opinion piece and does not necessarily represent the opinions of the entire staff.
Scientific research has always produced incredible medical and technological micro- and macro-revolutions that have altered the course of human history. In recent decades in particular, we are witnessing a radical change in the lifestyle of human beings, with an increasingly uncertain future dictated by the incessant pace of scientific discoveries.
Predicting the future is increasingly difficult, but it is very easy to predict that social changes, driven by science, will become a constant to which future societies will have to adapt. Indeed, that science has always influenced the cultural aspects of our society, and that it has determined its paradigmatic shifts, is something indisputable.
In the context of the last two decades, influenced by the 2008 economic crisis and currently strengthened by the COVID-19 pandemic, social stability in various cultural and geographical areas of the world has undergone strong pressures, which have shaped the way people think and act, and will likely lead to structural changes in our society.
This vibrant society, stirred up by incessant technological revolution and by other events, has begun to produce new debates on issues previously addressed only marginally, or with different tools. These include racism, homophobia, and transphobia, the definition of gender and the evolution of feminist thought, the increasingly relevant discussion about our political systems, and the debate about capitalism and neoliberalism.
All these issues are discussed on various communication channels, with an incessant production of printed content, online articles, posts on Facebook, videos on YouTube and tweets, and with the participation of an amalgam of intellectuals, politicians, influencers, academics or any other people.
The discussion is exacerbated by cultural and social movements such as that of Black Lives Matters, which manifests itself in pacific and occasionally violent protests. Or in the debate on “cancel culture”, with its repercussions on the lives of the people involved, or even, more indirectly, on the social policies of governments around the world.
These social clashes are so innovative that they go beyond the political dichotomy of American and largely European bi-partisanism, and they go so far as to involve science, questioning the truthfulness of the scientific method and of scientific language.
The overwhelming and unprecedented influence that social and cultural trends are imposing on the world of science is an element that must cause concern in academic circles, and should signal the need for scientists to enter the social debate with a rigorous communicative method, and to prevent paradigmatic changes in the language adopted at the societal level from being reflected in scientific research.
The reason is quite simple: a change in language almost always translates into a change in social policies, especially in those societies that make democracy their backbone. Therefore a change in scientific language would almost inevitably translate into a change in the way scientific research is conducted. More importantly, this would likely change the objectives of scientific research, which rather than being determined by the innovative and brilliant minds of scientists, would most likely be dictated by the dominant belief of the masses. Imagine what would happen if the majority of American people supported the anti-vaccination movement in the years to come. As is already happening now, scientific communication would shift increasingly towards this topic, and ultimately research could be affected too – in terms of funding, or even in terms of orientation. Scientists could be keen on demonstrating the safety of vaccines, instead of focusing on more important topics.
This essay of mine by no means intends to argue that the current scientific system works in an ideal and rigorous way. On the contrary, as I have argued elsewhere, I believe that today’s science is driven by economic foundations, rather than by the inherent curiosity of our species. In academia, this is manifested in the hegemony of scientific journals, which dictate the language and narrative of research, determining how and why public and private funds reach the pockets of some research groups rather than others. In the technological realm, the economic interests of tech giants, their lust for big data and control of the masses (two elements that reinforce each other), is what drives our technological progress towards building a connected and ‘social’ world.
Despite this consideration, I do not at all believe that the control of the scientific research dynamics should change from one tyrant to another, in this case from individuals governed by economic interests to individuals governed by social (and economic) interests. Such a change would produce unpredictable results, and it would certainly be a harmful and irreversible experiment.
To give concrete examples, the debate on racism must remain outside of science. It is true that our society is built on social dynamics that make racism one of its undesired institutions. On a social level, racial division due to different ethnicity (i.e. skin color, facial features, etc.) is certainly something to condemn. At a scientific level, the observation or recording of ethnic differences is of fundamental importance to determine the effectiveness of drugs, which may respond differently depending on the genetics of individuals. Thanks to our increasingly greater knowledge of genetics, it is now possible to design personalized therapies that are increasingly effective against various diseases such as certain types of cancer. Therefore, defining and tracking the ethnic and genetic origins of various people remains of utmost importance in biomedicine.
Diversity, which must be socially condemned when it generates divisions and hierarchies, is something of which science cannot be deprived of. Scientific research, therefore, must not be influenced by social movements fighting against racism, just as it must not be influenced by racist beliefs themselves. But the latter is a trivial observation, and I hope the nefarious results of racial science will remain written only in the darkest pages of human history.
When it comes to gender and the rights of LGTB+ communities, the situation becomes complicated. The concept of ‘gender fluidity’, which is based on the idea that classification into two distinct sexes is a social construct, and not necessarily dependent on biological traits, is a revolution that opens the doors to a society in which the focus becomes the right of the individual. It is in fact the exemplification of a capitalist society based on individual rights, which have defeated communal rights. It is the “end of the world”, to quote American political scientist Francis Fukuyama.
But a perhaps positive ‘end of the world’ for our society, can become catastrophic for science. Biological differences between sexes, from the obvious ones – the presence of a penis for males, and a vagina for females – are corroborated by other, more subtle genetic differences. Although there is a certain degree of sexual fluidity at the biological level, the distinction between gender and sex is quite clear, and must remain so.
A change in language, which has already begun to be reflected in the use of the term ‘gender’ instead of ‘sex’ even in scientific publications, is problematic in a practical sense. On a social level, this ensures that each individual is in fact free to understand their existence in the way they deem appropriate. However, defining themselves as a woman rather than a man in a scientific study, if in reality, they are a male individual, can alter or invalidate the results of an entire research project, or make the statistical interpretations of a clinical trial — which allows us to define whether a drug is safe, functional, at what dosage, and under what circumstances — inaccurate.
Let’s take the example of data relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. As we all know, the mortality rate is much higher in males than it is in females. It is therefore reasonable to assume that, if a significant proportion of individuals declare themselves to be of a different gender (than their real biological sex), the aforementioned statistics could be torn apart. As a consequence, scientific research would not orient itself in the correct direction, that is, in trying to determine what causes COVID-19 to affect the two sexes differently.
Now for my final example. Academic language and functioning have been strongly influenced in the past by a dominant, hegemonic style of thought. As previously mentioned, the neoliberal system, which still dominates the world’s societies, has meant that private businesses, i.e. scientific journals, take over the communication channels in academia. Journals provide scientists with their service, as does any other normal market dynamic that is constantly taking place in capitalist societies. Scientists, the customers, started using the only service capable of providing them with the possibility of publishing the results of their research.
As we have seen, science tends to follow the dominant narratives in society. With this understanding, science must keep away from political propaganda. This means that if, on the one hand, humanity is experiencing the results of an economic crisis, a pandemic, and an increasingly bipartisan and violent political discourse, on the other hand, science should aim to remain unaffected. Science can and should influence society, pushing for changes that improve the quality of life of all people. But the opposite is not desirable.
In conclusion, science should never be democratic, nor absolutist, nor capitalist – to provide examples. It should certainly not be against the gender revolution, nor against the Black Lives Matter movement, but it shouldn’t let any political debate in any direction shine through and influence the work of scientists.
Science shouldn’t oppose social revolutions, but it also shouldn’t favor them (unless the scientific movement is being oppressed). It must influence global language, rather than having its language influenced by cultural shifts and political trends. And it should determine the future of our society, rather than having its own future determined – in terms of its methods and objectives – by society.