Science in the Storm 1: GMOs, Agnotology, Theory – Introduction
7 August 2021
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Storm at Sea, 1569 ; Image Credit: Wikimedia
Private interests sometimes indulge in disrupting scientific knowledge. The study of these strategies with human sciences’ methods is called agnotology. This text and the following are edited transcriptions of an open conversation organized to discuss this matter from the perspective of scientists directly confronted with this kind of practice. They explore the theoretical shortcomings in biology, especially molecular biology, that facilitate the artificial production of doubt and more generally deform scientific practices towards reductionist postures. The first text introduces this discussion, including both its scientific and political stakes.
Thank you for being there at this seminar, co-organized between the Association of the Friends of the Thunberg Generation (AAGT-AI), the Institut des Systèmes Complexes of Paris (ISC-PIF) and in the perspective of a publication in Philosophy World Democracy. Before letting Maël Montévil properly introduce the stakes of today’s discussion and our guests, I will rapidly evoke the work made in my association at the end of the year 2020 and concerning today’s topic.
We held a series of work sessions co-organized by Maël and me between diverse scientists, young climate activists, and other association members around the theme of scientific controversy and agnotology. I will summarize rapidly the two main hypotheses that come out of preliminary work and go beyond the realm of scientific methodology and theory and which Maël will certainly develop after me. This work has also been synthetized in an article that I wrote, in French, for the Mediapart blog of the AAGT-AI (1).
That is the same major confusion as in some conceptions of democracy. Here it means counting citations of colleagues as votes. Democracy, first of all, is the formation of an area of disagreement, the formation of an area where people disagree and push for different directions.
First of all, it seems for us, as a working group, that the factory of ignorance (fabrique de l’ignorance) – as it was called in a recent Arte documentary (2), in which the Institut des Systèmes Complexes intervenes – this factory of ignorance is encouraged, in many ways, by today’s political decisions concerning scientific and research institutions. In this documentary, we are invited to acknowledge how science can be subject to multiple attacks by the industry, or rather by specific industries. Attacks that ‘agnotologists’ aim to identify and understand in its very mechanisms so that they can protect the common good, that is, science and knowledge in general. However, beyond these attacks, it is the law of the market, if we can say, that is questioned in this documentary: the market is presented like some new church, a new authority that is complicated to contest, and a new constraint to scientific progress. Thus entire territories of undone science emerge – undone because it does not advance careers or because it is too dangerous to undertake by constituting a threat to gigantic industrial interests.
These observations are also consistent with Maël Montévil’s argument, which guided our work sessions and which states that a selective production of knowledge, doubt, and ignorance emerges from a productivist reorganization of scientific organizations on a global scale. Science, at least in France, is becoming more and more precarious, which is exemplified by the new 2020 law “Loi de programmation de la recherche” for the years 2021 to 2030. This law promotes research that is made “by projects” rather than the funding of research and scientists on the long term. This political decision concerning scientific and academic institutions in France is rather outdated when we hear the testimony of a member of my association that directly works in the technological industry: the funding by projects, according to him, comes from the industrial world, yet it seems that it is not really practiced anymore, for the main reason that it has proven to be not so fruitful – at least in the technological industry. For Giuseppe Longo, this “managerial” way of doing scientific research has been rather dominant for around 30 years or more: a liberal science in which competition is more valorized than collaboration in the process of knowledge production.
On the other hand, the second hypothesis that came out of these work sessions is the unequivocal role of the media industry and social networks’ current algorithms that impoverishes the public and scientific debate in general. Drawing from Bernard Stiegler, who founded our association in late 2019, we define polemics as fights in which arguments are opposed – confrontations favored in today’s television industry, of which the interest is to increase its audience capture attention more efficiently. On the other hand, controversy can be said to be different interpretations inside the same discipline or scientific heritage. Ultimately, controversy aims to make knowledge progress: it constitutes a common ground of work between scientists who disagree on some points but want to make that discipline progress.
When we observe debates that happen on Twitter, for instance, or at least the ones that are algorithmically promoted on Twitter “home feeds,” instead we see that it is confrontational polemics that are promoted and not really controversy and productive debate, in which users of the platform listen to each other. These algorithms are also kept confidential for that reason, perhaps. Finally, for our working group and especially for Anne Alombert, we need to integrate into the analysis of the crisis of science and scientific debate our technological and mediatic conditions or milieu, which significantly shape our public debate. We can indeed argue that today’s debate, which is becoming increasingly violent worldwide and confrontational, is in part the result of the algorithmic model of Twitter and other social networks. We believe these technologies are not politically neutral, so we cannot just drive them out of the equation. It is our democracy that is at risk in this affair.
Thank you, Victor, for this excellent introduction. Private interests sometimes indulge in disrupting scientific processes. This phenomenon has been studied by human sciences and specifically by Proctor, who originated the field of agnotology with his study on the tobacco industry and the way they shed doubts on the carcinogenic effects of their products (3). By contrast with classical sociology, history, or philosophy of science, agnotology studies the deliberate production of doubt or ignorance in society. The corresponding strategies are usually intended to delay public regulations to protect industrial interests, provided that in this specific context, time is literally money. However, agnotology does not answer a critical question, and it is a question that our speakers have been concretely confronted with: how to do science in this context? How to do science when addressing questions touching massive interests, economic interests, or also political interests? In this sense, the question is not completely new. It was already a problem for Galileo with the symbolic interest of the church. However, the conditions today are very different from the situation during Galileo’s time, because science intertwined with technology and thus industrial interests, not only symbolic ones. To address this question, we have three speakers who are all members of the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER), an organization that I think, in a sense, emerges also in response to the object of agnotology, the deliberate creation of doubt.
Among these speakers, two are scientists who really have hands-on experience of science in the storm, primarily in the case of GMOs, but not only. Dr. Angelika Hilbeck is an agricultural ecologist and works in the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, and Prof. Ignacio Chapela is a microbial ecologist and mycologist working at the University of California in Berkeley. I am quoting here a paper that was published in 2010,
“A key aim of ENSSER is to support and defend critical and independent science and research. ENSSER is aware of the increasing corporate influence and control on the agenda setting and conduct of science and research. At the same time, there is an increasing demand by the public and regulators to demonstrate safety and sustainability of production processes and industrial products through scientific research” (4).
ENSSER promotes critical science, which is or at least should be a pleonasm. In the context of major private investments and interests, the range of welcome questions narrows down. Optimizations to technology are appreciated, but criticisms cocnerning the opportunity of its deployment in an ecosystem’s context are frowned upon, and so are criticisms of the rationale that birthed it.
This latter point leads me to the specific spin I would like to give to this question; mainly, I would like to emphasize the role of theory in the scientific sense, like general relativity and thermodynamics in physics, like evolution in biology. A context of this meeting is that it will be transcribed and published in a special issue of the Journal of Philosophy World Democracy, in a special issue on the decline of theorization in current sciences. This decline is not just my observation; it has been emphasized by the physicist Higgs or France by Jean-Marc Lévy Leblond. For example, for Jean-Marc Lévy Leblond, it is a decline in articulation between practical problems and speculative thinking. This articulation is proper to modern science and is profoundly degraded.
Suppose that Poincaré and Einstein were in ERC (European Research Council) grant committee in 1910 and that this grant committee was examining proposal by Planck.
I want to hint at what theorization is in this context. Theorization has a synthetic function. Reasoning on theories means aiming to embrace a diversity of observations and other relevant theories when working to produce a way to understand specific phenomena. In this sense, it is very different from mathematical models. Mathematical models are primarily about a specific situation, and many of the hypotheses used in mathematical models are ad hoc. Mathematical models can build on a theory or can be outside a background theory. The critical difference between working on mathematical models and theory is that, in theorization, hypotheses are taken with gravitas, and some of them can become theoretical principles. Then a community of scientists considers that they are set in stone until proven otherwise.
The point is that having a theory gives momentum to science when encountering storms like conflicting private interests. For example, perpetual motion would be a great “concept” to sell by industries, but thermodynamics has shown that it is impossible. Accordingly, there are no political or industrial discourses that build on the idea of doing perpetual motion devices thanks to a century-year-old theory that is robust, thermodynamics. The issue is that, especially in biology, there is a century-old theory, evolution; however, it underspecifies matters concerning biotechnologies. More generally, there is a lack of theory concerning organism biology, notably physiology, development, immunology, and how much the embedding in an ecosystem is necessary to understand an organism. Biology lacks theorization works, especially since the molecular biology revolution. In this situation, biology is subcontracting the theoretical work to other scientists, for example, to computer scientists in bioinformatics, to physicists in biophysics, to mathematicians in applied mathematics, and, to an extent, to philosophers, especially analytic philosophers for logical consistency. However, the issue is that all of these fields do not genuinely do theoretical biology. They develop mathematical models, for example, in mathematics. In analytic philosophy, they typically provide accounts of what biology focuses on and what biologists mean when talking about delicate matters such as functions. However, they do not provide work on scientific theories, integrating a diversity of observations and providing simultaneously a view on living beings and on the way to understand them.
Going back to agnotology, specifically in the case of GMOs, this situation leads to fragile discourses in academia, industry, and regulation institutions. The problem is not just that we lack a theory in biology; we, more importantly, lack a culture of theorization, that is to say, the drive to have elaborated and consistent discourses that integrate with other relevant fields – overall the care for the rationality of discourses. This lack of care for theory sometimes leads to preposterous consequences, like the principle of substantial equivalence that is used for biotechnology regulations in the US. The idea is that a GMO is roughly the same as a non-GMO because they are made from the same things. Following this rationale, since a proteic poison is made out of amino acids, we should eat it. this rationale is genuinely preposterous, but the lack of theoretical culture overall in biology leads to this kind of discourse to get food in regulation.
To address this perspective, Angelika Hilbeck and Ignacio Chapela will discuss with Giuseppe Longo, who is a mathematician and epistemologist who works at CNRS and Ecole Normale Supérieure. He is also the president of the Association of the Friends of Thunberg Generation, launched by Bernard Stiegler, and he is a member of ENSSER; therefore, he is a link between both organizations.
I would like to start with a personal remark. I have been fortunate for a large part of my scientific activity because I have been raised first as a student and also worked for a while in pure areas of mathematics that I soon could relate to some foundational issues in computer science. The commitment to knowledge and … having fun was the main issue, the joy of exchange and working together on a blackboard. Collaboration mattered much more than the competition. This situation, of course, had advantages and counterparts: we were not involved with matters of the world, at least as long as I worked in mathematics.
However, in this fantastic milieu, also for its high standard in Pisa at the time in mathematics and later in informatics, I learned something crucial for knowledge that I would like to call an “ethic of knowledge.” This ethic means that while doing scientific work, one should make principles explicit and then take a step aside from the principle proposed for knowledge construction, and so be critical concerning those very principles within which one wants to work.
Then, disagreement is a starting point. It is so in pure mathematics because you have to disagree with existing approaches, with an existing result, to say: “this is not what you need to be proven but … something else instead”. Sometimes there is no other reference within the mathematical corpus, nor there is a needs to be an “outside (empirical) world”. Then internal disagreement is a keyway to finding a new path. This is an element, of course, of having a controversy because you disagree with mainstream areas, and you are proposing new ideas on the ground of different perspectives. The latter need to be invented; they are not already here.
When we observe debates that happen on Twitter, for instance, or at least the ones that are algorithmically promoted on Twitter “home feeds,” instead we see that it is confrontational polemics that are promoted and not really controversy and productive debate, in which users of the platform listen to each other.
I stress, then, the role of collaboration. I learned very soon that collaborating by two allows producing much more than the double, which is absolutely crucial. Instead, since 20 or 30 years, politicians stress that what matters is competition; I remember at least two ministers of education and science in France following this line firmly. You have to compete between teams; you have to compete within a team. That is a transfer of the competition logic to a domain of exchanges and collaborations. The constructive dialogue which goes even with controversy is at the core of the process of knowledge construction.
As for competition, I would like to recall something that the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, said very recently. He stressed that we obtained vaccines thanks to greed: financial greed and industrial greed. Therefore, besides the role of technologies in vaccine development, public financial support was absolutely critical, which was the real way to obtain vaccines.However, the only thing that remains in the common culture is this remark by Boris Johnson. If researchers working on vaccines had been collaborating, it would have been much better for all of us – we know so little about these vaccines that the integration of knowledge is fundamental. The problem with this attitude concerning competition that is the opposite of constructive controversy is that it is much easier to compete than to collaborate. To collaborate, you need to find good researchers with a common language or construct one, and the collaboration will be more fruitful the more the person, the colleague is distant intellectually, it will bring new ideas … but that is very hard. Competing is easy; you can even cheat. Indeed cheating is at the core of competition. Cheating is not just falsification; it can mean cutting corners. About 50% of the results in some areas like molecular biology are proven false within five years (5).
In 2007, a major fight began against bibliometric indexes in France. We won, at least temporarily, and it was started in my school by mathematicians, physicists, and computer scientists. I was one of the persons implied, but I could not get the signatures of my colleagues in biology - molecular biology was dominating there. They did not find it so bad that machines counting citations define the value of scientific work and that the “impact factor” was computed over two years. That is the same major confusion as in some conceptions of democracy. Here it means counting citations of colleagues as votes. Democracy, first of all, is the formation of an area of disagreement, the formation of an area where people disagree and push for different directions. That is the core of democracy joint to the division of power. Then, of course, the vote of majority matters but per se, the vote of a majority may bring Hitler or Salazar in power. This is a misleading understanding of democracy and a fortiori of science. As I said before, science grows within a school, as it is very hard to do scientific work outside a common practice of thinking, a school of thought. But then, science advances by disagreements, controversies, and different paths proposed by a few within the school.
The quick way to competition, including cheating, has the exact opposite of another component that, in the debate, may cause controversies, is the taking of a risk. Taking a risk is a crucial point, taking an intellectual risk and perhaps, even sometimes, a lifetime risk in the sense of carrier by an isolated exploration. There is no institutional engineering of a remedy to a decrease of an ethic of knowledge, grounded on the possibility of disagreeing, of taking a side step, constructing knowledge in a critical way that others cannot see meaning to. The other way these key constructive elements of scientific knowledge are being killed is by “work by project proposals,” as mentioned before. We do need big projects, like projects concerning the ecosystem, for example, but if we only do big science or write-only grant proposals, as many do today, we kill science. There is a need for tenured people exploring different paths capable of handling strong controversies because they have permanent jobs. The fact that tenure is disappearing in the US, for example, where, now, many positions are just for a few years and renewed on the grounds of the money people bring in by projects, is catastrophic for critical, genuinely innovative, long term thinking. Similar phenomena are also being developed in Europe, at least for young people, and this may leave traces for very long since it is the core of the crisis that promotes techno-science, which is the opposite of knowledge construction.
Going back to agnotology, specifically in the case of GMOs, this situation leads to fragile discourses in academia, industry, and regulation institutions. The problem is not just that we lack a theory in biology; we, more importantly, lack a culture of theorization, that is to say, the drive to have elaborated and consistent discourses that integrate with other relevant fields – overall the care for the rationality of discourses.
I would like to remember, in contrast to this decline of open controversies, some historical ones. I have been told that Democritus proposed the atomistic theory by looking at a marble step that was used, and he sat there and cleaned it very carefully. He then observed that at each individual step, nothing visible was eliminated. However, after many years, the step was used; there was a kind of a gap made up over time. So he thought there were very small invisible parts that were taken away at each step, the atoms. Then, he went to discuss on the agora about his atomistic approach to nature. He was confronted by Parmenides or Heraclitus followers, who claimed that the world is a continuum and explained that matter is hard, of course, but that it depends on the scale of time. It may be considered soft in the long term, so also continuous matter being soft could be bent by the pressure of the many steppers on top of it. It was another interpretation of the phenomenon, and at this, Democritus, tells the legend, said, “fantastic, it is very nice that facing the same phenomenon via different theories, so we can debate, and increase the credibility and dig more deeply, each one in its own theory or reach the truth.” We do not have exactly these attitudes as they had so many gods fighting each other for different opinions, while we are monists, searching for unity. Yet, this is also a productive attitude as the search for unity in the different interpretations may contribute to knowledge, as it happened with Newton, Maxwell, Boltzmann, Einstein … great “unifiers” in physics, yet this open controversy was the beginning of western science.
Another beautiful moment for controversy is the debate Einstein-Bohr in quantum physics. They strongly disagreed, but they both deeply respected each other, and their debating has been extremely fruitful. As an example of what this may mean, though, for the way we are financing research in the vast majority of cases, that is, by large grants, I’ll give you an invented example. Suppose that Poincaré and Einstein were in ERC (European Research Council) grant committee in 1910 and that this grant committee was examining proposal by Planck. I’ve been in one or more of these big committees, and since only 5% of the proposals are approved, you need enthusiastic approval by the five committee members. So, if in the committee of five, Poincaré and Einstein were sitting and, I suppose, with their highest honesty and also maximal knowledge, Planck would not have got a grant, so no students, no quantum physics, basically. Why? Because even in the most kind, scientific way, even though they did liked the work done by these people, they disagreed deeply. Both Poincaré and Einstein would have said, “a beautiful but rather crazy proposal, as this interpretation they are proposing of the quantum phenomena is really not a viable one – to say the least, it is incomplete” (6) – the mildest disagreement, and you do not get a grant when the rate of approval is 5%. So, this story aims to exemplify how things could go wrong if we are using evaluation and work in science in the way we are doing it now.
Well, I would now like to ask Ignacio and Angelika to take up and continue, I know they have vast experience in fields that are difficult both for the scientific content, and because of the battle that goes on in the applied sciences of life, it is a war, a battle in those areas that relate to ecosystems, to GMO’s, in the biology related to agronomy and our intervention on Earth. Thank you very much.
1. Victor Chaix, “Controverses, informatiques et démocraties dans un monde post-covid”, Le Club de Mediapart (3/06/21) [https://blogs.mediapart.fr/les-amis-de-la-generation-thunberg/blog/030621/controverses-informatiques-et-democraties-dans-un-monde-post-covid]
2. Franck Cuveillier and Pascal Vasselin “La Fabrique de l’Ignorance”, Arte, 2020 https://www.arte.tv/fr/videos/091148-000-A/la-fabrique-de-l-ignorance/
3. Proctor, Robert N., and Londa Schiebinger. "Agnotology: The making and unmaking of ignorance." (2008).
5. della Briotta Parolo P, Kumar Pan R, Ghosh R, Huberman BA, Kaski K, Fortunato S (2015) Attention decay in science, Journal of Informetrics 9:734-745
6. Einstein A., Podolsky B. Rosen N., 1935. Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Realitybe Considered Complete?, Phys. Rev., 41, 777.