Science Evangelism

Photo by    Dominik Scythe    on    Unsplash

This piece by Ocean was originally published on Maaminga, a blog on 'Pest' Wasps and Biotech Controls that is part of a project exploring public and social perceptions of introduced wasp species, with an emphasis on tikanga Māori.

At this year’s Our Biological Heritage: Crazy and Ambitious conference, I told the audience that I was on the lookout for ‘signs of science evangelism’.

A science evangelist, according to the first few sources Google found, is someone with a passion for science, who communicates that love of science to others with zeal. An African American woman called Ainissa Ramirez calls herself ‘science evangelist’. Her story is inspiring for a number of reasons: she is female, she is a person of colour and she also counts herself as among the ‘casualties of science’, having been denied tenure at Yale University even after establishing a research lab there. She is someone who champions science, in spite of the institutions who do science.

I’m an admirer of Ainissa. But she’s not the sort of science evangelist that puts me on the alert.

I’m also not talking about Creation scientists, for whom science supports an alternative narrative in relation to the Earth’s past.

As a relative newbie to the conservation and bio-security arena (my education is in physics), it has struck me that the language used around (so-called) pests is like a kind of ‘call to arms’. Jamie Steer’s 2016 opinion piece in the Dominion Post – ‘War on Weeds’ – brought this home to me. In the ‘War on Wasps’ in New Zealand, Common and German wasps are described as ‘angry’, ‘bandits’, ‘ruthless villains, dangerous invaders’, and in response we are encouraged to ‘just kill the bastards’.

It’s true and factual that wasps are eating the food that our native insects and birds would otherwise eat. That with no natural predators, wasp biomass equals that of insects and birds combined, in native beech forest near Nelson. That a sting from a wasp can literally be life-threatening to humans: children and adults alike. And that because German and Common wasps were not here before, we should have a conversation about whether they have outstayed their welcome.

But if the evidence is so clear, then surely we don’t need propaganda to convince the public that our investigation into new methods of controlling wasps, is worthwhile?

So the kind of science evangelist I’m talking about is one who, yes, is passionate about science, and yes, passionate about communicating it. But they are also someone who believes that their viewpoint is correct, right, or even morally superior. That they have an obligation to ‘share the science gospel’ to convert unenlightened minds. The science evangelist sees no other alternatives as being valid ways of seeing the world or being in the world. Their single-minded focus might come from being silo-ed into a crowd that thinks and acts the same way they do, and shares the same core values. This kind of scientist seeks out positions that confirm their own. They see opposing positions as ‘unscientific’, ‘counter-productive’ and even ‘backward’.

Moana Jackson has spoken of the ways in which Christian institutions are complicit in the process of colonisation in New Zealand, which dispossessed Māori of their lands. In the film ‘The Leech and the Earthworm’ scholars alert us to what they see as a new wave of colonisation – biocolonialism – a process that uses biotechnological sciences to colonise the human body. ‘Part of the reason [GM] has to be now cloaked in so much scientific truth is the same reason why four centuries ago the dispossession of our people was cloaked in religious truth – it’s to ease the conscience of those who do the dispossessing.’ (Moana Jackson in Pugh, 2003). Could elements of the biotech ‘campaign’ be a dispossessing enterprise?

I was reminded of the idea of ‘science evangelism’ when Sir Peter Gluckman gave his presentation ‘New life science technologies and social license’, for the Royal Society earlier this month. He presented similar ideas in conversation with Guyon Espiner during this month’s Environmental Defence Society conference on Tipping Points. In both presentations, he is inviting us to start thinking and talking about the place of biotechnology in Aotearoa New Zealand. Some points from his talk that put me ‘on alert’ were:

  • Calestous Juma’s book ‘Innovation and its Enemies’ describes how it took a hundred years for margarine to gain a social licence. This is a precedent that was given prophetic meaning. It implies that while we should expect social acceptance on genetic modification to take a while, we’ll inevitably look back and think ‘ah, how benign that GM was – just like the margarine! – what were we even arguing about?’ This predetermines an outcome;

  • Gluckman recognises that publics need to engage in the issues. One of his ideas was citizens’ review of scientists’ work. Perhaps the Royal Society’s suite of talks (some of which cost up to $30 to attend) could be considered as engaging the public. If we are serious about this we need supported organisations for people to talk about this on their own terms from places of comfort to them. The Bioethics Council provided a good model, in my view;

  • An audience member raised the concern that, setting aside the science, they don’t trust governments and they don’t trust big corporations. History tells us to be wary of the single-minded motivations of corporations. History tells us to be wary of governments: if not our own, then certainly others. Unfortunately, Gluckman’s response to this concern verged on dismissive. But we need to take these concerns seriously. A merger between Bayer and Monsanto. Corporations suing our government over legislation that hurts its business. These may seem at times like distant worries from our little island nation, but big corporations and governments have given us many historical reasons to distrust them. We must all be on alert;

  • Sir Peter waxed lyrical about his involvement with younger generations of Māori and Pacific kids who are getting into science. He did not touch on other, more adult Māori concerns. Are the minds of the youth seen as more fertile and rewarding soil for the seeds of the science movement?

Peter Gluckman gave a fascinating and well-measured presentation, for which I have, unfairly, lingered over the evangelistic bits (in a future blog I’ll discuss other useful aspects). But we do need to be able to trust the Prime Minister’s Science Advisor to tell us the whole truth. Publics will not respond to someone they sense is a ‘priest of science’.

In our research on perceptions of biotechnology, we are just interested in taking an ‘opinion snapshot’. What are people thinking about biotechnologies? Gene drives? Gene silencing? The decision-making process? Tino rangatiratanga?

We need to be careful not to bias the ‘snapshot’ with our own viewpoints. We must not push any particular viewpoint or agenda. We are here to, as research assistant on the project Alan Hunt puts it, ‘take the pulse’ of people’s perceptions. Whether for, against, unknown or indifferent. Offer no judgement either way. And pass that information on.

Mauri ora ki a koutou katoa.