May 18, 2024

Activism and Science: Scientists are not allowed to be activists

Martin Schröder is Professor of Sociology with a focus on Europe at Saarland University.

Can social scientists use activism to improve the world? Clearly some people believe this – and are putting science's reputation at risk with this activity. For example, the American Sociological Association adopted “Building Communities of Hope, Justice, and Joy” as the theme of its conference this year. In this context, she calls for science as an “emancipatory practice” that “intervenes in social and political conflicts.” This seems committed. But it provides Donald Trump's enemies of science with ample scope for attack.

The state of Florida recently eliminated sociology as a core subject on college campuses. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' Education Commissioner argued that sociology had been hijacked by left-wing activists and was therefore teaching students ideology rather than knowledge. The American Sociological Association protested, saying: This claim has no evidence-based basis.

One would be happy to agree. But unfortunately you have to say: You brought this on yourself.

After all, you cannot claim to be an activist on the one hand and deny that you are an activist on the other. So what might seem like a broadly consensual demand for social participation turns scientists into pawns in culture wars in which they are pushed back and forth—as pawns are often the case.

Fortunately, attacks against science receive less support in Germany than in the United States. And also because science has been less active here – until now. Because this trend can also be observed in this country. The German Research Foundation now requires a declaration of “the importance of gender and/or diversity” from every research application submitted there. Anyone who wants to get funding will hesitate to say “irrelevant,” even though it is possible. But why should research projects focus specifically on gender/diversity? Why don't we talk, for example, about “the importance of peace/democracy/tolerance” in the world? How should a scientist investigating the Big Bang answer the question of how relevant his topic is to gender and/or diversity?

It is not useful for science to try to link the matter to political goals, even if they are widely socially acceptable.

What is the alternative? An old idea from Max Weber. It is called: freedom from value judgments. In doing so, Weber wanted to protect the social sciences from being captured by the left and the right. Scientists, according to Weber, should investigate what the world is like, not use their authority to tell others what the world should be like. Because when values ​​conflict with each other, you cannot decide scientifically which one is more correct. Therefore, researchers must stay away from political discussions.

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The classic counterargument is: value-free research is not possible anyway. This is correct. After all, people cannot simply leave their values ​​at the front door of the university. But one can also demand that politics be allowed to be corrupt, because cases of corruption have always been observed. The fact that the ideal cannot always be achieved in practice does not change the fact that practice can be measured against the ideal.

The prestigious Columbia University has just announced that it will only take political positions when it sees a binding institutional commitment to do so. There is a valuable idea behind this: science makes its greatest contribution to a better world when it shows how the world is rather than how it should be.