by Rafaela Prifti/
The collision of medical science, political beliefs and public health policy – to the extent that one exists – is not a new topic. Politics and science often have been at odds. The confrontation resurfaced in a pronounced form in the pandemic era concerning various issues related to health and scientific data. The interplay between politics and science is a hotly debated issue and will likely get more heated in the US and around the world. It might lighten the mood to remember an anecdote about a member of Congress who told a scientist that was testifying at a hearing: “You got your science, I have mine!”
I write this because, in its essence, the recurring battle between politics and science may not be about either one of them but rather a mere manifestation of a deeply rooted human desire for power.
History of science is riddled with denial and opposition that vary in nature and outcome but mostly fall in one or more categories associated with ideological, political, religious or scientific domains. Discoveries from evolution to gravity and so on have been initially objected to and objected by fellow scientists and science community before being embraced by society. The rise of policy reports issued by ideologically based think tanks and more scientific advancement coming on the horizon are bound to raise political questions with severe social implications. I asked Sulejman Rushiti, University Lecturer at State University of Tetova and former Minister of Education, Northern Republic of Macedonia, to explain how the public narrative of the issue takes shape. “In general, politics is regarded as sinister whereas science as inherently virtuous, therefore politicians are often viewed as malicious in contrast with a benign nature of scientists. Yet history offers plenty of exemptions in both categories,” he said. In his view, in the past as in the present, certain conditions meet at one point to fuel an extreme kind of polarization. “The Middle Ages is the best illustration of state and church opposition towards science. Fast forward to the present, when scientific advancement and political ambition clash in societies that have seen the rise of troubled personalities and inept individuals.” Mr. Rushiti argued that the politicization of science, particularly medical, has been particularly present in times of war. “One example is the notorious case of the Nazi doctors who performed horrible medical experiments violating ethics and human rights in the name of science and its advancement. They went a step further in justifying these atrocities based on some cultural constructs and man-made beliefs about race and social systems.” The convergence comes to surface once it is realized that the pursuit of knowledge in turn provides power. In politics, the love of power is a very strong motive. One of the best analysis of power as “the singular most powerful motive among human desires” is Bertrand Russell’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950. A British philosopher, mathematician, social critic, and political activist, Russell is considered to be one of the founders of analytic philosophy and one of the most important logicians in the 20th century. “Economic facts, population statistics, constitutional organization, and so on, are set forth minutely. If politics is to become scientific, and if the event is not to be constantly surprising, it is imperative that our political thinking should examine the springs of human action. What is the influence of hunger upon slogans? If one man offers you democracy and another offers you a bag of grain, at what stage of starvation will you prefer the grain to the vote?” asks Russell before setting out to give a presentation that should be, in my opinion, a recommended reading in school curricula.
Bertrand Russell argues that all human activity is prompted by desire. He decries the theory advanced by moralists purporting that it is possible to resist desire in the name of duty and principle. He does not deny that man actions stem from a sense of duty yet he looks further into it. His main theses is that “If you wish to know what men will do, you must know not only, or principally, their material circumstances, but rather the whole system of their desires with their relative strengths.”
To look at the comparison between scientists and politicians, Mr. Rushiti opined that “they are driven by their ambition, and capabilities, just as they are conditioned by their personal upbringing and education, yet they may rise above them.” Since he is a prolific theater director, he offered a literature reference that is both recognizable and influential. “Lets take the Faust legend as an example of the scientist driven by political ambitions who cuts a deal with Mephisto to drive away the passions of personal pleasures. Mephisto is the metaphor for a social system, patterns of behavior and collective norms that cultivate personal drive and individual success. On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson, is the case of a statesman with a mind of a scientist.”
Powered by a strong motive and shaped by their own capacities, strengths and shortcomings, scientists and politicians are led to actions which may be useful or pernicious. “In a manner of speaking,” Mr. Rushiti argued, “a politician and a scientist carry out experiments that have a direct impact on our lives or quality of life. So it is important to adhere to an ethical society based on accepted humane values as a premise for individuals that believe in something bigger than themselves. In the flip side, history provides plenty of examples of personalities whose mission has been to restrict freedom and object science.”
Across the world, the response of countries and leaders to the pandemic offered more evidence of the troubling relationship between politics and science. The controversies surrounding each one are likely to increase as pursuits in either field are fueled by powerful motives and actors. A reformer or a despot may be led to actions motivated by power, yet the nature of their actions depends upon the social system, their abilities and ethics.