Wednesday, May 15, 2013

In Response to Valerie Strauss’ Criticism of Stephen Hawking

Last week, Valerie Strauss wrote, “Why Stephen Hawking made a mistake backing Israel boycott,” in her Answer Sheet blog in the Washington Post.

Here is my extended response:

Academic boycotts may be ineffective forms of protest and it is certainly difficult to maintain philosophical consistency—both legitimate reasons for not using this tactic. However, Strauss’ claim that “Academics is [sic] supposed to be about the pursuit of knowledge and truth” begs the question, To What Purpose? Knowledge and Truth may give a person intellectual satisfaction, but they do not put food on the table, nor do they keep repressive regimes from bulldozing homes or imprisoning dissidents.

The notion that academics exist on another plane, divorced from the socioeconomic and political realities of the rest of the world, is absurd. With many discoveries, the potential for making profits becomes far more important than the potential to save lives, leading to patents that prevent poor people from accessing them (e.g., AIDS medicines in Africa). The emphasis on profits even influences what research will be done in the first place. More and more scientists are now relying on funding from private companies, thus biasing their research, while federal funding for public health and preventative healthcare research has always been small compared with the share going to research on weapons and patentable drugs.

The naïve or uncritical “pursuit of knowledge and truth,” abstracted from their sociopolitical context, often results in corrupted research, incorrect analyses and conclusions, and sometimes tragic social consequences (e.g., eugenics research supporting the racist beliefs that Jews or Africans were subhuman). In other examples, the “pursuit of knowledge and truth” has been used to justify research that is inhumane, ecologically devastating or otherwise unethical (e.g., U.S. radiation experiments on prisoners and soldiers; Mengele’s experiments on concentration camp prisoners; the Tuskegee syphilis experiments). And sometimes the sponsors of research have no interest in truth and are trying to obscure reality (e.g., Big Tobacco’s research “proving” secondhand smoke is not dangerous; Big Oil and Coal’s research “disproving” human influenced climate change).

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