February 6, 2012

Science and state power

"Harrowing a field with a diesel tractor, Seabrook Farm, Bridgeton, N.J." c. 1942, Library of Congress.

The connection between science and state power might seem tenuous to those who have not yet drank the Kool Aid. We know that science is used in political debates as the ultimate fact-checker. Is this new drug safe? Let’s do a risk assessment. What’s the trade-off of building this new dam? Let’s have an environmental impact assessment. But to anyone who’s studied the politics of environmental controversies, these scientific measures are hotly contested and imbued with political values.

James C. Scott’s fantastic book, Seeing Like a State, outlines how states have used scientific measurements and standardization to render social life and the environment visible, and thus, controllable. A city map can reflect necessary information like the location of businesses, and the layout of roads.  People are not trackable and taxable unless they have standardized and stable names, land tenure, locations, and ethnicities. But while these simplifications of social life are a necessary abstraction, they miss the nuances of societies, can have systematic flaws, and do not represent local resistance to top-down order (for example. Maps, censuses, and other technologies we use to make complex systems legible also shape how state power interacts with local autonomy. When wheat becomes a commodity to be measured, weighed, shipped, and sold, suddenly “agriculture” is not so much a social process as a means to an end. The mechanization of agriculture seen in the 20th century reflects the expansion of commodity chains due to railroads and steampower in the 19th century. See this post for an example of Scott's "high modernism" theory in China.

In Samer Alatout’s study of water politics in midcentury Israel, he shows how the social construction of water scarcity coincided with expansion of state power and centralization of water technologies. Instead of viewing science and politics as separate spheres, Alatout shows how “water scarcity and the strong centralized state were produced in the same technopolitical process" (p. 962). Focusing on estimates of water supplies in Israel, he writes that for the chief water engineer at the time, Aaron Wiener, “estimate reduction was a step in the right direction, towards a practical, empirical notion of the ‘scientification’ of water policymaking. He commented often on the fact that water policymaking during Blass's reign was anything but scientific” (p. 970).

Water estimates and their role in Israeli foreign policy are a good example of a “boundary object” that is used to negotiate between social and scientific spheres (although as I indicated earlier, the “boundary” itself is not so clear). And interestingly, people who seem the most capable of recognizing these boundary objects are STS scholars and conservatives. Throughout the article, I was thinking about a recent book I read, Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. In this book, the authors show how from the end of WWII and up to today, a group of scientists have used their influence to cast uncertainty on health and environmental reform. These doubt-mongering scientists, some of them hawkish Cold War heroes, believe that liberal environmental politics reek a bit too much of Communism. Smoking bans, acid rain regulations, and climate taxes all represent an expansion of state power over industry, and thus must be attacked in the only legitimate way: through science. They exploit the uncertainty of boundary objects like climate models.

Although Oreskes and Conway’s book is a rich piece of the history of science in politics, there is some unpacking left to do about the role of science and the state. Reading Scott and Alatout, there might be good reason for conservatives to worry about environmental politics being used as a tool to expand state power. Or in the case of climate change, non-state power as well (think “disaster capitalism”).

"Cherry orchards, farm lands and irrigation ditch at Emmett, Idaho," 1941, Library of Congress

Guess what, this is my 50th blog post! Many, many thanks to those of you who read, follow, and share my blog. According to Blogger, I've had over 5000 pageviews.

Works cited:

Samer Alatout, “'States of Scarcity': Water, Space, and Identity Politics in Israel, 1948-1959,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 26:959-982. 2008.


  1. Happy 50th post! I've loved reading them all -- they keep me immersed in these topics and I appreciate that. I'm also now adding these books to my reading list (with the exception of Merchants which I read).

  2. Thank you so much, Brandi! I think you'd really like "Hungry World" by Nick Cullather, which I mentioned in previous posts. I'm hoping to write another post on Seeing Like a State this week, it's a great book.


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