From tree of knowledge to knowledge landscapes

May 7, 2014

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogScience was long revered as free and self-critical pursuit of knowledge. There were hopes of useful applications, of course, but as fruits that once in a while fall from the tree of knowledge.

In a thought-provoking article in the Croatian Medical Journal, Anna Lydia Svalastog describes how traditional reverence for science and devout hope of fruits from above in practice disappeared with World War II.

Researchers who saw science as their calling instead found themselves called up for service in multidisciplinary projects, solving scientific problems for politically defined aims. Most famous is the Manhattan project, intended to develop an atomic bomb to alter relative military strengths.

This way of organizing research has since then become the rule, in a post-war condition in which research initiatives aim towards altering relative economic strengths between nations. Rather than revering science, we value research in project format. We value research not only in economic terms, I want to add, but also in terms of welfare, health and environment.

From the late 1970s, political and economic interest in research shifted from physics to the life sciences and biotechnology. Svalastog mentions examples such as genetically modified organisms (GMO), energy wood and biological solutions to pollution. It is difficult to say where research ends and applications begin, when interest in applications governs the organization of research from the outset.

The main question in the article is how to understand and handle the new condition. How can we understand the life sciences if society no longer piously anticipates applications as fruits from above but calculates with them from the beginning?

Svalastog uses a new concept for these calculated fruits: bio-objects. They are what we talk about when we talk about biotechnology: energy wood, GMO, cultivated stem cells, vaccines, genetic tests and therapies, and so on.

The point is that science doesn’t define these objects on its own, as if they still belonged to science. Bio-objects are what they become, in the intersection of science, politics and society. After all, vaccines don’t exist and aren’t talked about exclusively in laboratories, but a parent can take the child to the hospital for vaccination that was decided politically to be tax-financed.

Instead of a tree of knowledge stretching its fruit-bearing branches above society, we thus have flatter knowledge landscapes in which a variety of actors contribute to what is described in the article as bio-objectification. The parent who takes the child to the hospital is such an actor, as is the nurse who gives the vaccine, the politicians who debate the vaccination program, the journalists who write about it… and the research team that develop the vaccine.

Why do we need a concept of bio-objectification, which doesn’t reverently let the life sciences define these objects in their own terms? I believe, to understand and handle our post-war condition.

Svalastog mentions as an example controversies about GMO. Resistance to GMO is often described as scientifically ignorant, as if people lived in the shadow of the tree of knowledge and the solution had to consist in dropping more science information from the tree. But no links with levels of knowledge have been established, Svalastog writes, but rather with worldviews, ethics and religion.

What we need to handle our condition, Svalastog maintains, is thus the kind of research that was neglected in the post-war way of organizing research. We need humanistic research about knowledge landscapes, rather than instinctive reactions from a bygone era when the tree of knowledge was still revered.

I presume that this humanistic research too will be performed in project format, where humanistic scholars are called up for research service, studying the contexts within which bio-objects are understood, handled and valued.

Undeniably, however, some interesting thoughts about our condition here hover more freely above the knowledge landscapes.

Pär Segerdahl

Part of international collaborations - the Ethics Blog

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