Technology is not neutral, Dijkgraaf should know that

Opinion | by guest authors

Apr 5, 2022 † In an interview with the NRC, Minister Dijkgraaf seems to state that scientific insights themselves are neutral; something he even explicitly states about technology. That the new ‘political head’ of science policy in the Netherlands thinks this way about science and technology worries researchers at the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology and Society (TILT). They argue that science must be aware of its political character and that politicians must account for its choices in financing and using scientific research.

Photo: Polina Tankilevitch

In an interview in the NRC of 11 March, Robbert Dijkgraaf, the new Minister of Education, Culture and Science, warns that scientific research can be a political matter. On the one hand, he refers to the danger that scientific products such as knowledge and technologies can be used incorrectly by malicious regimes. For example, he refers to the need to look carefully at scientific collaborations with Chinese partners. On the other hand, he points to the ‘politicized’ response to scientifically supported Corona policy. He said he was shocked by the fierce public reaction and expressed his concerns about the safety of the scientists as innocent messengers of ‘bad news’. He wants to have named this threat, and he also advocates that politics create a free space in which researchers feel safe and can express their ‘own doubts’ among themselves.

As scientists, we share his concerns about the increased negative attitude towards the sciences. However, the ‘politicization’ of science is more complex and more deeply rooted than his presentation of the problem suggests. In this opinion we formulate our objections. In doing so, we argue for a more realistic and therefore more responsible view of both politics and science, and argue that such a view is urgently needed right now.

Scientists are at the heart of society. That doesn’t always go well.

To begin with, it is not mentioned in Dijkgraaf’s argument that it is politicians who determine with which scientific knowledge the Corona policy is informed. If it is scientifically obvious which policy should be pursued, it would not matter which political party is at the helm at that moment. However, that is very naive to think. Various politicians have argued in increasingly fierce terms for a different prioritization in the choices for scientific insights, such as more social-scientific and less epidemiological input.

Our second objection is more fundamental. Dijkgraaf seems to suggest that scientific insights themselves are neutral; something he even explicitly states about technology. To start with the first: the use of genetic information from Uyghurs in collaborations between Dutch and Chinese researchers confronts us with something new, according to Dijkgraaf, namely the political dangers of this type of research. “Genetic information, fifty years ago we didn’t think in terms of human rights,” he writes.

In doing so, he ignores many decades of scientific production of (mainly) racist and sexist genetic claims about criminal and lewd behavior and intelligence, among other things. Those claims and the research behind them have had harmful social effects in areas such as medical science, the legal system and public opinion. Moreover, many claims turn out to be ‘retarded’, well after the scientists in question themselves had arrived at new insights. The “safety to express their own doubts” is thus not enough.

Responsible scientists are not naive about the ideological aspects of their research on the one hand, and the social impact of their inherently uncertain scientific results on the other. Politicians and university administrators must understand that realizing the research capacity for the now offending Chinese research has involved choices who created and created the new possibilities of abuse.

Every new technology creates new social (im)possibilities

Then the technology. According to a famous quote from Georgia Tech professor of technology Melvin Kranzberg, technology is “neither good, nor bad, nor neutral.” By this he meant that technology is never separate from its social environment. Every new technology contributes to a new social and political balance by its availability alone, regardless of the intentions of the developers.

Digital technologies illustrate this process well. Recent research by our institute, for example, provides insight into the consequences of the use of Clearview’s Artificial Intelligence. The existence of (otherwise discriminatory) facial recognition systems that use publicly available images has implications for our conception of law enforcement. When anyone in the vicinity of a camera can be identified by any person in possession of such technology, new categories of risk to legal protection arise.

To stay closer to Dijkgraaf’s concerns, the emergence of ‘evolved’ social and political movements against public health policies can be considered useful in the light of new social media at a time when populist tendencies are on the rise. The ways in which discontent with public health policies was mobilized during the pandemic are unprecedented and have proved capable of undermining the effectiveness of public policies.

COVID-19 is the first pandemic at a time when the government has no significant control over public health communications. (Even the WHO turned to WhatsApp to get its message out.) However, many social media prioritize the most polarizing messages, increasing their credibility. As a result, reliable information lost out. No effective policy can be pursued in this regard as long as the non-neutral role of new digital technologies and their influence on these changing power relations are not recognized. The Dutch humanities and social sciences in particular have made a significant contribution to making the political dimensions of new technologies transparent and therefore open to criticism.

Hey scientist: embrace your ‘inner politician’!

We are concerned that the new ‘political head’ of science policy, called “the best-known scientist in the Netherlands” by the NRC, does not seem to see these connections. Dijkgraaf is a minister at a time when politics is facing major challenges when it comes to dealing with technological developments. The new government now seems to be really taking those questions seriously (for example, an algorithm watchdog has been provided) and wants to work on its knowledge gap in areas of AI and data tech. Dijkgraaf himself states that “[d]he biggest mistake you can make is thinking about knowledge in a naive way and underestimating its impact.”

This includes recognizing the political dimensions of science and its products, such as knowledge and technology. In other words: politics should not only create a safe space for scientists, but also a safe political-scientific culture; a culture in which researchers are aware of the social aspects of their work and in which politicians justify their choices for funding and using scientific insight. That should also be mentioned.

Aviva de Groot, Linnet Taylor, Merel Noorman, Siddharth de Souza, Gert Meyers, Tineke Broer.
Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society, Tilburg University.

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