One of the most annoying things about our current arguments about science and technology, is the persistent myth that people who question technology are anti-science. Science is a system of data collection and analysis. Technology is stuff we do. They are not the same things, as I will try to explain below.
In current discussions of the "objectivity of science", it is amusing to note that it is precisely the inherent objectivity of science that allows us to critique the lack of objectivity with which most of our scientific knowledge is implemented. It is science, after all, which shows us that we are destabilizing the biome of the planet even as it shows us how to do it. Science is so objective, that it does not distinguish between that which we can and can't really handle; Like the Tree of Knowledge, or perhaps as the tree of knowledge, it tells us everything it can, good or evil, and it doesn't guarantee complete answers, either.
Another problem with the discourse on science is the failure to distinguish between the container and the thing contained. Just because science is objective doesn't mean that scientists will be. The problem is that scientists are like the rest of us: they can't afford to be objective because they need jobs. Most jobs, especially the good paying ones, are distributed by powerful and influential persons. People get in powerful and influential positions primarily by being aggressive and skilled at forming interpersonal alliances. This should not be surprising; science shows that aggression and forming interpersonal alliances are means used for social dominance in most great apes and science has shown us that we are just another form of great ape, albeit an unusually intelligent one.
You also can't discuss the undermining of objectivity in science without discussing economics. The root of the word "economics" is "oikos", Greek for "house". "Economics" used to be a term for "taking care of household business". At some point in prehistory, money was invented to form a symbolic system to represent, stream line and formalize the exchange of goods and services for household business. Unfortunately, money is just a symbolic system, a virtual reality, a projection of one system - all the material and people in the world - onto an entirely different substrate: little pieces of metal or paper. Monetary economics is a game that resembles real economics, but has its own rules, forms and potential for accumulation that have nothing to do with meeting the needs of households.
Monetary economics is a game whose rules are constantly re-written by the people who acquire enough money to write them, and the rules of the game subordinate science to the game. After all, we know that our politicians are elected by those who have money. But why do they bother? Because they want to use the politicians to tweak the rules, through legislation, tax codes, subsidies, regulation, etc., etc., etc. In this way, the games of monetary economics are "improved", in exactly the same way the rules of black jack have been re-written by the casinos to guarantee that you can't beat the house. Our choices of technologies are not made by scientifically objective principles, or even according to real economic needs, but by the rulers of the money game, those aggressive, deal making apes I mentioned earlier.
Technology is where the rubber of political corruption hits the road, and until we directly address this connection, our long term prospects as a civilization are pretty dim. By placing the cart, industry and technology, before the horse, science, we proceed bass ackwards with scientifically measurable disastrous results.
For many millennia, human technology has tended to result in “unintended consequences”. We get the beginning of the understanding of something, just enough to do it, and then we do it until the consequences become clear. Then we either stop doing it or figure out how to deal with the consequences. This is how human technology worked up until very recently, but that could change, thanks to Science.
Science is basically a body of data with rules which allow us to manipulate the data in order to make predictions. The way science grows, is that you have a phenomenon. You gather some basic data and patterns in it point you to guesses about the phenomenon. Then, you realize that you don’t have the data you need. You cast your guess as a “theory” and figure out what data you do need to test it. Then you go out and collect that data and it either supports your theorem or it doesn't. That, or it does neither and you realize you need to gather some more data. Answering one question about something usually raises other questions which in turn require more data, some of which may reveal problems with data collected for former theorem, and so on ad infinitum. I say that for a reason.
The ancient Greeks had a paradox they used to like to think about. They didn’t know how to smoke pot, so they killed time by thinking about things like the paradox of Achilles. In the paradox, Achilles is in a race with a turtle. With each step he travels half the distance to the turtle. Can he catch up with the turtle? The answer, of course, is no, he’ll never get more than half way there. Science is like Achilles, always lagging behind phenomenon. This is why scientists tend to equivocate and get things wrong. That Science is always refining its knowledge, however, does not mean that it is a pointless exercise. Achilles may not catch up with the turtle, but he does get close enough to reach down and pick it up. That’s Science. It always has farther to go, but we are getting to the point with Science that we know a really amazing amount of stuff. This body of knowledge allows us to do amazing stuff, to implement technologies that were formerly unimaginable. At the same time, our Scientific knowledge is allowing us to predict the consequences of our technological choices.
It takes a little science to figure out how to do something, a little more to do it well, and a massive amount to predict the consequences.
Science is like a person who walks into a meeting and says, "I have some good news and some bad news, which do you want first?" The people who called the meeting say, "Good news first!" Science says, "Well, I've figured out how to do such and such. I haven't had time to figure out all the consequences, however, although I can say that…" At this point the people who look to Science to fill their pockets say, "Whoa, there! Time is money, this meeting has lasted long enough! Now, go and don't come back until you can provide us with a free lunch, and don't forget to make our omelet without breaking any eggs. Good thing we own that Sacred Cow, Science!"
Basic result is that many scientists are employed trying to distort science in order to implement technologies that are the equivalent of trying to jump over ones own knees. For example, one of the first principles you learn in biology, a principle known to the ancients, is that a large population of genetically similar organisms is going to be subject to a population crash due to disease or predators sooner or later. The longer the population is in one location, the more likely that the disease or predator will find it and, once it is found, the density and uniformity of the prey organisms will allow the predator to spread like wildfire. If the prey population has some innate resistance to the predator, the size and uniformity of the prey population will give the predator many opportunities to figure out a way around the resistance, so the larger the population of prey, the sooner the predator will find a way to eat it. Then the population of the prey animal crashes and you have lost your crop again. In nature, the prey organism may have opportunities to adapt, but in a farmer’s field, you are just screwed; ask the Irish.
Nowadays, scientists are being pressured to use cloning to produce uniform forests of trees and uniform herds of animals, organisms that must live for more than a year or even decades until maturity. This is considered the height of scientific advancement, although a first year biology student should be able to explain to you why it is a lousy idea. However, I have listened to a tenured professor talk about grafting whole forests of "disease resistant super trees". He knows that the disease of today is not going to be the disease of tomorrow, that micro-organisms and insects will adapt to overcome disease resistance and that genetic uniformity in the prey organism will speed up this process, but he is also trying to make a career out of the science of grafting, so he goes along to get along.
Giant uniform fields of annual crops are the reason that we must struggle ever harder to manage disease in agriculture. The most scientifically logical solution to this problem in terms of energetic expenditure vs. result, is to keep fields diverse, practice crop rotation and avoid genetic uniformity. None the less, the business men who run the dominant agricultural operations are not really concerned with scientific fact, they are more concerned with monetary economics, which demands a large production of uniform units at minimal. As a result, scientists, who should, and frequently do know better, are engaged in trying to produce ever larger populations of genetically uniform organisms and protecting them from ever more aggressive and adaptive predators and diseases with ever more exotic blends of chemicals and cultivation practices, mostly based on petroleum, a substance whose "economics" have been more aggressively tweaked than the rules of black jack.
I have to grit my teeth when people say, "But technology will come up with a way to fix that problem!" Passive and active solar, small scale, labor intensive agriculture, simple, durable cars with good gas mileage, the technologies already exist or have existed long enough that they would have solved a lot of our problems if we had implemented them. The problem is that we just don't have the sense to use them! Instead, we allow monetary economics and the personality types who excel at that game to choose for us.
We can’t even implement simple things that are well understood, like crop diversity. Thanks to GMO’s we are growing massive monocultures of corn, potatoes, soy and canola which are even more genetically uniform than those crops were before we understood the pitfalls of uniformity. We are told this is all under control, but Roundup Ready soy and canola have already become weeds in farmers’ fields. GMO marked genes are showing up in other people’s crops. Meanwhile, every plant produces a mixed bag of chemicals and science already shows that the Bt toxin, the element added to GMO corn and cotton, is increased in field run off from GMO fields, as well as in river sediments downstream. In other words, we are growing little self-reproducing chemical factories. Science could help us predict the long term consequences of this sort of thing, but the business men who run agriculture aren't about to fund the research and they will try to deny the results of what does get done. That much about science they understand: too much scientific knowledge will take the blush off their roses, so they work to suppress science even as they claim to carry the banner of "scientific objectivity".
The junking of science is another problem. There is a whole industry devoted to picking apart studies that industry doesn’t like. Sometimes, like the criticisms of Seralini’s GMO study, they will ignore the results that have some validity while focusing on those that are less valid, while criticizing methods that are the same that they use in the studies they promote. This is a tactic used by public relations firms for a long time. If you don’t like what someone is saying, find some little problem, or something unsavory about the author and the whole message will be thrown out. Remember that whole brouhaha about Dan Rather publishing letters supposed to be written by George Bush’s commanding officer? What they didn’t report is that the guy came out and said that, although he hadn’t written them, he could have, and they expressed his feelings about George.
It takes a little science to conceive a technology, a bit more to implement it, and a massive amount of science to reveal the long term effects of that technology. Until we are willing to expend that massive quantity of science on our implementation of technology, we will not be able to partake of the objectivity of science. We will just be stuck with the arbitrariness of monetary economics, with some haphazard technology thrown in, and the long term prospect of disrupting the fabric of life on earth.
Ironically, there is an army of people out there who do science for a living and are accustomed to being paid a little more than minimum wage. They are called “grad students”, “post docs” and “lab techs”. Most of them also have ideas about what sort of science they would do if there wasn’t a professor hanging over them all the time.
The science of archaeology shows that climate change tends to disrupt civilizations, throw their economies into a cocked hat and bring their technological progress to a violent halt as the haves struggle to maintain their hold on what the have nots need. Many of these civilizations are now preserved under the deserts of North Africa and North America. We will have the dubious honor of being the first civilization to know it was responsible for triggering the climate change, but continued to do it. Let us hope that we don't manage to reduce the whole planet to a desert. To close with a quote from Tacitus, placed by him in the mouth of a German terrorist leader, "Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant." "Where [The Romans] make a desert, they call it 'Peace'".