Knowledge is Power

I read R.C. Lewontin's Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA over the weekend and was struck in particular by one line in his wonderful diatribe against biological determinism and reductionism:

"Intellectuals in their self-flattering wish-fulfillment say that knowledge is power, but the truth is that knowledge further empowers only those who have or can acquire the power to use it."

This is something that was really hard to read at first, especially as someone who is overeducated and clearly spends a lot of time thinking about educating other people about science. But I realized that it also gets at something that I've been thinking about a lot lately when it comes to projects like DIYbio (do-it-yourself biology) that aim to "democratize" scientific research. For example, from Meredith Patterson's "BioPunk Manifesto":

Biopunks deplore restrictions on independent research, for the right to arrive independently at an understanding of the world around oneself is a fundamental human right. Curiosity knows no ethnic, gender, age, or socioeconomic boundaries, but the opportunity to satisfy that curiosity all too often turns on economic opportunity, and we aim to break down that barrier. A thirteen-year-old kid in South Central Los Angeles has just as much of a right to investigate the world as does a university professor. If thermocyclers [DNA copying machines] are too expensive to give one to every interested person, then we'll design cheaper ones and teach people how to build them.

I completely agree that everyone should be able to experience the wonder of the natural world the way that I do as a scientist, and the work that DIYbio has done to promote scientific participation and enthusiasm is unparalleled, and something that people concerned with scientific literacy and public engagement with science should look to as a model for at least part of a broader program. However, what the thirteen year old kid in South Central LA needs is not a cheap thermocycler, but a safe and stable environment to grow and learn, a community where there are fulfilling jobs that provide a living wage, where immigrants have legal rights, where the opportunity to learn about high level science is available in the first place.

What does the ability to copy DNA or knowledge of a genetic sequence give to someone who lives in a community plagued by violence and poverty? Who is benefiting from the push for DIYbio? Who are the actors "democratizing" science? By and large, the people participating in DIYbio are current students at elite colleges and universities or recent graduates, often even with advanced degrees in science and engineering and have worked or are currently working in university labs. They are also more often than not white, middle class, and primarily male (with notable exceptions, like Meredith). DIYbio can perpetuate social divisions in science and engineering even when on the surface claiming to break them down.

Moreover, the myth of the Victorian Gentleman Scientist permeating the rhetoric of DIYbio is a powerful one--a scientist pursuing a "pure" science not because of an interest in money and free of any state control but because of a deep curiosity with the power of the natural world. But the Victorian Gentleman is also independently wealthy off of money he didn't make himself, living in a house taken care of by women who have no voice or education. Where does the money come from for the modern home scientist? Who can afford to do unpaid work in the first place, not to even mention self-funded research in molecular biology? Science isn't and shouldn't be the sport of the privileged, and institutional labs today are staffed with people of many different socioeconomic and educational backgrounds (although it's still going to take a lot more to be truly equal).

What if instead of trying to work outside the system, overhyping the possibilities of biological technologies and at the same time devaluing the scientific labor that happens around the world in many different institutional environments, we worked towards an even better structure for science? The emphasis on open, shared work is wonderful and starting to be embraced by many in academia, what if we could have a real open, collaborative scientific enterprise across disciplines and academic or industrial barriers? What if there were more opportunities for high-paying technical jobs in science for people without advanced degrees? What if there were more biotech vocational programs to learn the skills you would need to work in these jobs? What if it were easier and cheaper for groups of scientists and engineers everywhere to turn ideas and hypotheses into technology and knowledge? What if there were real ways for knowledge to become power for that kid living in South Central LA?

Anyone can do science and garage biotechnologists and grad school dropouts will likely come up with powerful technologies and perhaps even empires to rival those of Microsoft, Apple, and Google that emerged from a culture of computer hacking forty years ago, but for knowledge to be power, for science to be truly democratic, we're going to need a lot more than cheap thermocyclers.


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What a surprise that folks who call themselves BioPunks are a little overprivileged. Fantastic post. I agree that they're probably doing a lot of good for science, but when you start waxing poetic about kids in the hood, you've gotta get taken down a few pegs. Well done.

People get money to do research? If I conduct self-financed research, and I have for years, and I didn't inherit any family wealth, am I or am I not a gentleman? Good thing field work is much cheaper than molecular biology.

As a New Elizabethan Gentleman Scientist, I feel constrained to point out that, while I agree wholeheartedly with the tenor of your article, it is actually quite possible not only to earn enough from one's own efforts (a software business) to retire early in order to do blue sky research (musical software), but also to run a household without any assistance from women, willing or otherwise!

By Ian Kemmish (not verified) on 23 Mar 2010 #permalink

The empowerment aspect is a little overblown - gear is expensive, even when hacked together from broken appliances or bought from eBay or university surplus as "powers on but not tested", so it's not really within the reach of a 13 year old without really supportive parents. But it is just the level of expensive that requires a steady job, not a trust fund. And yes, we do it without pay and in our free time - you can get quite a bit done if you're willing to spend as much time writing code or putting together SPICE simulations as other people do posting on Facebook or watching TV.

There's an even bigger monetary obstacle to getting into science or related applied fields via the instutional route than gear is for the DIYer - a certain little piece of paper that costs several thousand dollars a year over the course of several years and without which these fine institutions won't even look at your resume.

It is entirely possible to develop high level expertise outside of the formal system - my formal educational background is just a BS in chemical engineering, but I work as a software developer (which was an uphill battle requiring a stop over in a less desirable position for a couple years to show off my programming chops) and design electronic music equipment in my spare time. The closest college courses I took were a manditory intro to programming C (essentially a course in using printf intead of cout since I'd been using C++ in hobby projects for a couple years at that point) and a class on the internal workings of semiconductors (interesting but not much help since it's not really cost effective to homebrew parts that are $0.08 on mouser).

The most important part of the hacking culture is the alternative avenues for the accumulation and transmission of knowledge. It takes more than cheap thermocyclers to make biotech hacking accessible, but what it takes is message boards, newsletters, clubs, and all the other informal (and cheap or free) knowledge dissemination methods that made it possible for people to develop a working background in a field outside of formal educational institutions. We don't want want to just funnel more people into the ivory tower and the big industrial players - we want to create and maintain the resources necessary to work outside of them.

And those of us who are interested in programming and electronics are lucky - I haven't been able to pursue my interest in chemistry (which has always been my favorite field) quite as easily outside of the instutitional path. DIY chemistry has nearly been regulated out of existence based on the war on (politically unpopular) drugs, exagerated fears of terrorism, and general purpose nannyism. It's difficult to get even basic lab materials and even if you do get them, having them alone is enough for overly ambitious law enforcement authorities to get a warrant from an insufficiently skeptical judge - even a small risk of having my door kicked in and lab ransaked then spending months of my time and thousands of dollars of legal expenses only to have my fate hindge on whether 12 people not smart enough to get out of jury duty can grasp the difference between an electroplating line and a meth lab is enough to make it not worth the risk.

Your solutions of tweaking the institutional routes but that misses the point - DIY is for people that for some reason or another don't want to have to work within the institutional system. Maybe we have an ideas that just aren't an instituitional funding priority; maybe we want to start a business venture that is truly our own; maybe we want to get into a field without spending the money to get a degree; maybe we just want a hobby; but in any case we have a reason for not going the institutional route. We'd like it if there was some recogninition that doing so can be intellectually fruitful, but most importantly we don't want our ability to do so regulated out of existence.

I think science is an awesome hobby, and I think that people who have good careers in technical fields have every right to spend their money and their free time how they want and to tinker and have fun. What I worry a lot about how this activity is portrayed and presented, and that's more what I'm talking about. I also worry about how science is funded, how people who do science as a career get paid, and getting more people from many different background involved in the sciences. I don't want to discourage people who are already excellent Gentleman Scientists, I want to just ask questions about who is getting the opportunity to do it, and to question some of the language that is used to describe the activity.

I think your story about how you got involved in software development is a valuable one, and highlights what I think I was saying but maybe didn't get across quite right. I don't think you have to have expensive degrees in a specific field to work in it, that way there never would be any new fields in the first place! I think that the on-the-job training that you got on top of the educational foundation that you already had is exactly the kind of thing that happens throughout academia and industry. People changing fields midstream, pursuing things that they find interesting, even if they don't have the college classes to back it up is wonderful. Many of the best professors that I have met are working and teaching subjects that they didn't get a PhD in, and many great new ideas and projects come from having people from different backgrounds learning and working with each other. But the people doing these things were getting paid all the way through (as you were presumably, albeit at a different tier than you may have wanted or deserved), their education and their academic or industrial labor tied together inextricably. There's a lot of places and times where doing something yourself, for your own fulfillment is wonderful and appropriate, but most of the stories that come out of the language of DIY science are about having open, collaborative, and supportive institutions for learning and growing, not a lone scientist branching out on their own.

The regulation thing is a whole other story and I didn't have time to go into it in my post, but in general I think over-aggressive regulation of curiosity-driven home science is a very bad thing. What I've heard from and seen happening amongst law enforcement agencies is a desire to understand and work together with hobbyists in order to keep everyone safe while still allowing people to pursue their passions, and that is what I sincerely hope to see more of in the future.

Good post, Christina. At South by Southwest last week there was a fair amount of discussion around similar issues, including formal panels like "Is Innovation Fair?" Answer: No. While not addressing bio specifically, Jaron Lanier's new book, "You Are Not a Gadget," also asks relevant questions, vigorously resisting the assumption that Web 2.0 with its "free" and "open" model actually empowers anyone who didn't have power already. You say: "What if there were more biotech vocational programs to learn the skills you would need to work in these jobs?" Good question, and I'm looking into it! Thanks.

My software and electronics backgrounds are almost entirely not from on-the-job training - it's from hobbyist tinkering, that in the case of software I managed to convert into a job at a later date based on skills that were already well established at the time. My time spent in the less technical position was more about establishing my credibility than leaning new skills - there was some on the job learning (if you're not learning, you're getting less employable by the minute, IMO, so I'd have quit if there wasn't), but if I only had the on the job learning there would have been no way I could have changed over to doing serious development. I taught myself most of my programming skills in my free time as a teenager - I had to talk my parents into buying me student versions of a couple student versions of development suites and I learned from books, the internet, the documentation that came with the software, and plain old trial and error.

I wasn't an established professional trying to take my career in a new direction or using my expertise to pursue related work as a hobby - my hobby made it possible for me to establish myself as a professional. The disadvantage of that path isn't that it's expensive or otherwise inaccessible to people based on their background - its far cheaper that formal education and more compatible with having existing work and family obligations. The hard parts are it's intimidating and requires a lot of motivation - there's nobody watching to tell you what to do, or more importantly that you're doing it right. The biggest limitation on DIY's democratizing aspects is that it's intimidating to take those first steps and keeping going during that period before you become proficient enought to trust your own abilities, and I think the institutional culture brushing it off as a game for established professionals to play in their spare time makes that obstacle harder to overcome.

I'm not sure that I understand the anti-institutional sentiment. It's easy to say that the ivory tower is too big and clunky to keep up with innovation, or simply doesn't wish to, but I think that's simply wrong, for the most part. Funding is distributed based on whether colleagues think a research program is worth it, and risk is a strong factor in their decision. If "your field" isn't getting good funding, this is mostly because there isn't sufficient reason to believe that the research will be successful, will yield interesting results, or is methodologically sound. Certainly, politics can, and does, play a role in these sorts of decisions, but the grant writing process as a whole is remarkably good at keeping that to a minimum.

In other words, I think the notion of "I don't want to work in an institutional setting" is bunk. There is, however, legitimate criticism toward the barriers of entry to the ivory tower. Education usually costs money. All I can offer is this: between scholarships, finical aid, and community colleges, most motivated people can get an undergraduate education. Getting a doctorate is even easier, as graduate students receive (small) stipends. All you have to do to get in is get an internship to develop a research background (all you need is interest and to write a few emails), and do reasonably well on an entrance exam. The better you do with your studies, the wider doors open, and the more money becomes available. Essentially, the sort of person that makes a good scientist is easily capable of getting into the professional research world, even if you understand that education is sometimes less about learning, and more about proving yourself.

I support anyone getting involved with science, but for the vast majority of situations, I think professional research is the ideal place to be for someone that is singularly devoted to science.

Participatory science is gaining momentum. âMaster-slaveâ is the current model for most science in which the scientific process has uni-directional control over one or more human beings. In this model, scientists are âelectedâ from a group of elite eligible candidates by a group of elite eligible professionals according to their ability to contribute to science under generally accepted terms and conditions. All other human beings act in the role of slaves adopting the science. The master and slave never really define their roles and never consider other possible scenarios. The slaves willingly agree to be exploited by invasive scientific measures hoping that one day far off in the future they will be happy and healthy due to the cutting edge âscienceâ in which they are most often unwitting participants. In this model, the benefits are very limited and always in the end increase confusion and tension rather than ending it. In the master-slave model, scientists (and technologists) determine the shape of everyday life, and people in general are uninformed of the right to create science themselves.

Medicine, psychology and religion/spirituality are among the most oppressive of the master-slave approaches, continually inducing people to struggle with their moment-to-moment experience in order to be âhealthyâ and âwellâ. Even in the field called âpositive psychologyâ there is emphasis on acceptance or mindfulness as a skill rather than emotional and mental stability as an inherent attribute of the brain. In master-slave science, both the master and the slave suffer from internalized oppression, which is based on accepting the master-slave approach as the only model.

Master-slave science will be unthinkable by 2030, and by 2020 it will be largely replaced by significant breakthroughs in the makeup of the entire process by which science and technology are created. We call this new model âparticipatory scienceâ. Many can already observe this taking place and are participating in it by such means as inventing and using open source software. Great Freedom and Balanced View present a remarkable model for participatory science in a approach to the first unified theory of human behavior. This theory has been pioneered over the last forty years by members of the same computer hacker community that forty years ago spawned public online networks.

This collaboration built a generative data-intensive computational/system model that makes all information about human behavior elegant, simple, ingestible and treatable like any other computable object. It connects all repositories of information that heretofore operated in parallel fields, not connecting data in any substantive way or establishing a relevance field across systems of knowledge. The model creates a world of scholarly and mainstream resourcesâtext, video and sound conversations, databases, and any other associated materials into a computational resource that is seamlessly navigable and interoperable. The system allows for real-time upgrades to core systems and public media, data flows, pattern recognition, self-evolving resource loops, multipliers, etc. Most importantly, the key to the system is collaborative participation of all users of this model of human behavior in its development and application. In looking at the sites, the science behind it isnât obvious to most visitors. Iâm actively involved in this project; call us âbiopunksâ, âinfopunksâ or anything you like.

"The disadvantage of that path isn't that it's expensive or otherwise inaccessible to people based on their background - its far cheaper that formal education and more compatible with having existing work and family obligations. "

"The biggest limitation on DIY's democratizing aspects is that it's intimidating to take those first steps and keeping going during that period before you become proficient enought to trust your own abilities, and I think the institutional culture brushing it off as a game for established professionals to play in their spare time makes that obstacle harder to overcome."

Good stuff, MattXIV, thanks for your thoughts.

Yum. Maybe just found a new favorite blog?

My favourite quotes:
"If you are science illiterate you are disenfranchising yourself from the democratic process." Neil deGrasse Tyson

âAnti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'â Isaac Asimov

Needless to say that it is directly plausible and observable that ignorant people are easier to manipulate and deceive than those educated on a matter at hand.