Ep 9: Is Science a Human Right?

You have a right to know whether you are eating something healthy, or something that will poison you. You have a right to make judgments based on knowledge, and to deliberately choose to avoid harming others. This requires more than just good will; it requires knowledge and understanding. 

If a deadly pandemic virus is circulating in your community, you have a right to know what science knows about preventing infection, so you can intelligently make decisions about protecting yourself and those around you. In Episode 9 of Earth Intelligence, we explore the question of whether science is a human right. 

Host Don Shelby asks Joe Robertson, who has written on this subject, about whether science itself is denied to people, and whether this infringes on their rights. Joe says there are three questions we must ask: 

  1. Are people denied acccess to practical applications of the best known science? If so, what impact does that have on their own personal sovereignty and their access to other protections human being should expect? 
  2. Can people find science-based information? With algorithms flooding our information environment with content perceived to already be of interest to us, many people are effectively blocked from seeing emerging, high-quality, evidence-based scientific information.
  3. Do institutions treat some people as less worthy of the investment? This is a gross economic injustice, but still a question of basic human rights. There are no moral grounds on which affluence should determine worthiness of the benefits of science.

Human rights are, by definition, unalienable. That means they cannot be denied simply by being ignored. Whether a political system recognizes and protects human rights is a measure of its own adequacy and legitimacy, not of whether the rights themselves should be honored. In other words, a right does not have to be codified in law to come into existence. 

The right to know is a transcendent, universal, unalienable right. Science may be conducted by individuals, or by privately owned corporations, but the right conceal or protect intellectual property is not absolute; it is based on the idea that such protections motivate research and discovery in service of everyone. 

In the 1960s, NASA succeeded in communicating that science is service. By communicating in detail the immense complexity of the challenges of spaceflight, and the mind-boggling precision required to send human beings to the Moon and return them safely to Earth, and so the adventure of it all:

it became an intuitive reality to the general public that that kind of precision is service to everyone, that what was happening in the development of that science was the possibility of improving the condition of all of humankind, and therefore that kind of science is heroic.

That achievement of precision, that demonstration of the scientific method, of gathering evidence and applying tested knowledge to new challenges, builds trust. Myra Jackson explains how that trust-building went beyond talk of science, saying “it was an all-hands-on-deck moment” for the United States. There was a shared cultural reality in which science served human wellbeing, and achievement of that improvement was a national purpose.

Joe echoed this sentiment, saying: 

When you are able to achieve things with precision, with imagination, with vision, that make people’s lives better in some way, that’s how you build trust, and when you work against that, people sense that you’re doing something that’s inherently inappropriate.

Myra notes how interference with access to known science undermines rights, liberty, wellbeing, and our sense of what is possible: 

It’s really not an attack on science. For some it is, outright, an attack on science, but really what it is is controlling how people will respond to messaging… it’s playing into someone’s interest to have a majority, or at least a significant number of people not following the science…

Obscuring scientific evidence robs people of the ability to make informed choices, to know their world, and to judge the meaning and ramifications of their actions. Myra adds this note on how the stripping away of sovereignty and the blocking of science applications go together, noting that “where they’re connecting with people is their dissatisfaction with their life.”

We are living in a time when science can help us avoid potentially lethal danger in our day to day experience. Whether or not we have open, universal, uncorrupted access to the best available science, could not be more important. We’re going to have to examine how this right also translates into responsibility, and that will be the subject of our upcoming episodes on the Rights of Nature and Earth jurisprudence.