Science in a Time of Capitalism: UMass Professor Examines Science and Politics

Hui Xin Ng '17 Contributing Writer

Though science still occupies a separate sphere from politics in the public imagination, Sigrid Schmalzer, a historian of Modern China and History of Science at UMass Amherst, says otherwise.

“That science is not supposed to be political and that politics should not be the driving force behind science is a view we in the West take for granted these days,” she said. Her highly interdisciplinary work has been published in areas ranging from American-East Asian relations to the history of natural sciences. Schmalzer also has an upcoming book on science in socialist China called “Red Revolution, Green Revolution,” which she describes as “considerably more political. I have done a lot more work as an activist.”

According to Schmalzer, science is definitely intertwined with politics – one example is the relationship between climate change and law. Schmalzer says the scientific community shares her belief that if they spread their research more, the 59% of the public who don’t believe in climate change would be a much smaller group. “It’s not enough to talk about communication, we need to understand the role of power here,” she added. Nevertheless, there are plenty of opponents of Schmalzer’s view. Clive Crook, former deputy editor of The Economist, believes if scientists were to function as advocates of certain policies, the public may perceive them as biased and trust in their research less.

Schmalzer’s interest in China began when she was introduced to Daoism as an eight-grader. In college she intended to major in environmental science, but she realized that her interests lie beyond working in a laboratory. At Wesleyan University she found the unique opportunity to double major in science in society and East Asian studies. Her Ph.D. dissertation at University of California, San Diego culminated in a book, “The People’s Peking Man,” which discusses human evolution theories and their relationship with the ideologies of the Chinese state.

“The field of history of science in socialist China has been really small when I began writing my first book, but now it is growing rapidly,” said Schmalzer, who was among the first in the field to look at the production of scientific knowledge with the notion that science is ideological in all places and time. The questions she sought to answer range from what kinds of science people were interested in producing, and why people feel the need to bring science down from the ivory tower. “When we assume the Western, capitalist model of science, then it looks as though there is no scientific activity conducted in other kinds of sociopolitical and economic contexts different from ours,” Schmalzer added.

During the socialist era, however, the Chinese public was genuinely interested in conversing about science. Whatever the successes or the outcomes of the socialist state’s audacious scientific projects, science was seen as useful for overturning superstition and the old world order and eliminating sexism.  These events were a significant part of the scientific enterprise in China, but viewing modern science as the norm can make it impossible to ask questions about the purpose of science in different contexts. There has been a tendency to avoid this history because many academics did not want to be associated with saying positive things about a period with negative connotations. Still, Schmalzer believes that understanding science within cultural context can help people and scientists examine how science in the United States has been profoundly influenced by capitalism and brings the spheres of science and politics closer together.