Ben Krishna, A Powerful Tool in Fallible Hands

Does science consider itself to be the sole method of finding out truths about the universe? Does science view itself as an unquestionable authority, and so does it become totalitarian, imperialistic and anti-feminist in nature? This central idea, at the heart of the Will Searby’s piece at the beginning of this journal – that science sees itself as the central arbiter of truth – is wrong. Instead, it is useful to demarcate rational processes of investigation from a purported ideology of the logical method that entails the twin claims to be the only means to the pursuit of understanding and to be able to reach a kind of total understanding inaccessible by other paths. We may thus explain scientific enquiry as a simply rational, rather than truly logical, endeavour.

It is of course true that the Enlightenment and the modern scientific method were the progeny of educated bourgeois intellectuals in the eighteenth century and that there are many social problems, ranging from socioeconomic inequality to the exhaustion of natural resources, which are the fault of capitalism no less than science and its modern discourse is connected to the rise of capitalism. That will be uncontroversial here, the issue arises at the level of casting associations; if it is the case that science’s contemporary form exists in relation to capitalism and that scientific discourses are not entirely separable from rationalistic discourses of market exchange, that is merely a comment on the impossibility of being unaffected by dominant ideological paradigms. It does not follow that science, simply by virtue of its genealogy, is useless.

It is perhaps an irony of historical association that scientific advances, so tied to the Enlightenment that fed the growth of capitalistic ideas and social relations, have provided more help to those who suffer from the problems of capitalism than any other endeavour. Hunger and disease were the two biggest threats to workers during the industrial revolution and while the work of trade unions and the labour movement did create political changes to make society a fairer place, a scientific understanding of disease and agriculture made solving these problems significantly easier. The alleviation of starvation in many countries has been the product of increased food production, with large surpluses removing the necessity for sharply contested political battles over the distribution of food. The scientific focus on increasing efficiency and productivity, then, is not inherently tied to the service of capital but can be oriented to serve human needs effectively. Modern medicine, especially hygiene and vaccination, has made treating the ill significantly easier as well as allowing us to avoid some diseases altogether. In 1988, before the polio vaccine was distributed throughout the developing world, there were an estimated 350,000 cases a year. In 2013 there were only 406 cases and although there have been setbacks due to religious extremism with its hostility to science, the World Health Organisation estimates that polio is likely to be eradicated by the end of this decade. That impressive scale and speed of change raises a further political point; where in the example of alleviating hunger science might be seen as an alternative progressive mechanism to class conflict, in fighting disease it has a superior, rather than simply alternative claim. It is able to pursue social goals in the service of human flourishing more effectively than political agitation can manage. It is also noteworthy that science is able to improve life in ways not contained within the sphere of the political. No amount of redistribution or change in the reigning social order would render possible the curing of otherwise incurable diseases, so science might be seen as a useful complement to political action. The power of new technology – in this case the vaccine – has the mountain of social change an easier mountain to climb, much as it has to be combined with an overtly political struggle for control over science itself, in this case a battle for free and wide-spread vaccinations to ensure the advances in question meet needs rather than being geared purely towards the generation of profit. The key political battle, then, inheres within science as a battle to shape its direction. Articulating as political a pure rejection of science risks letting down those who could be helped by it were it directed towards socialistic goals, as well as making the grave analytical error of seeing all the products of capitalism as so innately tinged with capitalistic intent as to be unsalvageable – if that logic were correct, it would have to apply equally to the modern workers’ movement and to Marxism, for both of which the development of capitalism was a key condition of possibility.

From an ideological perspective, the most worrying charge to come from the opponents of science is the claim that scientists think they produce ‘truthful description’ and that their ‘facts’ make science socially transcendent and immune to social criticism. This is wholly wrong. Science does not generate abstract, absolute truths about the universe. The basic impediments to absolute truth include the linguistic impossibility of objectively describing the universe, the problem of induction and the truism that a correlation can never be shown to be a genuine causation. These are such fundamental problems when trying to discover an objective truth that it might be more helpful to see objective truth as an abstract concept in itself, that is to say an unachievable abstraction. Science performs only one absolute function – by observation and experimentation, a hypothesis can be shown to be in disagreement with the observations made of the universe.  It is this which makes a hypothesis scientifically false. If the observations are in agreement with the hypothesis this does not make the hypothesis objectively true. No amount of evidence ever can do that. This uncertainty is demonstrated in the language found in the scientific literature. See one scientific paper as an example, chosen almost arbitrarily insofar as most literature in the sciences stresses a similar methodological basis:

In the current report, by examining the functional responses, signaling characteristics, and transcriptional profiles induced by US28 upon binding a diversity of ligands, we demonstrate that not only is US28-signaling ligand and cell-type dependent but also ligand and cell type-specific…. Ultimately, our findings indicate that US28 binding to RANTES or Fractalkine results in differential G-protein coupling/activation leading to unique functional consequences.” (Streblow et. al. PLOS Pathogens 2009)

It is no accident that words indicating certainty, such as “prove”, are not used. The scientific community is very careful about the words used in papers, and most prestigious journals reject papers they suspect of proportioning too much confidence in their data.

This lack of confidence is the central tenet of the scientific method missed by critics who wish to conflate all science with an extreme brand of scientism. Science does not advance claims to knowledge at all, given that a hypothesis may be around for a very long time without the possibility of its being disproven ever being ruled out by science. All scientific estimation about the world exists in a state of historical flux, never able to achieve permanence as incontestable truth. In place of theological immutability, scientists proportion their confidence in a hypothesis to the number of times it has been tested and has made an accurate prediction about the phenomena it seeks to explain. This is rational (coming from the word ratio) rather than logical, and does not imply objective truth. To explain this, consider the following statements:

  1. Japan exists
  2. Giving cholesterol-lowering chemicals (statins) to patients over 50 is a good idea
  3. The MMR vaccine causes autism

If I am being rational, I will proportion my opinions in line with the available evidence. I have never visited Japan but I have strong, reliable evidence that Japan exists, and so I have no reason to doubt someone who says they have just come back from Japan. There is well-documented evidence that patients who take statins are less likely to die of cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and strokes. This data, however, is for patients who already have high cholesterol. The benefits of statins for patients with lower cholesterol is less well-documented. There is well-documented evidence of the side effects of statins, however, and so giving them to patients who do not have high cholesterol may do more harm than good. For this reason, a person subscribing to rationalism as the scientific method of approximating towards an understanding of the world might decide that there is not enough data to make a verdict on statement two. Finally, there have been studies now for 15 years looking for a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. These studies have tracked over 14 million children in 20 countries over 20 years and have found no difference in autism rates between children who did receive the MMR vaccine and those who did not. For this reason, a scientist would have strong confidence that statement three is not true.

Much scepticism about science might be side-stepped by understanding science as a process of approximation based on assessing reasonable degrees of confidence rather than a more ambitious attempt to divide claims into ‘true’ and ‘false’ categories constructed as absolute. Karl Popper’s concept of falsification is salient here, but the best explanation of how science works comes from Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. When a hypothesis is shown to be inconsistent with observations, it is not immediately discarded as entirely false. Observations are repeated, possible alternative explanations are sought and – even then – a hypothesis is kept on with an academic note that it cannot explain a particular phenomenon. A good example of this is the precession of the perihelion of Mercury, the rate at which Mercury’s orbit around the Sun slowly rotates, which cannot be accurately predicted by Newtonian Mechanics. Faced with experimental falsification of an attempt to fit this example into the Newtonian paradigm, science held onto Newtonian Mechanics, the best available model at the time, recognising the problem of Mercury’s perihelion until a better model (Special Relativity) was produced. One of the reasons that Special Relativity was held in such high regard when it was first proposed was that it could explain the precession of the perihelion of Mercury so accurately.

Scientific hypotheses are open to challenge from any rival hypothesis capable of making testable predictions. Hypotheses that fail to make reliable predictions are eventually discarded at the point at which an alternative, more accurate hypothesis is discovered. If two such hypotheses both explain observations as well as each other, both are kept in view until a new observation can distinguish between them. To take just one example, there are currently two hypotheses regarding how T cells, a type of white blood cell, release toxic molecules into a virally infected cell. There are two small camps of scientists proposing alternative models, while the rest wait for more experimental evidence. Finally, if a hypothesis does not make any testable predictions, it is not within the realm of scientific enquiry.

It should therefore be unsurprising that the best criticisms of any given scientific hypothesis come from those who understand the hypothesis, who are familiar with how it has been tested and who are aware of the caveats of those tests and the inductive strengths and weakness of competing hypotheses. It is therefore no surprise that almost all debate in science happens between scientists, and that criticisms from non-scientists are so rarely adopted. These criticisms are (usually) simply bad criticisms. Take, for instance, a common criticism often touted against the idea that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. The idea proposes a very long spaceship with a DeLorean on board. The spaceship accelerates to a theoretically possible speed of 87 miles per hour below the speed of light and then the DeLoran accelerates inside the spaceship to 88 miles per hour, thus overcoming the speed of light. This critique relies on the assumption that you can simply add the speeds of the spaceship and DeLorean together. According to the Theory of Relativity, speeds cannot simply be added like this but instead one must use the velocity addition formula shown below. This formula is derived logically from Einstein’s model of space and time. It means that at slow speeds on earth two speeds can simply be added to get approximately the observed combined speed, however at speeds close to that of light, the combined speed increases but never quite reaches the speed of light.

Understanding the philosophy of science is important because when society ignores how good science works, it risks embracing atrocious – and oppressive – theories, backed up by poor experimental data, such as phrenology.  Unfortunately, science, as a hypothesis-driven practise, lacks infinite time and resources and so can never reach Popper’s ideal of testing any imagined hypothesis. As a result, the hypotheses that are proposed and tested are chosen by leading scientists, who are a product of their societies. In addition, peer review and the self-correcting nature of the scientific community can only be as good as its members. This is why science – and society – have in the past supported causes that we now see as immoral. Crucially, this framing sees scientifically endorsed crimes as the fault of the social conditions within which science existed, rather than being the fault of the scientific method itself. That opens up a space for politics, since it implies that science is a tool with great potential but that the realisation of that potential relies on existing within conditions conducive to its being used to ensure human flourishing.

If there is a scientific superpower, it is the ability of science to revise its own ideas. Phrenology was thrown out once it became clear that it was inconsistent with controlled observations on the brain. Where the results of inductive investigations cannot be controlled according to our political wishes, the question of what should be chosen as a subject for scientific investigation is a political question. That question is answerable differently within differently politically constituted societies with accordingly different priorities for the expansion of knowledge; some may seek to find a genetic root to isolate deviance, others will focus on curing diseases and would see any claims about genetic causes of criminality, for instance, as irrelevant if those societies and the scientists within them had little political interest in identifying, defining and punishing malevolence. Today, science often stands at the forefront of progressive thinking – genetics shows how closely related different races are to one another, homosexual behaviour between animals shows the lie to the conservative claim that homosexuality represents a deviation from nature and climate science is often taken to implore us to protect the environment. This apparent progressive tendency is historical contingent and changeable. Both the subjects of investigation and the political conclusions drawn from the results of those investigations are determined by factors beyond the control of science and its method.

Where science is taken by the left to have clearly informed the pursuit of profit and is therefore condemned wholesale, the irony is often that scientists are best placed to draw up a critique. Whether modern economics is scientific remains debateable. It is indeed more quantified and relies more on abstract mathematical models than was once the case, mirroring a trait which has given the sciences much of their interpretative potency. It cannot, however, experiment in the same way as the natural and basic sciences. Interest rates can be lowered, and hesitant conclusions can be drawn about possible effects on unemployment, but as this event cannot be repeated we lack the central condition which gives scientific ‘facts’ (or, reproducable phenonema) their power. Equally, scientists could agree that an over-insistent focus on mathematics might blind economists to the people’s suffering. It is misleading, however, to suggest a binary between science – as cold facts – and emotional consideration. Doctors, after all, pay attention to the pain of their patients even when the textbook tells them the drugs they prescribed should have got rid of the agony. A good scientist recognises the caveats in their experiments and factors that into their thinking. There is no reason why progressive economists cannot do the same. The criticism of economics ought to begin with the aims the discipline sets itself rather than the methods it uses to achieve those ends, since there is nothing in scientific objectivity that stands opposed to the maximisation of human well-being, but economics has suffered from using scientific methodology in the pursuit of capitalistic rather than socialistic goals; increasing GNP, for instance, rather than decreasing inequality. The method itself is value-neutral.

The essay that opens this edition of the Oxford Left Review portrays science as the powerful villain, arrogantly deciding absolute truths while supporting the atrocities committed by those in power. Science is one of the greatest endeavours that humankind has ever undertaken and it has changed society, often for the better. Science generates experimental evidence, allowing it to disprove hypotheses while building confidence in others. Over time, incorrect hypotheses will be disproven and our explanations of the universe will improve. The scientific community can appear insular, monolithic and totalitarian, but it is lively with debate and is open to new ideas. We need a strong understanding of the philosophy of science to debunk pseudo-scientific ideas (which often purport absolute knowledge) and we require detailed subject knowledge to understand the caveats contained within any set of experimental data. The polio vaccine was designed and manufactured on the cold, methodological principles of science; the drive to develop it was a compassion for humanity. We need both to change the world for the better.

 

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