Will Searby, The Problem with Science

We are unknown to ourselves, we men of science, and for good reason.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

 

I

Among the more alarming studies to enter public consciousness in recent months was the recent, slightly millenarian report funded by NASA and released in March which predicted the ‘irreversible collapse’ of sophisticated industrial civilisation. The report, led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei of the US National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, forecasted a collapse that had remarkably close distinguishing features with the Marxian phenomenon of socialist revolution, caused by the fact that:

…accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels.

The report, whilst warning of climate disaster and resource crisis, was equally insistent that technological innovation would not be sufficient to avert this, noting:

 Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.[1]

This appears to be an indication of a radically anti-capitalist scientific logic, identifying environmental protection and human wellbeing as goods inimical to the present order of social relations. Such optimism, however, forgets the material context within which scientific discourse is constructed. Embedded in capitalist societies, science identifies its potential success with its ability to persuade capitalists that their interests are best served by heeding its counsel. The recently fashionable trend of ‘environment monetization’ illustrates the point; championed by economists such as W. Kip Viscusi, this involves the economic articulation of the benefits of environmental conservation in a desperate attempt to convince governments and multi-national corporations to relent the ever expanding exploitation of the natural world. Frank Ackerman and Lisa Heinzerling have written an eloquent refutation of this project in Priceless: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing but it should be obvious that such a barefaced cost-benefit analysis represents a dangerous capitulation to the insistence of market forces; Nature does not ultimately win in short-term economic calculations, it is never the quickest investment.

In this article I will attempt to explore the constraints of scientific discourse and the hermeneutics of what can broadly be termed ‘the scientific method’. Critiquing the inductive method’s discursive prioritisation of objective description I hope to offer a constructive discourse-analysis of the dominant Enlightenment rationality which is, today, almost universal in its appeal, and raise important questions concerning its place within a transformative socialist programme.

 

II

Though it had its philosophical antecedents in numerous classical thinkers, modern scientific discourse was concomitant with the Enlightenment and had its greatest proliferation in the wake of the intellectual and political revolutions that the latter helped to drive throughout Europe, in the work of Francis Bacon, the ‘father of experimental philosophy’, and the theories of the Philosophes who idolised him.[2] In his ‘In Praise of Human Knowledge’, Bacon wrote: ‘now we govern nature in opinions, but we are thrall unto her in necessity: but if we would be led by her in invention, we should command her by action’.[3] Bacon imagined a praxis of materially transformative knowledge, by which men could control nature by extending their understanding of the natural world. On 28 June 1751 the first volume of the Encyclopedie, edited by Jean Le Rond D’Alembert and Denis Diderot, was published in Paris. Diderot explained: ‘all things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone’s feelings … We must ride roughshod over all these ancient puerilities, overturn the barriers that reason never erected’.[4]

Only once the French Enlightenment and the French Revolution had ‘overturned the barriers that reason never erected’ did Bacon’s vision reach fruition, but the ascendancy of Enlightenment as scientific domination over nature was vast and total; by the end of the nineteenth century it was undeniable that scientific praxis had transformed the face of the earth. By the mid nineteenth century the materially transformative power of Chemistry was realised as products made using synthetic compounds such as dyes poured out of factories. Physics demonstrated the material reification of praxis undisputedly in the harnessing of atomic power by the mid twentieth century, and Biology and genetic modification continue to further extend the nexus of scientific domination in our own time. Though it is admittedly rather crude, we can observe in this broad metanarrative the application of Bacon’s philosophy – the principle of man’s domination over nature through a transformative knowledge.

Alongside this metanarrative of scientific progress and Enlightenment discourse, and inextricably linked to it, runs that of the development of capitalism. Just as Georg Forster declared in 1794 that ‘the world is facing the tyranny of reason’ the trade winds of the Atlantic were carrying European capital, both material and intellectual, in a march towards the most remote corners of the globe.[5] Voltaire and Bacon took their place on the bookshelves of the bourgeois administrators of the American colonies, and paved the way for the ‘civilisation’ of their inhabitants – ‘Indians’ proclaimed the Constituent Congress of Lima in 1822 ‘You are going to be noble, educated, and owners of property’.[6] Marx and Engels keenly observed in The Communist Manifesto that the bourgeoisie ‘compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.’[7] The machine breakers of the early nineteenth century learnt to their cost the power of scientific praxis in the employ of capital; ‘The mechanical presses … [serve] only the interest of a few individuals and are contrary to true liberty’ observed a pamphlet defending striking workers in Paris, and the Luddites who threatened the advance of the bourgeois consumer-industrial complex in the form of frame-breaking in the north of England faced the hangman’s noose in 1812.

It is worth considering, therefore, the geneaology and methodology by which the bourgeiosie converted scientists ‘into its paid wage labourers.’ix

 

III

The American Engineer and Science Administrator Vannevar Bush observed in his paper Science – The Endless Frontier (1945) that ‘Advances in science when put to practical use mean more jobs, higher wages, shorter hours, more abundant crops, more leisure for recreation, for study, for learning how to live without the deadening drudgery which has been the burden of the common man for ages past’.x This, again, recognises the power of scientific praxis in realising Bacon’s dream of transformative knowledge; Science transforms the world, releasing humanity from the dangers of nature by extending a nexus of total control. Similarly, however, it substantiates Max Horkheimer’s assertion that the desire for scientific control is founded ‘in primitive objectification, in the first man’s calculating contemplation of the world as prey’xi. The history of scientific praxis as technological innovation, that is, the material application of scientific theory, has been that of the subjugation of nature through human mastery.

In pursuit of this domination, scientists have sought to understand the world ‘as it is’ and thus generate a useful system of control from an empirical (‘objective’) understanding of surroundings ‘[S]cientists are required to back up their claims not with private feelings but with publicly checkable evidence. Their experiments must have rigorous controls to eliminate spurious effects’.xii This is the consistent defence of scientific understanding – it is based on observation, making it a higher order of knowledge than that achievable in the humanities or through art; scientific knowledge is a ‘descriptive’ knowledge.

There is, in this assertion, a glimmer of the fundamental internal dialectic of scientific method, which operates on the level of induction. Scientific praxis is involved in the transposition of observed phenomena, which operate on the level of subjective experience, to quantitative method, by which extrapolations can be made – ‘an atom is smashed not in representation but as a specimen of matter’.xiii It therefore constitutes a process of quantitative objectification. This dialectic is in constant tension; Nikola Tesla noted in 1934 that ‘Today’s scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality.’xiv The paradox is that attempts to explain reality resort to superimposing models onto experienced reality, choosing particular details to emphasise and others to overlook in the construction of a framing. The notion of a possible resolution of this contradiction, however, misses the point that true description is necessarily a philosophical chimera. We do not possess a language that allows the accurate naming of our surroundings without the false connotations that names invariably invoke by the corruption of their cultural significance, and any language freed of these problematic false connotations would not, in fact, be a language, as it would be unable to transcend strict semantic relationships and engage in syntactical play imbued with genuine cultural meaning. It would not genuinely impart meaning, since meaning relies on being within a given paradigm through which the vast multitude of our experiences are ordered and comprehended. Language has to do something; mathematics is the language of scientific play, but scientific praxis is the process of translation, and all translation is approximation. Once the rudiments of empirical observation are translated and apprehended as quantitative units then they can indeed do something, but the very process of translation, of the objective articulation of subjective experience, implies a falsification.

 

IV

We therefore arrive at an understanding of scientific praxis as the extension of a methodological ‘objectification’, by which active natural phenomena are comprehended as inert ‘objects’ in a quantitative methodology. This is the principle of Galileo’s ostensible (though admittedly misattributed) declaration to ‘measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so’. However, at the heart of this process is the assumption that it is possible for scientists, under any circumstances, to adopt an unbiased perspective, the belief that ‘Scientists take themselves to be just as weak and fallible as anybody else, but recognizing those very sources of error in themselves and in the groups to which they belong, they have devised elaborate systems to tie their own hands, forcibly preventing their frailties and prejudices from infecting their results’.xv This belief is the cultural arrogance of scientific discourse; the trust in the inviolable universality of formal logic, and the projection of European bourgeois modes of discourse. Given modern scientific discourse began as an Enlightenment ideological project, the implicit binary opposition is between scientists on one hand, with their ability to comprehend the world objectively, and on the other hand those who lack familiarity with their models and their discourse, who are unable to see the world as they see it. This is a contrast between the scientist and the savage.

This cultural arrogance has historically played into nothing less than an outright intellectual imperialism; ‘What sort of Science did they teach in the University of the Jungle?’ mocked the cabildo of Lima as they divided the communal lands of the indigenous Peruvian population between individual investors. xvi In its methodological objectification, scientific praxis serves as a tool for cultural and social othering. For the European explorers who set out to ‘discover’ and ‘civilise’ the majority-world, the ‘savages’ they encountered were synonymous with the wildernesses they inhabited. The savage was surrogate nature, and the othering thus engendered was crystallised, in its most direct form, in practices such as phrenology; ‘This extinction of the lower races’ observed a Proffessor Waitz of the London Anthropological Society ‘is predestined by nature, and it would thus appear that we must not merely acknowledge the right of the white American to destroy the red man, but perhaps praise him that he has constituted himself the instrument of Providence in carrying out and promoting this law of destruction’.xvii Geographical imperialism was the other side of the industrial revolution, the Enlightenment necessitated the ‘civilisation’ of the world, and was both driven and perpetuated by Western claims to scientific objectivity in the extension of scientific praxis.

Ultimately prey to the Zeitgeist of its formation, Scientific praxis necessarily replicates the assumptions of each successive age. To give another example, the ultimate ideal of scientific theory is, as Adorno and Horkheimer observed, a distinctly patriarchal form of control. Following the French Enlightenment a stream of books outlined scientific conceptions of gender difference; Roussel’s ‘Système physique et moral de la femme’, and Brachet’s chapter ‘etudes du physique et du moral de la femme’ betray the tendency towards gendered othering underpinning much of scientific praxis, discernible again in the fact anatomical texts like Gray’s Anatomy blithely and unselfconsciously represent the general case of every feature as male, the female body only being presented to demonstrate difference.

Much scholarship has been devoted to the ‘male gender-text’ of scientific methodology. The important thing to note here is that science’s gender bias, like its colonial application, is not simply an accident of history but demonstrates a latent tendency towards cultural exclusivity. As one scientist observes: ‘the responsibility for the creation of new scientific knowledge — and for most of its application — rests on that small body of men and women who understand the fundamental laws of nature and are skilled in the techniques of scientific research’.xxv Here again we find the implicit binary opposition running through the history of science between scientists and the savage others not possessed of scientific knowledge. This privileged cadre, who possess in science a ‘document of civilisation’, is not constituted outside of economic and social determinants. ‘There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’ and science as a text remains ‘a document of barbarism’ despite the rigour of scientific method. xxiv

This is because the extension of scientific control over nature is necessarily totalitarian, and the objectifying methodology is insatiable – ‘To the Enlightenment, that which does not reduce to numbers … becomes illusion; modern positivism writes it off as literature’xviii. Therefore the extension of human control over nature culminates in the mastery of humanity over itself, in the recognition that it is itself nature.  The nexus of scientific control which closed around humanity might be thought to have relented with the demise of Darwinian eugenics, but only to return in contemporary nueroscience.

 

V

More fundamentally than its racist and gendered applications, modern science has been tied to capitalism. The scientific objectification of the world extends the borders of the economic system and outlaws subjective experience; where individuals are asked to defer to scientific objective understanding, the realm of individual experience is impoverished. As Einstein put it: ‘the genuine scientist unveils the universe and people come eagerly, without being pushed, to behold a new revelation: the order, the harmony, the magnificence of creation! And as man becomes conscious of the stupendous laws that govern the universe in perfect harmony, he begins to realize how small he is.’xix By this process science relegates individual experience to a secondary order of validity. It should be obvious that such a schema is innately hierarchical, as it does not appeal to the individual’s immersive experience, but requires their conformity to an authoritative abstract experience which bears no personal, intimate relation to the subject.

Scientific codification serves to marginalise subjective experience, since we come to understand our interactions with the world simply as manifestations of scientific laws. The interesting political question is how this ideology of scientific objectivity impacts social life.  Adorno and Horkheimer suggest that one social consequence of this scientific drive to abstract away from direct experience is to be found in the modern commodity: ‘The most intimate reactions of human beings have been so thoroughly reified that the idea of anything specific to themselves now persists only as an utterly abstract notion; personality scarcely signifies anything more than shining white teeth and freedom from body odour and emotions. The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.’xx

Science serves capital in other ways too. It is no coincidence that early faith in free markets stemmed most famously from those leading figures of the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’, like Adam Smith and David Hume, who were also enthusiasts for science. Science and the capitalist market both posit the existence of a governing logic to human life, and both claim that questions of human wellbeing can be answered objectively; the increasingly mathematical nature of university Economics degrees is a case in point. Scientific praxis ‘discovers’ the world, in its ostensibly objective state, and this is the first prerequisite for the industrial exploitation of the value interred in nature. Science ‘discovers’ the market, and the calculation of economic exchange represents the ultimate reification of scientific praxis under capitalism. Walter Benjamin rightly notes how, ‘the new conception of labour amounts to the exploitation of nature, which with naïve complacency is contrasted with the exploitation of the proletariat.’xxi

This has direct political consequences. In transposing reality to the realm of mathematics and economic exchange, by realising it in quantitative terms, scientific praxis allows for a conception of the world where individual experience is entirely detached from wider economic trends, and the immediate experience of consumption is utterly divorced from the process of production. It is this fallacy that allows for the ideology of unbounded consumption, and for neoliberal models of unbounded growth. This is how the bourgeoisie, in Marx’s words: ‘has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade’.xxiii Advertising constitutes an entire culture in which we are constructed as consumers, and normalises a universal idea that the consumer system represents a relationship of maternal provision, but only by presenting consumption to us as an innocent act, divorced from the realm of production. We are expected to view society in two distinct frictionless spheres – that of the purely ‘factual’ economic rhetoric of production (and waste), and that of emotion, culture and consumption.

At the heart of this is the primary separation between producer and consumer, between the victims of economic and social exploitation and their oppressors. Often this separation is achieved simultaneously in the same individual, and it is this conceptual framework which deceives the dominated into accepting their domination. This framework is reliant on seeing one sphere – production – as entirely objective and scientific, while relegating emotional experience to the world of consumption. The economic application of science as ideology is thus palpable here, quantifying and objectifying political phenomena.

 

VI

If the world is an aggregate of relatively independent regions, then any assumption of universal laws is false and a demand for universal norms tyrannical.

– Paul Karl Feyerabend, Farewell to Reason (1987)

 

It would be a valid criticism to observe that this article approaches scientific discourse and the Enlightenment as a monolith, if not for the fact that this is how it demands to be approached. Truth, in the Enlightened perception, is singular and absolute; ‘scientists in the tradition of Galileo, Kepler and Newton … devoted their lives to proving that the universe is a single entity’. xxvi

 

This article could therefore be interpreted in some ways as a cursory response to Hayek’s ‘Counter Revolution of Science’, and a questioning of the strict dichotomy he draws between ‘science’ and ‘scientism’. Of course a discourse analysis is not sufficient to critique science in its totality, but this is precisely because of a fact that negates scientific objectivity; the fact being that scientific discourse is not monolithic, it is heterogeneous. The nexus of scientific praxis, in the objects of its enquiry, the nature of its results, and the development of its methodology, is subject to the same cultural forces and ideologies that govern all cultural intercourse. The assertion of an objectivity transcendent of the limitations of ideology, of ‘science’ over ‘scientism’, is therefore entirely untenable.

Philosophers of science have acknowledged this – Kuhn regarded paradigm shifts as a fundamental aspect of scientific progression, and rejected Karl Popper’s principles of falsifiability as the motor for scientific change. But it remains necessary to acknowledge that scientific understanding and structure are another battleground for ideology and do not necessarily represent the ultimate tool for liberation from structures of oppression. It seems oddly appropriate, then, to leave the last word here to Albert Einstein, who wrote:

‘So many people today — and even professional scientists — seem to me like someone who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is — in my opinion — the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.’xxvii

 

Will Searby is a 2nd-year History student at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford. 

 

Footnotes:

viiiQuoted in E.L. Newman; What the crowd wanted in the French Revolution of 1830

ixKarl Marx and Friedrich Engels; Manifesto of the Communist Party (transl. Moore & Engels, 1888)

xVannevar Bush; Science – The Last Frontier (A report prepared for President Roosevelt whilst Bush was Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (July 1945))

xiMax Horheimer; Eclipse of Reason (Columbia University Press, New York 1947)

xiiRichard Dawkins; “Human gullibility beyond belief,— the “paranormal” in the media”. (The Sunday Times. 25th August 1996)

xiiiTheodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer; Dialectic of Enlightenment (Verso, London 1997)

xivNikkola Tesla (1934) quoted in Margaret Cheney, Robert Uth, and Jim Glenn; Tesla: master of lightning. (1999)

xvDaniel Dennett; Postmodernism and Truth (1998)

xviQuoted in R. Earle; ‘Creole Patriotism and the myth of the Loyal Indian’ (2000)

xviiQuoted in T. Bendyshe, “On the Extinction of Races,” Journal of the Anthropological Society of London, 1864 (pp. xcix-cxiii)

xviiiTheodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer; Dialectic of Enlightenment (Verso, London 1997)

xixAlbert Einstein (1943) quoted in William Hermanns; Einstein and the Poet: In Search of the Cosmic Man (1983)

xxTheodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer; Dialectic of Enlightenment (Verso, London 1997)

xxiWalter Benjamin; Thesis on the Philosophy of History, Part XI. Illuminations (Schocken, New York 1968)

xxiiNoam Chomsky in Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent; 22 July 1992

xxiiiKarl Marx and Friedrich Engels; Manifesto of the Communist Party (transl. Moore & Engels, 1888)

xxivWalter Benjamin; Thesis on the Philosophy of History, Part VII. Illuminations (Schocken, New York 1968)

xxvVannevar Bush; Science – The Last Frontier (A report prepared for President Roosevelt whilst Bush was Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (July 1945))

xxvi Albert Einstein (1943) quoted in William Hermanns; Einstein and the Poet: In Search of the Cosmic Man (1983)

xxviiAlbert Einstein;Letter to Robert A. Thorton, Physics Professor at University of Puerto Rico (7 December 1944)

[1] Nafeez Ahmed, ‘Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for “irreversible collapse”?’ (The Guardian, 14th March 2014)

[2] Voltaire, ‘Lettres Philosophiques, XII’, Oeuvres Completes, Vol XXII, p. 118 (Garnier, Paris 1879)

[3] Quoted in Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, (Verso, London 1997)

[4] Quoted in Tim Blanning, The Romantic Revolution (Weidenfield & Nicolson, London 2010)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Quoted in J. Lynch, The Spanish American Revolutions, 1808-1826 (Norton 1987)

[7] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (transl. Moore & Engels, 1888)

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