The Political Uses of Science

31 July 2010


In a world as technologically complex and sophisticated as ours, the political uses of science are legion. Science both gives us technology and analyzes how these technologies function. Technology is, in a sense, older than science, since technology pre-dates the emergence of civilization itself, a fortiori also the emergence of science in its modern form. Moreover, a rudimentary technology existed side-by-side with non-scientific civilizations for thousands of years.

What is different now is that the conscious application of science to technical problems was one of the factors that made the Industrial Revolution what it was, and continues to make the Industrial Revolution a reality in our ever-changing daily lives. We have come to expect rapid technological and scientific change, and to expect that as we grow older we become progressively more out of date. Whereas before the Industrial Revolution patterns of life had been relatively stable since the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, now it is often said that change is the only constant.

I haven’t yet thought systematically about the political uses and abuses of science, but what follows is a sort of first impression, an off-the-cuff account of how the ideals of scientific objectivity become prey to human, all-too-human interests in a scientific society.

Feudal Science

Feudal science is science pursued in the interests of established power structures. This is nothing other than the science favored by the powers that be and the economic and military infrastructure that supports them and which gives them their raison d’être. In other words, feudal science is the ideological infrastructure of quasi-feudal, ossified societies, and as such is a species of ideological science (see below), but it deserves special mention because of its relation to power structures.

Foucault’s illustrious career was more of less devoted to exposing feudal science in its many forms in psychiatry, penology, natural science, political economy, and a variety of fields. Though Foucault disdained to identify himself with any intellectual “movement” (and for good reason, presumably similar reasons to those of Sartre in warning intellectuals of allowing themselves to become an institution), his focus on history is redolent of the Annales historians with their concern for the longue durée. The virtue of Foucault’s approach is to see science in the context of the longue durée, and this is fatal to any effort to set up any society and its institutions as permanent and unchanging, which is a typical feature of feudalism.

Here is Foucault’s formulation from a well-known interview:

Each of my works is a part of my own biography. For one or another reason I had the occasion to feel and live those things. To take a simple example, I used to work in a psychiatric hospital in the 1950s. After having studied philosophy, I wanted to see what madness was: I had been mad enough to study reason; I was reasonable enough to study madness. I was free to move from the patients to the attendants, for I had no precise role. It was the time of the blooming of neurosurgery, the beginning of psychopharmacology, the reign of the traditional institution. At first I accepted things as necessary, but then after three months (I am slow-minded!), I asked, “What is the necessity of these things?” After three years I left the job and went to Sweden in great personal discomfort and started to write a history of these practices. Madness and Civilization was intended to be a first volume. I like to write first volumes, and I hate to write second ones. It was perceived as a psychiatricide, but it was a description from history. You know the difference between a real science and a pseudoscience? A real science recognizes and accepts its own history without feeling attacked. When you tell a psychiatrist his mental institution came from the lazar house, he becomes infuriated.

Truth, Power, Self: An Interview with Michel Foucault — October 25th, 1982, Martin, L. H. et al (1988) Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, London: Tavistock. pp.9-15

If “a real science recognizes and accepts its own history without feeling attacked,” then a feudal science either denies that history or constructs a fictitious history that gives no reason for even the most reactionary elements within a scientific institution to feel attacked.

Baroque Science

In his idiosyncratic Dictionary of Philosophy, Mario Bunge defines baroque philosophy as, “Rhetorical (empty and convoluted) form of philosophizing that specializes in miniproblems and pseudoproblems.” This definition can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to what we may call baroque science. Baroque science focuses its effort, intensified by its very narrowness, upon the miniproblems and pseudoproblems of science. The conceptual miniaturist, if he has no ambitions for anything greater, can find endless fascination in the smallest possible objects of the scientific interest. As this fascination builds momentum with its focus refined to a pinpoint, this method contains itself as it comes to see scientific problem as the smaller the better.

It should be immediately obvious that baroque science is nothing but a subspecies of feudal science; baroque science is feudal science at its most precious and self-conscious. Taking Bunge’s architectural metaphor further, it might even be better to call it rococo science, and to reserve the term “baroque science” for what I have above called “feudal science,” for rococo science has all the delicacy, intimacy, and mannered good taste as is to be found in any rococo interior. One can scarcely think in such terms without imagining chamber music by candlelight, and only a very civilized science indeed would inspire such a thought.

Revolutionary Science

Human nature being what it is, no class of intelligent, resourceful, and ambitious men could ever be content with dubious pleasures of feudal science or baroque science, and so they rebel. In rebelling they contribute to the speciation of the science and create a new, revolutionary science. Now, revolutionary science is none other than that science made famous by Thomas Kuhn’s efforts to analyze the nature of scientific revolutions. I have many times had occasion to mention Kuhn’s work (for example, in Scientific Progress) so I will not spend much time on it here. Kuhn’s fame nearly singles him out among twentieth century philosophers, comparable perhaps to Foucault, whose critique of the history of science is very different from that of Kuhn, but in no sense mutually exclusive. Kuhn, like Foucault, sees science in historical context, but draws different lessons from his historical inquiry.

Revolutionary science is scientific novelty at the vanguard of social change — i.e., a scientific movement often co-opted by a political movement, and therefore a species of ideological science (see below).

Potemkin Science

Potemkin science is the science of a Potemkin Village; it is fake science, false science, unreal science, science based upon unscientific principles and assumptions. What we are here calling “Potemkin science” is also known as “cargo cult science,” so called by Richard Feynman, or more commonly known as pseudo-science. Feynman put it like this:

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas — he’s the controller — and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

A Potemkin science can have all the trappings of a genuine science, and as science matures and stabilizes within industrialized civilization, becoming less and less frequently revolutionary science, it builds up socio-political forms that are easily mimicked and imitated by epistemic efforts that are flagrantly unscientific. A Potemkin science can have journals, awards, scientific societies, university chairs, institutions, and the respect and approbation of the public. But, as Feynman said, Potemkin sciences lack something essential.

Feynman had his own examples of Potemkin science, but my favorite current example is the so-called technological singularity.

Revisionary Science

Revisionary science I understand to be the scientific equivalent to what Strawson called revisionary metaphysics, which he contrasted to descriptive metaphysics. Whereas the latter seeks only to describe the world as accurately as possible according to a received conceptual scheme, the former seeks to revise the conceptual scheme itself and improve upon metaphysics. Thus revisionary science tries to improve upon science itself, and not merely to produce further examples of familiar science.

Revisionary science thus occupies a place between openly revolutionary science, with its ambition to overturn established scientific conventions and knowledge, and feudal science with its pretense to understanding the world in terms of unchanging ideas, categories, and concepts. A great deal of science is revisionary science, and much of the best science is revisionary science. We save what is of value in the tradition, but we cast away what is no longer of value and supplement what remains with novel science.

Any such endeavors involve dangers; the attempt to formulate a better set of background assumptions for science is more likely to simply reflect the prejudices of present investigators than to introduce any new objectivity in place of former cant and subjectivity, but this danger is no less than the danger of feudal science, which bends every effort to admit not change at all. Revisionary science attempts to find the truth between these opposite dangers, and when it succeeds it advances our knowledge.

Perverted Science

Perverted science is none other than that species of science made famous in the peroration of Winston Churchill’s “Finest Hour” speech:

Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’

I can imagine a journalist would tell us that perverted science is science that has lost its “moral compass,” but we are not journalists, so we must hold ourselves to certain standards. We must, for example, acknowledge the complexity of the world, and the fact that what is a perversion for one person is a pleasure for another.

Perverted science is that science pursued according to a morality distinct from that which we recognize as our own. This is important on two points. Firstly, it is an open admission that science depends upon a moral vision of the world, and therefore that science conceived apart from such a moral vision is itself a kind of perverted science, and secondly that if we can attain to a morality of sufficient generality and egalitarian representation, we can approach a science that reflects what is best in us, and we can also identify more clearly a perverted science for what it is.

Ideological Science

Ideological science, like perverted science, is a science pursued according to a morality distinct from that which we recognize as our own, or, rather, science pursued according to a political ideology distinct from our own. Here I am being a bit idealistic and allowing us to assume that we have attempted to formulate a science (as mentioned above) that exemplifies all that is best in us, and that other sciences fall far short of this mark.

Outright ideological science is less common that science co-opted by ideology. Powerful political ideologies have relentless representatives who are always on the lookout for science that seems to support a view of things that the political ideologue already believed independently of any scientific investigation. Once discovered, few scientists can resist the Siren song of funding and recognition that comes with political support. And so what might otherwise be legitimate science becomes seduced by ideology and gradually allows itself to be transformed into ideological science.

Big Science

Big Science is the science is in part the science of the military-industrial complex, but it is moreover simply the science that emerges from mature and stable industrialized civilization, with its mature and stable institutions that evolve and develop gradually but which are formulated with an eye toward excluding any revolutionary change that would “rock the boat.” (Big science may at times appear to be revolutionary science, but the two are usually radically distinct.) It is also, more specifically, the science that emerges from institutionalized scholarship (of which I have written at some length).

Big Science is known for its big university departments, its big research programs, its big endowments, and especially its big hardware. Enormous science projects that draw in expertise, funding, and entire departments become self-sustaining and indeed expanding social movements in miniature. No one can afford to be left out of the big ambitions of big science (as no news outlet can afford to not cover the big story that every other news outlet is covering) so that big science creates a growing cluster of scientific activity.

With big science, scientists becomes players in a game that has little or nothing to do with science. In order to keep the research dollars flowing in, they must compete with others also seeking money and attention, and so they become bureaucrats, accountants, politicians, and even showmen as they pursue yet another magazine cover to showcase their work. There is no reason that one cannot be both scientist and showman at the same time, but few have the aptitude or the ability to do both really well; one function or the other must suffer, and if the show is to go on, it won’t be the show that suffers.

Science and Knowledge

In our contemporary world of industrialized civilization, science is perhaps the primary source of the generation of new knowledge (we might even coin a term and say that it is epistemogenic). Science is not only the primary source of knowledge today, but also the primary guarantor of the legitimacy of knowledge. Thus “science” has come to serve a rhetorical function in our vocabulary, as we express our admiration of certain epistemic efforts by calling them “science” while we express our disapproval of other epistemic efforts by denying that such efforts are science. This habit has been formalized in Popper’s criterion of scientificity in terms of falsifiability.

However, as we have seen, science is not one, but many. There are many species of science, and each species of science produces a species of knowledge. Thus knowledge too is not one, but many. If we don’t look to carefully, we can convince ourselves that all the diverse efforts of the many forms of science are somehow and ultimately in harmony (like ancient and early modern attempts to demonstrate the harmony of Plato and Aristotle). But if we do look carefully, we will have to admit that there are many kinds of science, many kinds of knowledge produced by these many kinds of science, and that the result is a teeming epistemic pluralism with no central theme of unifying idea.

The proper response to this is to sort through the species of scientific knowledge philosophically, and to assess them by a philosophical criterion that is external to all the sciences and internal to none of them, but I don’t expect this to happen any time soon, as the same sociological mechanisms that have enshrined science as a source of knowledge have also virtually made philosophical knowledge disappear. As a result, contemporary culture is almost incapable of exercising philosophical judgment, and we all suffer as a consequence of this conceptual myopia. The eye of the soul has become near-sighted, and we await a change in present sociological formations that will make possible a dispensing optician to address the deficit.

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