by Judith Curry
The Dublin based Livewire Publications has produced a new collection of essays titled Science & Capital – Radical Essays on Science & Technology, with the intention to;
“bring together some of the more radical essays on science and technology written over the years – so as to highlight some of the dangers inherent in the blind trust we are often encouraged to place in science and scientific experts”.
Table of Contents:
- Chapter 1: From L’Encyclopedie des Nuisances, by Jaime Semprum
- Chapter 2: And Yet It Moves, by Boy Igor
- Chapter 3: No to Electronic Watchtowers, Elements of Reflection onVideo Surveillance, by the collective Smile, You’re Being Filmed
- Chapter 4: How to Defend Society against Science. Extracts from Paul Feyerabend
- Chapter 5: Science & Authority, by Michael Bakunin
- Chapter 6: Further links to reading materials
The book is reviewed by libcom.org, some excerpts:
The lengthy introduction by Phil Meyler, (aka Phil Mailer of “Portugal, the Impossible Revolution?”) has a critique of some of the perils of modern science, since its substitution of religion, and our often uncritical acceptance of “scientific experts”. It analyses the Sokal affair, a critique of post modernist ideas on science, as well as “junk science”, the internet and the spectacle of modern commodity technology.
The recurring theme running through the essays is to critique claims for the supposed impartiality of science. Rather, these essays investigate science’s role as an ‘objective’ authority in the service of class society. Science as an elitist technological innovator of commodity production and consumption is contrasted with the possibilities for a liberated scientific activity within new forms of social organisation. In the last (and oldest) essay, Bakunin’s prescient and penetrating observations on the tensions between the authoritarian and potential libertarian uses of science still resonate from the 19th century to the present and are echoed through the other essays in this book;
“Science, as a moral entity existing outside of the universal social life and represented by a corporation of licensed savants, should be liquidated and widely diffused among the masses. Called upon to represent henceforth the collective consciousness of society, science must in a real sense become everybody’s property. In this way, without losing thereby anything of its universal character, of which it can never divest itself without ceasing to be science, and while continuing to concern itself with general causes, general conditions, and general relations of things and individuals, it will merge in fact with immediate and real life of all individuals.”
This is a stimulating book that questions many dominant assumptions about the function of science and technology in capitalism.
I want to defend society and its inhabitants from all ideologies, science included.
Any ideology that breaks the hold a comprehensive system of thought has on the minds of men contributes to the liberation of man. Any ideology that makes man question inherited beliefs is an aid to enlightenment. A truth that reigns without checks and balances is a tyrant who must be overthrown, and any falsehood that can aid us in the over throw of this tyrant is to be welcomed. It follows that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century science indeed was an instrument of liberation and enlightenment. It does not follow that science is bound to remain such an instrument. There is nothing inherent in science or in any other ideology that makes it essentially liberating. Ideologies can deteriorate and become stupid religions. Look at Marxism. And that the science of today is very different from the science of 1650 is evident at the most superficial glance.
For example, consider the role science now plays in education. Scientific “facts” are taught at a very early age and in the very same manner in which religious “facts” were taught only a century ago. There is no attempt to waken the critical abilities of the pupil so that he may be able to see things in perspective. At the universities the situation is even worse, for indoctrination is here carried out in a much more systematic manner. In society at large the judgement of the scientist is received with the same reverence as the judgement of bishops and cardinals was accepted not too long ago.
Nobody would deny that it is commendable to speak the truth and wicked to tell lies. Nobody would deny that – and yet nobody knows what such an attitude amounts to. So it is easy to twist matters and to change allegiance to truth in one’s everyday affairs into allegiance to the Truth of an ideology which is nothing but the dogmatic defense of that ideology. And it is of course not true that we have to follow the truth. Human life is guided by many ideas. Truth is one of them. Freedom and mental independence are others. If Truth, as conceived by some ideologists, conflicts with freedom, then we have a choice. We may abandon freedom. But we may also abandon Truth. My criticism of modern science is that it inhibits freedom of thought.
[T]heories cannot be justified and their excellence cannot be shown without reference to other theories. We may explain the success of a theory by reference to a more comprehensive theory (we may explain the success of Newton’s theory by using the general theory of relativity); and we may explain our preference for it by comparing it with other theories.
Such a comparison does not establish the intrinsic excellence of the theory we have chosen. As a matter of fact, the theory we have chosen may be pretty lousy. It may contain contradictions, it may conflict with well-known facts, it may be cumbersome, unclear, ad hoc in decisive places, and so on. But it may still be better than any other theory that is available at the time. It may in fact be the best lousy theory there is. Nor are the standards of judgement chosen in an absolute manner. Our sophistication increases with every choice we make, and so do our standards. Standards compete just as theories compete and we choose the standards most appropriate to the historical situation in which the choice occurs. The rejected alternatives (theories; standards; “facts”) are not eliminated. They serve as correctives (after all, we may have made the wrong choice) and they also explain the content of the preferred views (we understand relativity better when we understand the structure of its competitors. . . [Knowledge] forces our mind to make imaginative choices and thus makes it grow. It makes our mind capable of choosing, imagining, criticising.
The most important consequence is that there must be a formal separation between state and science just as there is now a formal separation between state and church. Science may influence society but only to the extent to which any political or other pressure group is permitted to influence society. Scientists may be consulted on important projects but the final judgement must be left to the democratically elected consulting bodies. These bodies will consist mainly of laymen. Will the laymen be able to come to a correct judgement? Most certainly, for the competence, the complications and the successes of science are vastly exaggerated. One of the most exhilarating experiences is to see how a lawyer, who is a layman, can find holes in the testimony, the technical testimony, of the most advanced expert and thus prepare the jury for its verdict. Science is not a closed book that is understood only after years of training. It is an intellectual discipline that can be examined and criticised by anyone who is interested and that looks difficult and profound only because of a systematic campaign of obfuscation carried out by many scientists (though, I am happy to say, not by all). Organs of the state should never hesitate to reject the judgement of scientists when they have reason for doing so.
Education and myth
The progress of science, of good science depends on novel ideas and on intellectual freedom: science has very often been advanced by outsiders (remember that Bohr and Einstein regarded themselves as outsiders). Will not many people make the wrong choice and end up in a deadend? Well, that depends on what you mean by a “dead end.” Most scientists today are devoid of ideas, full of fear, intent on producing some paltry result so that they can add to the flood of inane papers that now constitutes “scientific progress” in many areas. And, besides, what is more important? To lead a life which one has chosen with open eyes, or to spend one’s time in the nervous attempt of avoiding what some not so intelligent people call “dead ends”?
Feyerabend, with reference to Mill and Darwinism, provides us with a recipe for scientific progress, or at least a recipe for an environment which encourages it. This is distinctly different from what other philosophers of science have attempted to provide; namely, a formal account of “the scientific method”. In closing, I would like to briefly discuss this distinction, and argue as to why Feyerabend’s approach is the better one.
It is a common mistake to think of Feyerabend as “anti-science”. He is only anti-science to the extent that he is pro-freedom, and sees science as a tyrant. He does not claim that science is dogma, but rather that science has become dogmatic, as does any ideology which gains an effective monopoly.
Science is not the only worthwhile human goal, and within science as a goal there is no one proper method. Perhaps, if the task of science is ever completed, we will be able to look back over its history and discuss whether any particular method would have been sufficient to the entire task. In the meantime, we are better off with many methods than with dogmatic adherence to any single method. So let us have many methods, and many spirited debates as to why one method is better than another. Let the practitioners of each method boast with their results, the progress that they make, the technologies they develop, the discoveries they bring to light, their explanatory or predictive power; and let them adopt all the best techniques of their opponents as they recognise them.
It may well be that science deserves an exalted seat in the pantheon of knowledge, but, on the other hand, maybe it is no more or less important than other kinds of knowledge. Whatever the case, if Feyerabend and Mill are right, all branches of knowledge should adopt an attitude of humility, and encourage diversity of opinion rather than engaging in a process of elimination. They should do this for the sake of their own progress, as well as for intellectual liberty in general.
Recent blog essays on Feyerabend are found here:
JC comment: Some provocative ideas here, as we contemplate the complexity of the climate change debate – not only the complex physical system, but the broader implications of change, impacts, and proposed solutions and the participation of of the public in this debate.