by Judith Curry
The myth that there is no politics of science is dangerous as it prevents the important and urgently needed institution of some democratic control of the existing system of politics within the commonwealth of learning. – Joseph Agassi
Climate Etc. has previously addressed in numerous posts the role of science in political debates and the politicization of science. This post focuses on politics WITHIN science, and is relevant to several recent posts:
This post is draws from a 1986 paper by philosopher Joseph Agassi entitled Politics of Science (which was sent to me by Joel Katzav). Excerpts:
It is an empirical fact that when I report to colleagues, philosophers, scientists, university professors and administrators, and other intellectuals, that I wish to discuss the politics of science, they first ask me if I mean science policy. When I say, no, the politics within the commonwealth of learning is what I wish to discuss, the response is, there is no such thing. When I say, I have ample empirical evidence to the contrary, they say, there should be no such thing. When I retort that there should be no more war, they say, war is a part of political life, willy-nilly; but university politics and politics in learned societies, and other intrigues and power struggles do not in any way belong to science. Scientists, they say, may very well be politicians, yet as scientists they cannot do politics within science. There is no room, they say, for politics in science.
The simple-minded view does seem to be dogmatic, pig-headed and harmful. Yet I should not be indignant, not only because indignation does not become a philosopher, but also because it is a standard conservative defence of the status-quo and the top-dog’s way to tell the under-dog that there is no status-quo and no top-dog, that everyone who is very good has a road open to the very top. In other words, the theory that there is no politics of science is not only simple-minded, it is rooted in naivety and ignorance-in the same naivety and ignorance exhibited by any member of any tribe, society or club, who says the same. Nevertheless, for the top-dog to say to the under-dog that there is no top-dog and no under-dog but that everyone has his just share is plainly self-serving.
The claim that science and politics do not mix is not an empirical claim. The principle in question is that of impartiality. Now what forces science to be and stay impartial? Answer: science is inductive, induction is the basing of one’s beliefs rationally upon facts, and given a state of a science inductive logic prescribes unanimity. Schools and factions are thus unscientific. But inductive logic is a myth and in different ways. First, it does not preclude the misguided choice of data, only, allegedly, the misguided choice of theories in the light of data. On the whole, as Karl Popper has put it, even if inductive logic forbids the disregard for, or the explanation away of, unpleasant data, it does not forbid the shying away from the search for them.
In addition to this, though inductive logic forbids the disregard for and the explanation away of, unpleasant data, thus imposing unanimity, scientific practice goes the other way: there is no unanimity in science and each school decides which data it finds unpleasant and it then attempts to explain them away. Though inductive logicians oppose this practice, they nevertheless participate in it by making it sound insignificant: they gloss over the fact that scientific schools and factions exist. Yet the claim that these schools contribute to the growth of science in many ways is more plausible than inductive logic. Hence, science is inherently political, and its politics was fairly democratic before it became big business. It is time to rescue the inner democracy of science before the damage becomes too extensive.
The band-wagon effect discussed thus far has been independently discovered about one generation later, by a leading American sociologist who is credited, quite rightly I think, with the very invention of the field of the sociology of science. Robert K. Merton has announced the Matthew effect: an accredited scientist will find it easier to find a platform to express his opinions than an unknown scientist. The Matthew effect is explained in public on many occasions and, unlike the band-wagon effect, it causes no laughter at all. Nobody thinks it indicates that journal referees are as much inept and parasitical as the critics who praise famous playwrights. This, of course, makes them even more harmful to the system.
What is the role of the Matthew effect? It is to keep the establishment in the position of power, in which they can determine, for a few years, who is the best. And they decide that they themselves are the best and they give themselves a few years to learn who is the best available and to induct the best into their ranks; and if the worst comes to the worst, and then use this as evidence that you cannot keep a good scientist down. But at least they try, and this guarantees their power.
What gives any scientist power? His influence on others. His holding office in a learned society. His ability to influence appointments to jobs. His ability to get jobs to his pupils and cronies. His ability to secure the publication of a paper by an unknown writer in a prestigious periodical. Everyone knows that: we all try to get a powerful colleague to recommend us for a job, for a grant, for an acceptance by an editor. The Matthew effect, thus, is the means of maintaining the stability of power in a society in which there is no use for the normal means of the perpetuation of stability, such as money and power.
Hence, the tyranny of science must be checked before it goes too far and the trend becomes irreversible. Anyone who cares for pluralism, be one pro-science or not, must volunteer some effort to control the aggression of science.
What, then, should be done to curb the aggressive conduct of science? Feyerabend has a proposal: separate state and science.
Let us assume that science does have authority, that the authority of Science exercises power, and that at times it does this quite unjustly. Which authorities? It seems clear that universities, scientific societies, national scientific research and development institutions, are among the candidates. To the extent that we can speak of the authorities of science separately from science, then we do need to control them and prevent them from misusing their power.
How are such things determined in practice? They are determined, to make an empirical observation, by the scientific leadership. Who are the scientific leaders? Empirically, again, we may observe that we do not know in principle, that we do know in fact. Why Einstein was not a leader and Niels Bohr was, is, in my opinion, a matter of self-selection. What causes self-selection I do not know, but it may be a sense of responsibility, personal ambition, the self-assessment as a burnt-out researcher, and more.
Let me say at once that as long as it is impossible to become a scientist with no college degree, science is facing the real risk of sclerosis, ossification, petrification. The Matthew effect is only the tip of an iceberg. To repeat, recruitment and job placement spell political power, and it is in the hands of the Ivy League universities, which take themselves to constitute the standards of excellence.
There is much more to the politics of science, of course, including the political power of journal editors and conference organisers, its use and abuse, the political control of access of scientists to mass media, legislators, and more. To repeat, these raise many background questions which have hardly been studied. Also, clearly, there are almost no longitudinal studies of current policies of editors, of grant-giving committees, and the like. Even the reassessment, in historical perspective, of researches which led to Nobel prize awards has hardly begun.
We can study the contributions in journals whose policy is not to publish controversies, we can ask how fruitful this or that controversy was. We will find that considered controversy is the leaven of progress, I think. But I will not elaborate now. Rather, I should say, what seems to me most urgently needed now is the replacement of the current institutions of science, based on the view that science and controversy do not mix, with institutions based on the canons of proper scientific conduct, especially in controversy and debate
The canons of conduct of the commonwealth of learning have served it admirably well. Yet this is not to say that we cannot study empirically their desirable and undesirable effects and attempt to reform them. The inductive philosophy which has helped establish the commonwealth of learning was based on the idea of the scientists as amateurs and of scientific information as easily available. It is no longer adequate. What we need most are standards and values regarding scientific schools and controversies.
This paper, written almost three decades ago, provides some fascinating insights into today’s academic culture. I googled around to find more recent papers on this topic. Unfortunately, unless I’m missing something, theres not much to find. Agassi’s paper has been cited only 4 times. JC note to science and technology studies scholars: lots of low hanging fruit here for interesting and important studies!
I haven’t previously heard of the Matthew Effect, other than ‘the rich get richer.’ It definitely has profound implications in academia. Most recently I’ve been trying to counter this one in context of the stadium wave paper, to try to make sure that Marcia Wyatt gets most of the credit.
The whole ‘top dog’ issue is very well described. Apart from obvious goals such as tenure, promotion and salary increases, most academics aspire to the status of top dogs – journal editors, officers of professional societies, membership on government advisory boards, leadership on government funded science teams, large government research grants, receipt of awards, etc. When I read the Climategate emails, I read their motives as being more concerned with the scientists protecting their top-dog status, rather than as advocates for environmental policies.
Now it really gets interesting when you mix the politics of science with REAL politics related to government policies, in this instance energy and climate. As recently as several decades ago, scientists that spent too much time on public communication (e.g. Carl Sagan) jeopardized their top dog status or engaged in public policy were regarded either as scientific lightweights or past their scientific prime (e.g. research burnouts). At this point, public communication and engagement in policy debates actually enhances your top dog status, PROVIDED that you are on the side of majority/consensus. The recent list of AGU awardees has a number of names whose main accomplishments or rationale for recognition seem to be communications or advocacy: Scott Mandia-Ambassador Award, Katherine Hayhoe, Climate Communication Prize.
This article made me reflect on my own career, and the price I’ve paid for taking a position that is counter to that of the top dogs. I’ve lost my top dog status in certain circles. Do I care? No. I’m trying to make a stand for merit and democratization of science, outside the reach of the gatekeepers I’ve increased my influence where I think it counts: with a broader audience of scientists and technical people, and in the policy process. Fortunately, top dog status in traditional academic circles no longer keeps ‘undesirable’ science out of the public eye or translates into political power because of the democratizing effect of the internet.
We could really use more sociological research on all this, I would appreciate any pointers to literature that I’ve missed on this.