On 'How Science Works' Within a Capitalist System
Illustration by Jasper Rietman
In an interesting recent article in the New Yorker Joshua Rothman, situates the question of 'the way science works' as initially within a philosophical debate between Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper. Thus, “Popper maintained that scientists proceed by “falsifying” scientific claims—by trying to prove theories wrong. Kuhn, on the other hand, believed that scientists work to prove theories right, exploring and extending them until further progress becomes impossible. These two accounts rest on divergent visions of the scientific temperament. For Popper, Strevens writes, “scientific inquiry is essentially a process of disproof, and scientists are the disprovers, the debunkers, the destroyers.” Kuhn’s scientists, by contrast, are faddish true believers who promulgate received wisdom until they are forced to attempt a “paradigm shift”—a painful rethinking of their basic assumptions.”
Rothman then introduces a more contemporary understanding of how science works through the work of philosopher Michael Strevens. The title of Strevens book “The Knowledge Machine: How Irrationality Created Modern Science” could have been lifted right out of the first pages of a ground-breaking book by Paul Feyerabend (Against Method) that the author does not even mention. More on Feyerabend in a moment.
Strevens thesis is that science works when it adopts the 'iron rule of explanation' which, in brief, is not a theoretical approach but rather an empirical, procedural one—the success of any given proposal or hypothesis is thereby founded on grinding, boring, lab work and measurement of possibly inconsequential minutiae. Science works because it is empirically based and succeeds best when the rhetorical capacity of smart, ambitious scientists can argumentatively convince each other through official channels of communications.
Strevens claims that “the key to science’s success,” is that it “channels hope, anger, envy, ambition, resentment—all the fires fuming in the human heart—to one end: the production of empirical evidence.” If science 'works' argues Strevens, it is because “the appearance of objectivity” has turned out to be “as important as the real thing.”
That latter claim is a very interesting one, especially in light of what has been accurately described as 'junk science'—a relatively modern term that situates science within the matrix of powerful profit-oriented private corporations bent on skewing data and empirical results in order to minimize, and, if possible, completely abolish regulatory health and safety laws in the public interest. They only appear to follow scientific method, and their experiments and conclusions need not be confirmed or replicated by other scientists because they can more productively be replicated through mass social media.
As long as one doubtful finding or conclusion can be repeated and shared 10,000 times they have done all the work they need in order to spur industry shills, graft-ridden corporation-loving politicians, right-wing extremists and conspiracy theorists into rhetorical action. The scientists working behind the scenes in corporations like Shell, Monsanto, Exxon, Dupont, Koch Industries and Phillip Morris don’t care much for truth or reality because their raison d'être is selling doubt—they are experts at it and are abundantly compensated for it. The fact is that corporations spend billions funding scientists, universities, the media and politicians to instill doubt about the efficacy of vaccinations, climate warming, and especially about the carcinogenic and other deleterious effects of poisonous substances and chemicals. Additionally, they obstruct litigation, infiltrate congressional hearings and impose SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuit against public participation) on any whistleblower or critic who crosses them. Here, it really IS the case that the ‘appearance of objectivity’ often eclipses truth and reality.
At one level it is questionable (and misleading) to attempt to reduce the great variety of sciences—the many distinct theoretical, experimental, phenomenological methods and approaches—to a single, all-encompassing definition. The facts of science do not speak for themselves, but must be interpreted, negotiated and debated by different scientists operating from distinct fields and research interests. The results of science can and often are influenced by very non-scientific factors: compromises, lack of funding, sheer exhaustion, over-all social approval and even nationalist priorities.
In the days of Galileo, Bacon, Descartes and Copernicus science could not escape judgment of religious authority. Today it cannot wholly dissociate itself from corporations and politics. This brings us back to Paul Feyerabend.
In the introduction to his important work, Against Method he emphasizes that his main motive in writing the book “was humanitarian, not intellectual. I wanted to support people, not to 'advance knowledge'.”
Feyerabend begins with the thesis that “the events, procedures and results that constitute the sciences have no common structure; there are no elements that occur in every scientific investigation but are missing elsewhere.” One consequence of this is that “the success of 'science' cannot be used as an argument for treating as yet unsolved problems in a standardized way. That could be done only if there are procedures that can be detached from particular research situations and whose presence guarantees success. The thesis says that there are no such procedures.”
This conclusion is distinctly related to a very acute observation Feyerabend makes about the hegemony of modern western science:
“It is true that Western science now reigns supreme all over the globe; however, the reason was not insight in its 'inherent rationality' but power play (the colonizing nations imposed their ways of living) and the need for weapons: Western science so far has created the most efficient instruments of death. The remark that without Western science many 'Third World nations' would be starving is correct but one should add that the troubles were created, not alleviated by earlier forms of 'development'. It is also true that Western medicine helped eradicate parasites and some infectious diseases, but this does not show that Western science is the only tradition that has good things to offer, and that other forms of inquiry are without any merit whatsoever. Firstworld science is one science among many; by claiming to be more it ceases to be an instrument of research and turns into a (political) pressure group.”
Then Feyerabend says something very interesting about who should be allowed into the debate:
“…if scientific achievements can be judged only after the event and if there is no abstract way of ensuring success beforehand, then there exists no special way of weighing scientific promises; scientists are no better off than anybody else in these matters, they only know more details. This means that the public can participate in the discussion without disturbing existing roads to success. In cases where the scientists' work affects the public it even should participate: first, because it is a concerned party (many scientific decisions affect public life); secondly, because such participation is the best scientific education the public can get-a full democratization of science (which includes the protection of minorities such as scientists) is not in conflict with science.”
Presumably, if concerned citizens, philosophers, peace and environmental thinkers and writers were allowed into the scientific game, things might look quite different. Moreover, there are ancient and local forms of knowledge, of indigenous practices and ways of thinking that have long stood the test of time, but are resisted and brushed aside by the ‘real scientists’ in the room.
That is part of the problem—modern scientists may be a brilliant as well as diligent and indefatigable empirical researchers. But in most cases, they look upon themselves as an independent, elite, sovereign body of researchers who speak mostly to each other in a language only they can understand. They are, in effect, really lousy communicators—not a very happy state of affairs if you happen to subscribe to the full ‘democratization of science’!
However, this is not even the most significant issue. The intractable problem these days is that long before any public interest group, philosopher, environmental protection body or concerned citizen gets into the science debate, corporate junk scientists have already so polluted, twisted and distorted the truth, governments have so underfunded, minimized and muted public critics of industry, and universities have so irresponsibly turned science research into corporate-driven enterprise, that the essential connections between science and democracy, science and ethics, science and truth have all but disappeared.
Now I do not dispute the track record of good science that yields valuable knowledge about the way the world works, that can provide a deeper understanding about effects of climate warming and toxic chemicals, and that benefits humanity by discovering life-saving, pain-reducing medicines and therapies. I believe Feyerabend is right when he says that “science is one of the most wonderful inventions of the human mind.”
But I am also entirely in sympathy with his cautionary claim that we should always fight against “ideologies that use the name of science for cultural (or environmental) murder” whether corporate or political.