The discussion of the polysemy (multiple interpretations) of the assertion “science has always been political” has tested the mutual regard that exists between myself and “Willard”, but has not shaken it. I am pleased that we are still friends despite this polar disagreement, one in which each of us is adamant.
Nor has he shaken my firm conviction that he is taking the wrong approach here.
In short, my position is first that the claim “all science is political”, frankly intended as a slogan, is vague; that is that it has many plausible interpretations some of which are surely true and some surely false and some liminal. And second that at least one of the most accessible meanings is false, and commonly held, and dangerous.
Consequently, regardless of intent, it is not a slogan of positive utility, and therefore Audra Wolfe should find another slogan if she needs one.
It’s been interesting enough that I intend to follow it up further.
We can expand on all the meanings of “science”, and then perhaps touch on all the meanings of “politics” that I can think of, though this has occupied less of my thinking over the years than the nature of “science” has.
Meanwhile, in trying to understand where Willard is coming from, I note another polysemy; the dual semantics of “authority”. And examining this dichotomy, I think, maps onto our disagreement.
Speaking of slogans, we boomers had a slogan, one which spawned many a bumper sticker. It was “Question Authority”. It was the “nullius in verba” of the hippie generation.
The trouble with this slogan is that there are two distinct semantic meanings of the word “authority” that can make this claim do two almost diametrically opposite pieces of semiotic work.
Consider the word “authority” as related to “authoritarian”, and contrast with “authority” as related to “authoritative”.
The latter (presumably more benign) sense is rather less common, but it’s around. We speak of “the authorities” in a given field as being those who are expert in the relevant knowledge.
“All of the authorities in cancer studies agree that tobacco causes cancer.”
“We don’t want the authorities telling us we can’t grow the tobacco we’ve been growing on this farm since my granddaddy’s day.”
In this case the putative authorities are aligned, but they are very different authorities. One claims authority insofar as it claims to be authoritative. The other asserts authority by projecting power. And presented in this way, it clearly is perceived as an intrusion of illegitimate power upon the farmer by influences he would likely consider illegitimate.
But is it illegitimate? The authorities (2) have influenced the authorities (1) to implement policies that make it more difficult for the farmer to live as his family has always lived. This is because there is authoritative information that the farm is doing collateral damage that is not captured in the pricing of his product. When this farmer “questions authority” is he questioning the legitimacy of the scientific claim? Or is he questioning the legal and social structures that enable the body politic to make it harder for him to make a living from his property? Probably he doesn’t care.
But we should.
Someone I know recalls a more elaborate bumper sticker.
“Question authority. Then listen to the answer.”
Which answer? “Because we are more powerful than you and we say so.” is one thing “Because you are doing far more damage to others than the benefits you receive” is another. These are different forms of authority, the authority of the power structure and the authority of science.
Are these authorities generally aligned, as in the tobacco example?
Or is science a nuisance of to power, the institution in society most suited to “speak truth to power” because it has from the beginning claimed access to truth by way of methods that are indifferent to power?
What does it mean for science to be authoritative?
I have an anecdote which I’d like to offer in evidence. I was holding an ordinary electronics engineering job. I had no particular scientific credentials at the time beyond being an engineer.
A colleague, also a degreed engineer, was a bit of an astronomy amateur. One day he came into work all excited about an educational video he had watched the previous night. He told me he had learned that the process for a star to collapse into a much smaller denser state (I can’t remember the deatils) took about “a microsecond”. I had not seen the video and was never as interested in stars as he, but I told him this must be wrong, that I did not believe that the any astrophysicist made such a claim.
I didn’t have the word “consilience” (basically coined by E O Wilson some years later), but the point was about consilience. The claim he was making was not consistent with my very firm understanding that nothing in science allowed signals to travel faster than light. If a process were to propagate outward from the star’s core, it would travel no faster than 300,000,000 meters per second, or 300 meters per microsecond. Since I was confident that any pre-collapse star would have a radius considerably in excess of 300 meters, I found the proposal inconsistent with what I knew.
I said that I strongly doubted the scientist had said anything about a microsecond, and that if she had, she probably wasn’t a real scientist.
My colleague was angry and upset at my arrogance. The scientist had impressive credentials. He had seen the video, and I had not. He was interested in astronomy passionately, and I only a bit. Yet I was confidently telling him that what he had seen was not true, based on little other than my confidence in what I had learned about physics a decade earlier.
He was so worked up about this that the next night he watched the video again. (Fortunately he still had the tape.) And he came back the next morning, sheepishly admitting that I was right, that the professor had spoken in terms of tens of minutes, which certainly in astronomical terms is remarkably instantaneous. I told him that the speed limit was the speed limit, that nothing really could break it without raising all sorts of contradictions. I “understood” it well enough, not from a deep familiarity with the evidence or the reasoning, but from a rough familiarity I had gained from reading popular science, particularly by Isaac Asimov and by George Gamow.
So was I arrogant? Well, maybe. Should I have left well enough alone? Maybe so. But settled science is settled science. If one sees some sign that a signal propagates faster than light, that’s the story, not just an interesting sidelight. The professor said nothing about overturning relativity. So something was amiss, and the most likely thing was that my colleague had misunderstood.
Was I arguing from authority? Well, there’s an interesting question. I myself had no particular status in the conversation – he was if anything a bit above me in the corporate hierarchy, and certainly more engaged in matters astronomical. But you could say I was arguing from the authority of Gamow, Asimov, etc., and everything I had learned about Einsteinian physics. Which was not much! But it was enough.
But Asimov and Gamow had no hierarchical authority over me. I was just their customer, an eager reader of their books.
And this further reinforced what I had already been quite confident of. These guys had been giving me the straight dope. This is how reality is put together. If you offer up something different, you are, with effective certainty, wrong, even if “science is fallible” and “relativity will eventually be overthrown by another more precise model” and whatever.
Signals don’t propagate faster than light, so stars can’t collapse in a microsecond. I have it on good authority.
Irene and I were discussing these matters last night. She was pretty strong in her formulation.
“It doesn’t matter what you believe,” she said “when I am telling you what is actually the case.”
What does “actually the case” mean?
The case starts with realism.
You can’t be a productive scientist without proceeding, at least provisionally, from an understanding that there is a real world you are trying to analyze. (You can be a solipsist or a relativist on your own time, but not when you’re sciencing. It just doesn’t work.)
Since the dawn of the enlightenment, we have learned that there is a set of methods and approaches that is enormously effective at increasing something we can call “understanding” of the real world.
This is not some deep metaphysical understanding, if such a thing is possible. It’s simply that it’s possible to get a good descriptive understanding what is going on in terms of matter and energy in the real world. Despite astonishing complexity, we are remarkably able to investigate and describe that complexity, and to interact with it in ways that prescientific humanity could not imagine.
In the early days of science, the method addressed such diverse items as the nature of oxygen, the circulatory system, the nature of electromagnetism, the origin of geological strata, and many others. People learned something about about just about everything.
Somewhere in the world is the world expert in geckos. Somewhere around him or her are a few dozen people also interested in geckos. If we ever have a gecko crisis of some sort, they are there for us to look up. And not having thought for ten seconds about them before writing this paragraph, I am nevertheless confident that they are out there, and that is they tell me something about geckos, they are likely to get it right. I am extremely unlikely to provide any new knowledge about geckos to them, and even more unlikely to come up with something contrary to their understanding that is not simply demonstrably wrong. That person is the authority on geckos, and his or her pronouncements on geckos are authoritative.
Does that make them “true” in some deep metaphysical sense? Does that make them amount to “understanding”in some pure logic sense? Of course not.
It just means that I had better put in a whole lot of time on geckos before I bother to challenge them. Otherwise I’m being little more than an obnoxious gecko-obsessed idiot.
Of course, once actual real-world controversy arises, the problem becomes more difficult. Obnoxious idiots with baseless claims suddenly have a business model. People want what the charlatans are selling, if the actual truth of the matter is inconvenient.
When the public is presented with conflicting claims of authority, we do not seem to have any way for people outside the field to distinguish between genuine authority and pretension.
This is the key theme of what I think about. How should we know? How can we know?
And this is what I want of a philosophy of science. Or of journalism. Or of somebody. We need ways to weigh epistemic claims for genuine authority in the sense of authoritativeness. We don’t have them. And we desperately need them.
Into this context enter, blithely, people who love to play with language, and who resent illegitimate claims of authoritarianism-sense authority. Conflating the two sense of “authority”, the power-claim and the understanding-claim, makes the attacker feel self-righteous when cutting down real experts a notch. Just who, exactly do they think they are with all their claims of gecko-certainty.
In short, instead of an epistemic thermometer, we what we get from the academy is generic one-size-fits-all doubtmongering. It doesn’t help.
Real, and occasionally immense, abuses of power exist in the history of science as social construct. Resentment at these abuses fuels this misdirected high dudgeon.
The no-true-Scotsman reply that I offer feels a bit thin.
Yes, Lysenko was a malicious lying Stalin-toadying bastard, but he wasn’t *really* a scientist in the sense *I* mean by scientist.
I could see you dismissing this as a circular argument.
But please, look at the historical context.
Science’s social roots are in a remarkable subset of members of the dominant class which rejected social authority for the authority of reason and evidence.
That’s what “nullius in verba” means! Show us the evidence! The motto of the Royal Society is a frank challenge to authoritarian dogma. Science began as a thorn in the side of political authority, and for the most part remains so.
To be sure, “science” is always a “privilege” in an important sense. Most people through history could not aspire to the level of leisure and concentrated study to effectively participate in the advancement of human knowledge. As a consequence, science is heavily salted by members of privileged classes. So its worst members are likely to have the moral blindnesses and failures of the particular aristocracy that spawned them. (The ones who could work around the job requirements are the worst!)
That’s all true enough.
But still, science has always been fundamentally opposed to the very sort of privilege that science-critics are decrying.
The key to understanding Enlightenment thinking, is the celebration of human potential quite independent of birth status. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to steal one of the Enlightenment’s most famous phrasings, applies to everyone, not just to the fortunate few that find themselves in the Enlightenment’s vanguard.
So here’s the key injustice to all this. Science itself has always been every bit the challenge to illegitimate authority that its critics like to fancy themselves.
To be sure, bad people claiming “authority” on account of privilege are bad, and real, as much in science as anywhere else. But to call them representative of science is to neglect the Enlightenment roots of the scientific enterprise of the past 250 years.
When I tell you what I know, I am telling you what is. I am not doing it to try to control you or manipulate you. I may be a very good person or a very bad person, but what is, is. When I tell you that I know something about it that matters to you, what you ought to do is establish whether you trust that I know what I say I know, and then if you do, to listen to me.
If I have harmed you in other ways, in a well-ordered world you’d have recourse, and in the real world you may have to face injustice. But, important though it is, that is beside the present point.
What is, is, and you’re better off knowing it than not. It doesn’t matter who figured it out, or how or why or whether they were rewarded or punished for it. It doesn’t matter for present purposes whether the knowledge is exact or complete, provisional or final. It matters that somebody knows something about something that affects you, and is trying to tell you about it.
Science has demonstrated for centuries that it is possible for human beings to gain remarkably deep and substantial descriptive and predictive capacities about the physical world. This understanding is the cornerstone of our society, but recent generations have come to take it for granted and even dismiss the wonder of it.
We navigate the world by understanding it. When people offer you the benefit of hard-won understanding, it is best not to hair-split, and surely not a good idea to spit in their face because they remind you of someone you don’t like.
Question authority by all means, yes. But the purpose of the question should be to distinguish genuine authoritative-authority from pretentious and malign authoritarian-authority. To dismiss the latter, while duly honouring and respecting the former.
Question authority, please. But please, for crying out loud, please listen to the answer!