Thursday, July 29, 2004

Marxism and the Philosophy of Science.

Credulous Where It's Due

Orwell quotes George Bernard Shaw as saying (in the Preface to Saint Joan) that citizens of the 20th Century are the most credulous creatures ever to have existed. He exaggerated somewhat, but Orwell was aptly able to demonstrate its essential truth. Simply trying to explain why one believes the world was round proves to be a difficult task for a non-scientist and most of our common explanations are quite unavailing against counter-explanations, unless we really know our cosmology. Imagine, Orwell said, attempting to explain why one accepted an even more complicated 'fact' of nature. Indeed, most of us would be poorly situated to explain why it is that we think there is a hole in the o-zone layer, GM crops are dangerous or the human genome is a load of twaddle. Science seems somehow to have got too big for us. We still believe what we believe nonetheless.

During and following the scientific revolution, there was great popular enthusiasm for science and the new scientific methods. Boyle's new experimental equipment (most of it invented by Robert Hooke) was manufactured and sold relatively cheaply to a comparatively large number of people. Newton's more difficult texts were distilled to their essentials and popularised in pamphlets and lecture tours by senior scientists from the Royal Academy. In the 21st Century, we still read popularising books and watch documentaries - but are none the wiser in many ways. For example, who could pick up a scientific paper and pull apart its conclusions, deconstruct its methodology, even understand what the bloody hell it is on about?

The Missing Red Ink

This is of considerable importance. Shaw's remark on the gullibility of the modern citizen, although similar to Chesteron's complacent remark on belief in the absence of God, at least had the virtue of satirical acuity. The fact that he would later fall on his own sword by naively espousing Lysenkoism is testament to that. We need, desperately, a way to make science comprehensible without making accounts of it so simplistic that we gain nothing by it. The obvious way to achieve this is to increase the importance of science in education. Another way is to theorise science properly, so that we can have some idea when we are being conned, misled or simply misinformed. And this is where Marxism has been a theoretical failure. I don't mean to imply that Marxism has contributed nothing to the understanding of science - certainly JD Bernal's The Social Function of Science is a classic in the literature, disfigured though it is by his sympathy toward the Soviet Union. However, Bernal's science was more influenced by De Rerum Naturae than Anti-Duhring, which is just as well. (Yes, Bernal drew valuable sustenance from Engels' overall outlook in formulating his view of what science did, in what context it operated, but I fail to see how it helped him formulate his scientific conclusions). And it seems to me that the best Marxist work on science has been written by non-Marxists. One of my most pointlessly revered possessions is a book from Christopher Hill's library called Science and Social Welfare in the Age of Newton by Sir G N Clark - as a rebuke to Boris Hessen's strident economic determinism, it is a rewarding book for any Marxist interested in science, granting an autonomy to ideology and the intellect while not denying the centrality of production and social context. Between Cold War idealists like Koyre, Hall and Kuhn and Cold War determinists like Hessen, Clark proved in spite of himself that suppleness of theory, rigour of analysis and carefully weighed conclusions were compatible with Marxism. I B Cohen is another example - a historian of scientist without any detectible political yearnings, he leaned toward the materialistic without being deterministic. The same goes for R Hooykas, Joseph Ben David and countless others.

It doesn't do to generalise so crudely without offering some countervailing examples. Benjamin Farrington's account of ancient science is a perfectly respectable Marxist intervention; ditto George Novack's On the Origins of Materialism; Stephen Jay Gould was a fine leftist author on science who was influenced by Marxism; Richard Lewtontin and Steven Rose have written innumerable fine books on science which places the activity in its institutional and social context; Edgar Zilsel was a fine theorist in his field; J B S Haldane and Joseph Needham contributed a great deal; even Hessen's work was not without merit, at least emphasising factors in the development of scientific thought that are usually ignored by sociologists and historians of science who tend, like Robert Merton, to emphasise the intellectual, as if the only parent of ideas were other ideas. Nevertheless, I maintain that the philosophy of science has thus far proven infertile ground for Marxists, while idealism and Weberian sociological tendencies have predominated. We have to confront this as a problem.

Anticapitalism, Marxism and Science

Marxism should provide vital insights into the modern practise of science - "Big Science" as Bernal called it. The issues around biotechnology, the human genome, GM crops, environmental degradation and perhaps even animal testing are obviously of some urgency for the future of the human race and the planet. A synthesizing, explanatory work is called for; something which will help readers to understand the institutional and social framework within which society is conducted. It goes without saying that the current university-corporate complex merits analysis. And the nature of scientific authority, the peer reviews and government reports which tell us what kind of science is trustworthy today and which is not need critical scrutiny. Finally, what kind of science is being practised that produces such execrable unnatural phenomena as the 'terminator gene'? Why should it be that a US firm called RiceTech may be allowed to sue Indian farmers over an intellectual property right the former claim to have over a kind of basmati rice grown in India for centuries? That last thought returns me to my original - perhaps we really are living in the most credulous age since before the Renaissance. While most of the world is objecting to biopiracy , intellectual property rights invoked to justify spurious claims which wreak havoc in agrarian economies, most of Britain has been discussing genetic modification of plants in terms of consumer safety, responsible production etc. What mugs.