Radical science

“When capital enlists science in her service, the refactory hand of labour will always be taught docility.” – Andrew Ure, 1835i

The problems with the scientific community were hardly news to scientists. Joseph Needham was concerned in 1935 about the impact of “scientific opium”, “a blindness to the suffering of others” and “a ruthlessness derived from the very statistical character of the scientific method itself” which “may too easily be applied to human misfits and deviationists in the socialist world order”. He addressed the scientific zeal to overcome all the evils of existence with the warning, “the problem of evil is not capable of so simple a resolution.”ii

After the atomic bomb was used in World War II, the world’s scientists enjoyed a boom in the United States in service to its ever-expanding military. The military expanded science and science expanded military in an all encompassing death dance that dwarfed all other funding and absorbed vast quantities of scientific thought and global potential. At this point scientists were not responding solely to their own very ample bigotries. They were being trained with military propaganda and their findings were spun by military propagandists. US President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous 1961 speech warning of the military industrial complex reminded us, “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present.”iii Any of science’s already tenuous claims at being apolitical and ideology free died during the science race of the cold war. J.D. Bernal wrote in 1958, “The only time I could get my ideas translated in any way into action in the real world was in the service of war.”iv The militarization and commodification of science was a fait accompli.

There were many efforts initiated in the 20th century to widen the perspective of scientists and to stop those projects which were destructive to humanity in favour of those which would be beneficial. Protests over scientists’ participation in weapons of mass destruction and exploitation of the environment were held in the late sixties, including the formation of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS) in 1969. The Edinburgh branch of BSSRS helped run a teach-in about pollution which was attended by an estimated thousand people in 1970.v “It becomes essential to take binding steps which cut off one’s line of retreat… we have to fix it so they wouldn’t have us back even if we wanted to come.” Robert Young declared in 1977.vi


By the 1980s, the removal of most research out of universities and into top secret research facilities muzzled dissent and greatly reduced awareness of what science was doing.vii The development of Science and Technology Studies (STS) to study the relationship between scientific knowledge, technological systems, and society was a painful attempt to study the impact of scientific isolation from society from an academic vantage point still isolated from society.viii The earlier radical science movement was often explicitly socialist, even explicitly Marxist. After the political failures of communism and technological utopia, striving for any type of political end fell very out of favour. Scientific circles sought to remove politics and ideology from their organizations and work entirely, returning to 1926 when Martin Heidegger declared “the end of philosophy”, and claimed that “science does not think”.ix

Of course, this was the equivalent of burying their heads in the sand as outside the lab, in the offices of their directors and funders, they were owned by politics and capitalist ideology. As journalism loses any claims of being unbiased as soon as it selects a topic as newsworthy, science is not apolitical as soon as it selects a topic of study. Science does not follow purely intellectual inquiry in pursuit of the greatest understanding. Science is not a science. Science has been a means of allowing officially accepted truths to emanate from only one class under direction from the ruling class. What scientific thought is doing much of the time is no more or less than what this book is doing: providing one framework out of a vast array of different possible frameworks and choosing to view the world through that framework and study only the issues that make up that framework. This can be a very helpful exercise for providing a certain perspective but it certainly does not result in a single indisputable truth.

“Scientists always stomp around meetings talking about ‘bridging the two-culture gap’, but when scores of people from outside the sciences begin to build just that bridge, they recoil in horror and want to impose the strangest of all gags on free speech since Socrates: only scientists should speak about science!” – Bruno Latour, 1999x

The much resisted opening of the knowledge hoarded by science, as well as long overdue scrutiny of the activities of scientists, has brought a great deal of very valid criticism of both. The slur that anyone who questions them is anti-science is ironically used to silence anyone who questions the methods and motivations of scientists. The idea that criticism or a demand for transparency is an attack, or that any criticism is dangerous and anti-knowledge, is simply more evidence of the scientific class acting like a closed and extremist cult instead of a method of producing verified knowledge. This is the reaction of an elite class outraged and panickedxi that anyone is questioning their authority and control over knowledge, much like news media did before them. If scientists are no longer an ingroup with very different rules for their outgroups, then everyone must be free to examine them just as they examine everyone. Despite the very popular and publicly redeeming efforts of the scientific community in the work to protect the environment, and the fight against industry for acceptance of scientific findings on the environment, there is still no integrated structure of public audit or transparency.

Thomas Kuhn could point out in 1962 that science viewed the world through a series of periodically revolutionized paradigmsxii but the same critique from the poststructuralists outside the scientific community was met by enough hostility that the critique and reaction were popularly dubbed the Science Wars of the 1990s. In Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Sciencexiii Paul Gross and Norman Levitt insist that those who question them do not believe in reality itself. Who but science could claim that only they know reality and they alone are influenced by nothing? We are to believe they create their ideas directly from the primordial soup, a godlike feat indeed. This unquestioning belief that science has the sole key to facts and reality has given us an educational system that graduates people more ignorant than when they went in. There is a point in the process of being educated on a topic when the student is full of information and convinced they have all the facts and solutions. If education progresses and experience is broadened, they will discover nuance and context and layers of alternating perspectives and realize they have only ideas which may or may not bring the results they are hoping for. Without this broadened perspective, scientists become more convinced in their own infallibility, or at least superiority. At least the uneducated understand their own ignorance.

The highly inaccurate and unscientific idea that the challengers of science are The Academic Left is an invitation to further persecute that subsect of academia who were already purged from academia and driven from their jobs in the west during the cold war. In a brief exchange with a New York Review of Books literary criticxiv the authors also bring the critic’s leftist politics to the forefront in the first paragraph of their rebuttal. For a pair of scientists intent on proving that science is apolitical, it is obvious that mentioning someone’s political beliefs is their go to method of lumping all of their critics together and discrediting all of their beliefs based on one political belief. The Academic Left is also a not very veiled reminder that the ideas of everyone who is not a caucasian man are still superstition. Others may acquire education but then their ideas are just “higher superstition”. The reference to “the left” is also a nod to the history of radical science which attempted to warn the world about environmental destruction and weapons manufacturing in the 1960s and 1970s. A 1977 Daily Mail article foreshadowed the 1994 book when it depicted a BSSRS action against the British Science Association as “the Left has Science by the throat” with no acknowledgment that the BSSRS were also scientists.

The political accusations are also meant to imply that the authors are, by defending the status quo, apolitical. Establishment scientists see themselves as an international class like Olympians, and like Olympians, they see themselves as apolitical while standing on politically funded podiums representing political alliances. The co-option of science by industry is depicted as the conventional stance and the fight for science for humanity is depicted as a fringe attack on science. The casting out the Left from science and the depiction of all opposition as the Left is nothing if not political. Choosing the status quo is not the same as being apolitical or non-ideological. Higher Superstition claimed an agenda by “postmodern and feminist critics, AIDS activists, environmentalists, animal rights advocates and others”xv against “reality”. It is not hard to discern in their defense of reality a political defense of the supremacy of the status quo and the exceptionalism of the wealthy, western man.


BSSRS cartoon about sexism in science

It is only with no connection at all to reality that a person could fail to notice, particularly in the 1990s, the neglect of diseases such as AIDS (or now ebola), the lack of representation of women and minorities in test results or the experimentation on lower classes for the benefit of higher classes. The reality science described was of course a reflection of the bigotries and group narcissism of the scientific community. Scientists’ insistence on presenting themselves as a pure meritocracy depends on public acceptance of this reality. Valuations of people which place IQ above strength or kindness and compensate years of university ahead of shortened life expectancy is part of the reality science has created for us. The group narcissism of scientists sees itself as the standard and lashes out at the slightest criticism. Like a traveler in Einstein’s elevator they are not fit to measure or even detect the elevator they are traveling in.


Cartoon from Science for People, issue 43

As Gary Wersky described in 2007, “The conviction grew in some that, far from being allies in the fight against ‘higher superstition’, STS ‘social constructionists’ had joined hands with an academic left made up of feminist scholars and postmodernist English professors in an unholy conspiracy to undermine the legitimacy and authority of science.”xvi By depicting all critics as a block of uniform opinion and politically motivated ideology and depicting all criticism as an existential threat, science slammed and bolted the doors to constructive (or deconstructive) criticism. This lack of acceptance of outside critique led to criticism being formed outside of the community instead of in tandem with it. Such criticism was then rejected by scientists who complained it frequently lacked both understanding and intellectual rigour. Science refused any meaningful use of outside critique and forced all interested parties into two parallel and uncommunicating streams. Science lost the opportunity to open their epistemic communities and create knowledge bridges which would provide much needed critique in a rigorously vetted and usable standard. They instead left their critics free to collect an outside audience to view both the closed hostility of the scientific community and any sometimes poorly founded sniping of those outside. The public is now left with a choice between acceptance of the wildest of conspiracy theorists or blind faith in the closed and frequently sociopathic science industry because scientists refuse to be questioned by those they very transparently see as inferiors.

The distrust sown and never reconciled was easily exploited by demagogues such as Thatcher and Reagan. Science became even more isolated and alienated from a misunderstanding and judgmental public and even more did they require the protection of their exploiters from government and industry. The hostility perplexed Bruno Latour as he wrote “Far from not believing in reality, surely science studies has added reality to science.”xvii But the reality added by science studies was reality from the perspective of outgroups and it polluted the clear lens of the scientific community, the only view accepted by them as the one clear reality. “How could we be pitted against the scientists?” Latour wondered. “Are biologists anti-life, astronomers anti-stars, immunologists anti-anti-bodies?” Sadly, the answer is not a clear no. Scientists, from the time science first decided that nature would reveal its secrets more readily under torture, have most often taken positions in opposition to the objects of their study. Scientists who are so suspicious of science studies may be projecting from their own relationship to those they study.

“The duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and … attack it from every side.” Hasan Ibn al-Haytham 1011-1021

Whether science likes it or not, science is a part of a wider community and impacts a wider community and must be audited by and transparent to all those they affect. The insistence that we are to believe that all scientific and industrial developments are safe until proven unsafe or that we are to trust regulatory boards and studies commissioned and funded by the very industry that would be profiting from it are not reasonable. Those scientists who see doubt of them as a lack of respect for their higher ranking, and their doubt of the experiences of the lower classes as healthy skepticism, must be overruled. Outside critique must be integrated within the process of science and not seen as an enemy attack. The scientific method must be expanded to include integration and feedback with the entire society and ecosystem impacted.

The most persistent complaint of scientists is that their critics do not have the knowledge to critique them usefully. The Socal hoax in 1996 involved a physicist convincing a small academic journal to publish a parody of the worst of scientific critique as evidence of their lack of scientific rigour. He was asked to change all of the worst elements of the article and refused. The journal published his article in the end in deference to his scientific credentials as he was the only natural scientist who had submitted to their Science Wars edition and thus they became the butt of the hoax. Despite the fact that he proved they “felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in the subject”xviii he also proved much more than he set out to do.

Social Text was a small publication in no way to be confused with a professional science journal. The alternative takeaway from the Socal Affair is that journals show deference to the scientific community over those trying to be heard from the outside, even in the most sympathetic of editions of the most sympathetic of journals. He also proved that journals will publish a certified expert even when it is obvious to them that his methods and conclusions are not of a professional standard. The Socal Affair did not prove that this same deference was afforded to anyone not recognized as an expert and the journal’s response that “Less well known authors who submit unsolicited articles to journals like ours may now come under needless suspicion”xix intimated that he had aggravated the credibility divide. The fact that science’s gossip magazine Lingua Franca published Socal’s exposé with no opportunity for rebuttal given to the journal even further shows the double standards between the two worlds as does the fact that Socal suffered no professional repercussions for his outgroup hoax which would certainly not have been tolerated within the community of professional scientific journals. Socal’s depiction of the outside critics as “barbarian hordes”xx did more to illustrate the problem with science than the problem with its critics. Science responded to perceived criticism that they were an isolated and narcissistic community with demands for isolation and proof of group narcissism.

The unfortunate part of this reaction is not just the loss to science but also the loss to its critics. There were a great many valid criticisms that needed to be made about the excesses of reactionary poststructionalism in the 1990s, and we are feeling the repercussions from the lack of correction today. The idea grew among the political descendants of radical science that a lack of cultural hegemony had contributed to the failure of Marxism, so they invested more and more into identity politics. Rojek and Turner in 2000, while once more depicting science critics in the U.K. as Left-wing, also contributed valid points. They critiqued the critics own group narcissism including “the self image …[that cultural studies] are closer to material reality” and “its own variety of moral arrogance, intellectual narrowness and over-confidence”. They asserted that cultural studies contributed to revising power relationships primarily at an aesthetic level, was deeply politicized and magnified current local conditions over broader and historical trends. They pointed out the negative and reactive nature of postmodernism which produced “an undecideable sea of micro-relationships” and “the privileging of the cultural over the social and economic”. They also claimed that postmodernism “Although profoundly politicized … has no tenable or sustained political agenda” and accused its proponents of careerism.xxi

Seventeen years later, it is obvious that the above criticism was valid and ought to have received more discussion and resolution. Instead, each side progressed in hostile and opposing thought bubbles, each pointing at how bad the other is, like two political parties. Neither side included the wider public and neither offered solutions to use criticism more effectively. Anger sells and pointing out faults is easy. Solutions are difficult to develop, difficult to explain and risky to implement. Far fewer people read scientific papers than social media. Criticism of a broad societal hierarchy devolved into the rise of micropolitics and the social media microcelebrity hierarchy. Dissidence became a career, not a means to a solution. Division and hostility sell. The everything is political post modernists of academia brought us the everyone is a demographic politicians of representative democracy and the every microaggression is a career thought leaders of Twitter.

The division of dissent into packets of identity politics allowed scientific establishment to appease the individual sects with initiatives of political correctness. The radical science of the 1960s and 1970s, which fought issues such as weapons, environmental destruction and technologies of political control, were transformed into institutions for cultural studies and feminist critiques. Radical magazines like Science for People, Radical Science Journal and Undercurrents were replaced by sectarian courses of study, politically pleasing, reactive, narrow in perspective and low on facts. Radical science had also been concerned with inclusion of marginalized groups but today it is the issues which are marginalized. A war which was to fight the direction humanity was taking was reduced to a war over whether all sects were properly represented in our mutual destruction.

Thanks partly to its critics, science has lost all of its metanarratives. There is no longer a goal specific to science, or none which is acknowledged. There is a purpose to all action, and where it is not defined by the actor they will follow a purpose assigned to them. In the case of science, they follow their funders and their purpose is to exploit the earth and its inhabitants for maximum profit. Even where scientists fight against the destruction of the earth in its entirety, that is in line with their capitalist mandate. They are still enabling the exploitation of each piece of it individually. The idea that science is too impartial and apolitical to follow a metanarrative is contradictory to the very existence of science. Science once defined itself and its claim to reason as the very essence of humanity, as the higher purpose of humanity’s existence and as proof of humanity’s superiority. Without the idea of collecting, cataloguing and expanding all the knowledge of humanity, science would never have existed much less had a singular goal to follow with such religious zeal. The scientific community needs to once more clearly define its purpose.

It is not enough for science to be separated from malevolence by a few degrees to claim to be apolitical. The benefits to the scientific community of alliance with militaries and governments is a loss for collaboration and global knowledge. A movement which, for all its faults, existed to build commons knowledge for the betterment of humanity willingly walked into secret chambers to work for the destruction of humanity. Autonomy for groups in society is a privilege granted by the wider societies. This privilege can and should be lost when the group begins to act in a manner which is a danger to the wider society. The autonomy and trust enjoyed by many in the higher stratas of knowledge, religion and politics has been proven repeatedly to be dangerous to all of their out groups. These groups can no longer be organized in isolated and autonomous stratas. The work of scientists affects entire communities not in their stratas. Input from and transparency to the rest of the user groups is essential.

Excerpted from Autonomy, Diversity, Society. Citations will be transferred when I get a minute.


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