Cutting the crap: epistemology, science, the left and you

Science and the Left

Once upon a time the relation between science and socialism was pretty direct and self-explanatory. Not in vain, Marxists call ourselves scientific socialists, when we can stop our unceasing and largely fruitless factional struggles, that is. Unfortunately, and here I think it fair to lay the blame at the feet of the so-called New Left and the influence of the Frankfurt School, this relation has become more problematic over time. The uptake of certain attitudes from the counter-cultural milieu, as well as an ill-conceived and reflexive regard for spontaneity, with its corresponding distrust of institutions and organisation, received from anarchist and ultra-left circles often hiding behind Rosa Luxemburg’s corpse, have led many in the movement to disdain the “pharmaceutical establishment”, particle physics, or biotechnology, with an animus hitherto reserved for reactionary institutions such as the military or the churches.

It’s undeniable that, both in the capitalist countries and under really-existing socialism, science has been instrumentalised for the pursuit of profit and the production of ever more destructive weapons. Nonetheless, an inability to separate the epistemological grounds for scientific knowledge from the particular conditions under which research takes place would seem as misguided as attributing the working conditions of industrial capitalism to machinery and efficient organisation of labour. We can no more set aside the discoveries made by biology or the potential of nuclear power, than we could smash our way into revolution, one cog at a time.

Of course, the bourgeois consensus has itself turned towards science–as what else could it do?–but in its inevitably deficient, commonsensical, empiricist, positivist way. These are such bywords for liberalism that it would scarcely contest them. From a schematic and inadequate understanding of science, and seeking to arrogate its aura of incontrovertible factuality for themselves, arise such disciplines as neoclassical economics, Taylorism, or the science of public administration, adorned by superficially scientific attributes, such as a mathematical formalism, a reductionist approach, or a statistical foundation, respectively, but lacking a truly scientific commitment to explore the hypothesis space and follow what conclusions result from research, even at the expense of initial assumptions. So the problem of ignoring science has its just-as-evil twin in scientism: trying to pretend non-scientific conclusions have the weight of science behind them, as in the cases above, or disregarding all extra-scientific considerations when evaluating a decision. (There is an argument to be made that nothing should be extra-scientific, but the fact is we do not, here and now, have a developed science of aesthetics, for instance.)

It’s true that there are elements in the hard-right, whether moved by religious motivations or otherwise, far more averse to science than left movements. Of course, right and left being somewhat nebulous terms, particular deviations vary by region. Still, a school of thought calling itself scientific socialist, which foundational theoretical work–Capital–was dedicated to Darwin, should have something better to say on its record on science than “the insane conservative people of the world are worse”. We need to change, and fortunately are changing, the general attitude we bring to scientific concerns, break away from a pervasive and sterile methodological anarchism, and start taking ourselves and the world a little more seriously. A good example of this necessary and ongoing recalibration is the resolution passed by the 10th Assembly of United Left against public funding of “alternative medicine”.

When we give cover to so-called alternative therapies; to a reflexive Aristotelian anti-Darwinist horror of artificially transgenic organisms, stuck to an outdated view on species which makes them akin to rigid categories; or to an alarmist, groundless, and frankly dangerous rejection of nuclear power, we give intellectual ammunition to those who claim the working class lacks the discernment to govern itself, not to mention the real problems from the application of policies arising from those views. Reflexology, acupuncture, homeopathy, or the whole cluster of pseudo-science linked to Anthroposophy (including biodynamic or so-called organic farming, Steiner schools, and so on) may not in themselves cause much harm, but the legitimation of such positions within the norm of socialist discourse sets us epistemologically adrift and allows any kind of nonsense to be proclaimed as though it were a proven theorem. Not that bad medicine, suboptimal agriculture, or foot massages with pretensions have no bad consequences in themselves: accurate treatment requires clarity around what works and what doesn’t, the efficient production and distribution of food is a duty while people are hungry, and so on.

At the same time, we can’t retreat to meaningless noises about evidence-based or scientific approaches if we don’t have a clear notion of what science is and is not. References to specific experimental procedures are unlikely to be universal, and suffer from being too bound with the existing state of scientific knowledge. For example, demanding only medical practices grounded on double-blind randomised studies be used, would have led us to oppose efficacious procedures for which evidence existed, though not of that rigour, such as variolation. Hence, we need to examine what we’re referring to when we talk about science.

So what is science anyway?

Here lies the truly thorny problem, of course. An answer as naïve as it is questionable would be that science is a body of knowledge which has been obtained by following the scientific method. Of course, this position forces us to determine what the scientific method would be, and if you ask a sufficiently diligent schoolboy, he may be able to produce something somewhat like this, probably under the name of the hypothetico-deductive model:

  • Observe a phenomenon
  • Formulate a hypothesis
  • Design and perform experiments to test it
  • Infer a law
  • Construct a theory

There are many specific problems with this model: the role of corroborating evidence, the matter of statistical or probabilistic theories, confirmation holism, unobservables, and so on, though perhaps its primary difficulty lies in the assertion that there is a scientific method. It’s often used as a model to explain science, but like much taught in school it is hardly more than a toy.

Beyond the realm of highschool, philosophers of science have been trying to answer this question for a long time. Given that, as we have seen, science can’t be said to be defined by a single method, how can we tell if something is, or is not, science? This is often referred to as the demarcation problem: how and where to set the boundary between science and non-science, and, particularly, between science and pseudo-science. This problem runs together with central questions in the philosophy of science, such as whether statements about unobservables are true–or even meaningful–or whether observations can force us to believe or disbelieve a theory. I say they run together because, to a certain extent, the way these questions are answered sets up certain ontological and epistemological commitments (assertions about what exists and about what is justifiable to believe, respectively) which form a whole and need to be examined together.

There have been many controversies in history on the question of the relation of what’s in the mind, commonly expressed in language, and reality. This question can present itself as ontological (a question about what exists) or epistemological (a question about what we can know), although I would state that the distinction cannot always be made with perfect clarity. Examples of such controversies would include nominalism and realism, rationalism and empiricism, and, most on-point, logical positivism and scientific realism. A review of all these controversies in detail is beyond the scope of this article. The position I take to be most accurate in describing science is scientific realism, which is characterised by claiming that statements about unobservables are meaningful and can be true or false, that unobservables exist (or do not) independently of belief, and that it is reasonable to believe scientific statements about unobservables are accurate, or at least approximately true in the case of ideal scientific theories.

A first stab at the demarcation problem was given by logical positivism. This position held that scientific theories are characterised by asserting meaningful statements (which under this view are logical predicates which terms must refer to sense data) subject to be true or false. Such a theory can be compared to reality by performing experiments and collecting sense data, comparing it to the predicates it contains. Corroborating evidence would verify the theory, and contrary evidence would falsify it. This whole approach to science had some serious significant failings: the project to reduce all scientific theories to observables failed, and it was deeply counter-intuitive to most practicing scientists, but it also could not succeed in its own terms.

The first major criticism issued against logical positivism came from Popper. He held that, since science is necessarily based on inductive activity, and it must contain synthetic statements, a theory could never be verified by corroborating evidence. Nothing, after all, could assure that a future observation couldn’t contradict it, refuting it. This position is commonly called falsificationism, and it is very popular in the so-called sceptic circles (new atheists and their ilk), many lay people, and some practicing scientists. It’s popular enough that it’s common to hear that “x is not scientific because it contains no falsifiable statements”. While a better approach than logical positivism in its verificationist flavour, it, too, has serious defects.

Quine shattered falsificationism on his seminal article Two Dogmas of Empiricism. I strongly recommend reading it, especially if you hold to the common falsificationist view that scientific theories are made of logical predicates which terms refer to sense data which make testable predictions falsifiable through experiment. The two fundamental problems Quine raises are, on the one hand, the problem of the synthetic-analytic distinction (how to determine which statements are logically necessary and which are true because of matters of fact), and, on the other hand, the question of confirmation holism, which is much more important. The problem here lies in the fact that, even given a theory which as falsificationists would have it makes testable predictions, no observation of series of observations can ever force us to consider it falsified, because those observations can be explained by additional predicates. For example, there can be experimental or measurement error, calculation error when determining what the theory’s prediction would be, or actual hallucination. Hence, Quine asserts that we can’t speak of specific predicates of a theory being falsified independently, but that the theory must stand or fall as a whole. This criticism might seem academic, but for the fact that all scientific theories have their failures of prediction. Some of them are, so to speak, legitimate problems with observation (an error with experimental design, faulty machinery, human error, etc) but others are simply due to the fact that an otherwise useful theory may not predict all things, and not with total accuracy.

Lakatos was inspired by Popper and Quine, but his criticism of falsificationism went deeper. He rejected the notion that scientific theories must be reducible to statements about sense data, and admited that the process of observation is itself theory-laiden. Hence, we can speak of devising a new procedure or machine to measure something better or more accurately, which was highly problematic under the positivist-inspired limits. Furthermore, Lakatos held that a single contradictory datum is not sufficient to assert that a theory has been falsified. He came up with the notion of research programmes, which are characterised by certain core statements which cannot be abandoned without giving up on the programme altogether, and which are held as first principles by researchers within the programme. Data which is not predicted by those core statements could be dealt with by auxiliary hypotheses, so long as these don’t contradict the core statements themselves. For a research programme to be scientific it must make predictions about novel facts that aren’t known at the time. A programme is progressive when these predictions are verified, and degenerate when they are not. This corresponds much better with actual scientific practice: when a well-established and corroborated theory exists, contradictory data is often suspect. Lots of possibilities can be explored: improper experimental design, failure in the apparatus, and so on, and there are cases when, in a conflict between a very powerful theory and a single contradicting datum, the rational thing is to disregard the datum.

Another aspect Lakatos had to deal with was the critique by Kuhn about paradigm changes, which holds that science operates in a normal mode most of the time, correcting theories only gradually, until enough evidence accumulates in contradiction of the theory that a complete change is necessary. In that case, a new paradigm, often through generational replacement, will appear to substitute the old one, being able to explain the new phenomena which contradict the old theory. This criticism of science held that paradigm shifts were irrational events, which Lakatos tried to address. Having a research programme which can explain and predict given facts is valuable in itself, even if it cannot deal with reality as a whole, so Lakatos had a lot more of a nuanced view on when such a programme should be rejected. Datapoints which would contradict the auxiliary hypotheses could be dealt with by adjusting the latter, but even problems with the core statements could and should be ignored, so long as there is not a better research programme in terms of predictive power. For Lakatos, a research programme should continue, even when it is known that it is fundamentally wrong, until there’s something better to substitute it, and scientific progress can happen even under those conditions by improving the auxiliary hypotheses and making the theory fit reality better. This approach allowed for what Kuhn called revolutionary science, or paradigm shifts, only when a better competing research programme was available.

Regarding demarcation, the fundamental difference between a scientific research programme and pseudo-science would, according to Lakatos, lie in the fact that a scientific research programme predicts novel facts. Whether it does so correctly or not determines its progressive or degenerate status, but the relevant distinction is that it has generative power. Pseudo-sciences, on the contrary, limit themselves to explaining or describing previously known facts, and are incapable of generating new predictions. Amusingly, Lakatos (like me) regarded neoclassical economics as a psudo-science, though he thought the same about Soviet Marxism.

In conclusion, demarcation is a difficult problem. It can’t be done mechanically, by asking nature about a given statement and observing if it says no, as falsificationists often put it. Yet there are certain criteria which are highly indicative of a research programme being unscientific, or at least degenerate:

  • Epicycles: the number and complexity of auxiliary hypotheses keeps rising to explain novel data
  • Stagnation: the scope of facts the theory can predict or explain remains constant
  • Self-centrism: the theory avoids comparing itself to competing ones on the criteria of predictivity or effectiveness
  • Indifference: the parts of reality which don’t fit the theory well are ignored or their importance minimised

There is no simple way to distinguish good from bad science, but it is possible to use these heuristics to reach reasonable conclusions. Dialectics is sometimes invoked in obscure ways by Marxists, but I believe this is a case where it actually holds. We cannot simply assess theories by examining their logical statements, finding contradictions, and running tests. We must compare theories as a whole: their explanatory power, their predictive scope, their degree of generativity, and reach conclusions on which is preferable. Thus, we can dispose of such notions as homeopathy, neoclassical economics, or the zero threshold linear model for radioactive harm. True open-mindedness and scepticism should not lead us to accept any random flavour of statement within our social milieu, though it also cannot result in dropping any theory which is the least methodologically suspect.

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About modulus

Modulus is an unaffiliated Marxist from South Western EU (Spanish state). He studied computer science and law, and is at present preparing for civil service exams for the Spanish administration. An avid IRC user, he enjoys arguments and will occasionally play devil's advocate. He regards himself as orthodox and is concerned about unscientific attitudes on the left on such things as nuclear energy, biotechnology, and so on. His support for the European Union as a platform to unify the class struggle across the continent has earned him plenty of strong opposition, and doubtless will continue to do so; until, that is, his view is vindicated by history.
This entry was posted in Critique of the Left, Philosophy, Sci-tech. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Cutting the crap: epistemology, science, the left and you

  1. Aidan says:

    “An inability to separate the epistemological grounds for scientific knowledge from the particular conditions under which research takes place would seem as misguided as attributing the working conditions of industrial capitalism to machinery and efficient organisation of labour.”

    I think this sentence contains the central problem with this article. The working conditions of industrial capitalism are not separable from its technologies and modes of organisation. Both are co-productive of one another. Technology developed within the context of specific sets of power relations ends up reproducing those power relations. The industrial factory could not have developed as it did except with the contemporaneous development of capitalist class relations and if we are to move beyond the class system it will necessitate a radical restructuring of the technological and organisational basis of production in parallel with the political restructuring of society. The same is true, albeit less tangibly, of the relation between scientific epistemologies and the political and economic conditions under which they are developed. The question of what counts as science and what doesn’t – and the basis on which the question is answered – is a political one: the prevailing epistemologies are undoubtedly those of the ruling class, and what is excluded may well prove significant. I think the kind of techno-utopian thinking on display here is no less problematic than primitivism.

  2. “The same is true, albeit less tangibly, of the relation between scientific epistemologies and the political and economic conditions under which they are developed.”

    This is a pretty bold statement and I’d like to see why you think that this is the case. That the development of technologies is driven by class relations says virtually nothing about the scientific method or the class relevance of the scientific method at all. Technologies are particular applications of theory. We could just as well build ploughshares as swords using metallurgy, that is political-economic direction, yet the theory of metals really has nothing at all to say about which you choose, and neither does the political-economic regime get to construct a functional theory of metals.

    Culture in general is a site of class struggle. However, there are areas which are much more heavily contested than others. Mathematics, for instance, is virtually untouched. The bourgeoisie must leave science a certain autonomy because the function of science is to be predictive which is necessary for effective technological development – something required for the valourisation of capital. Sometimes they will of course find themselves attacking science itself in order to equivocate with religious or class rule dogma but any section of the bourgeoisie which takes this approach will eventually be destroyed by the one which doesn’t. Being scientific is simply too advantageous.

    That isn’t to say that capital does not encroach ever on scientific development – for instance we can see in drugs development serious problems in the deteriorating quality of methodology because of vested interests in biasing conclusions. However, it still has never been elevated to the extent of actually systematically changing the methodology of science.

    Modern science is only bourgeois in the sense that it developed most fully under bourgeois social relations and the bourgeoisie have (a sometimes uncomfortable) symbiotic need for science to function. A rise to hegemony of an alternative egalitarian political-economic system will not have much impact on the scientific method.

  3. modulus says:

    There are fundamental problems with science as it is practiced today. I was going to tackle that issue, but the article seemed a bit long and involved already. In particular, frequentism ends up with people talking a bunch of nonsense, since if you perform enough experiments you will eventually get to pass the relevant t-tests. (Especially problematic when you don’t publish negative results!)

    That said, I can’t agree with the position that science and technology are reproducing the existing ruling class ideology, or that the factory form is a necessarily bourgeois development. Much of that form of organisation and the techniques deployed is inherent to efficient production. The space of solutions has a definite shape, and if the bourgeoisie has not perhaps found global optima, it’s certainly tried to maximise output, though it of course operates under the constraints of the anarchy of the market and the exploitative regime of surplus extraction. However, it is very clear that capitalism depends on, as Marx says, revolutionising the conditions of production. Thus the image, in the Communist Manifesto, of the sorcerer’s apprentice unleashing forces beyond their control.

    The bourgeoisie is forced to a constant development of the productive forces, leading to situations that overwhelm the ideological superstructure. Hence, why the techniques of automation, just as an example, present such big problems to the system as a whole; or the entire problematic of digital goods, and the largely fruitless attempt to commoditise them.

    Technology isn’t neutral. Not even research programmes are neutral. But they are subject to the imperatives of the shape of reality first and foremost, and whoever believes they can control their development will find themselves on the wrong side of unpleasant surprises. Just the same as Marxists can’t understand the laws of physics by thinking very hard about dialectical materialism, the bourgeoisie is very much not advised to interfere with science, lest it blunts its own tools; and, if it doesn’t, what those tools wrought will eventually exceed its control.

  4. Aidan says:

    Science is concerned with producing and evaluating competing representations of and modes of understanding reality, which always has a political content, albeit to varying degrees. Therefore what counts as science, what constitutes a valid route to scientific knowledge, is a political question inseparable from the social relations of knowledge production. An instructive example is the struggle of feminist academics, who identified within the prevailing positivist epistemological assumptions of the social sciences a denigration of lived-experience which functioned to reproduce the marginalisation of women (of colour particularly) within that sphere.

    While not denying the extraordinary efficacy of the scientific method in producing useful models for understanding reality, there are no doubt assumptions within it that reflect bourgeois values and concerns. In simple terms, how you approach discovering things is dependent on what you want to find out and why. For example, the assumption that nature can be viewed as external, objective and separate to the subject is undoubtedly useful but is also probably related to the bourgeois demand for the continued and increased exploitation of nature as a precondition for the continuation of capitalism. Would we continue to conceive of our relationship with nature in this way in a communist society? Either answer to that question is speculative, and the implications for scientific knowledge production are unclear, to me at least.

  5. Aidan says:

    To me it seems odd to treat science and technology as neutral, unproblematic or above politics.

  6. yeksmesh says:

    I am not that read up on the entire philosophy of science and thus I am not gonna comment directly on this.

    On the other hand I do know something about how capitalism shaped the factory system and the specific organization of the workplace, and the technology that is used to produce goods. In short workplace organization, production technology and management tend to be shaped critically by capitalism, although off course in which level tends to depend on the specifc sector. And thus attempts to organize these in a democratic way is gonna depend on an overhaul of these elements. For example replacing taylorist influenced assembly lines (in the case of small parts manual assembly) by non-compartamentalized ways of accomplishing the same tasks, which in turn requires an overhaul of ways of quality control and a restructuring and most likely elimination of middle level management, which in turn requires an overhaul of dominant management practice. Which puts doubt on the point that technology can simply be divorced from the previous capitalist practices it engaged in, which is often excemplified within the left by them just saying very vaguely ‘oh we’ll just do things democratically after the revolution’ which is not necesarily something that can be done that straightforward.

    Also you should take into account that the notion if efficiency is not something that can be linearly determined between two poles (more and less efficient), but you should also take into account how efficient something is for a certain class, as such a certain measure or technology can be very efficient for the bourgeoisie but not necesarily for the working class.

    Besides that I don’t really get your point on how anti-nuclear politics or the promotion of hippy medicine is somehow related to the tendency you ascribe to the left of ignoring science because it is supposedly attached to capitalist ideology. For example how are the options proposed by anti-nuclear activists like green energy somehow less influenced by capitalism than nuclear power? In contrast I think these two tendencies you ascribe to the left aren’t necesarily the result of their analysis of science as tainted by capitalism (most at least base level leftist activists hardly even have an analysis of science by my experience), but rather stems from historical tendencies within leftist politics that incorporated influences from ecological politics after the supposed success of the ecogical movement.

  7. modulus says:

    @aidan:

    I agree science and technology aren’t necessarily problematic and value-neutral. What I disagree with is that notion that they’re that determined by class factors given how much they need to adhere to reality to work at all.

    For instance, regarding the notion of nature as an object separate from us, or the denigration of lived experience, I’m afraid that’s probably necessary to conduct science at all. Lived experience–unless treated as statistical data, which I don’t think is the import of your comment–is necessarily incommensureable and inaccessible to intersubjective judgement, so it can’t be the basis for scientific knowledge; and while we’re a part of nature, we have to treat this with care or get ensnared in loops of thinking. The hypothesis that what we’re thinking of when we conduct a given experiment does not alter the result is perhaps biased–though I doubt it’s a bourgeois bias–but very likely indispensable to conduct science at all.

    @yeksmesh:

    Point on the fact that many organisational formulae in industry are bound to class interest. Efficiency should always make us ask about what target function we’re optimising. Yet much of what is done in industrial production is an advance over previous methods in terms of, say, output per normal labour hour.

    Regarding the left lacking an analysis on science, I don’t think I agree. The analysis is perhaps not explicit, but there is a certain tacit hostility towards it, coming from several strands of thought that for good or ill–ill, in my view–have attached themselves to the left: populism (those dodgy scientific people up to no good are going to know more than me with my common sense?), postmodernism (your objectifying logocentric scientific narrative is a myth designed to suppress my own personal story), environmentalism (pretty rocks have rights), and a generic anti-corporatism and pro-smallness (big pharma is killing us, take this pill made by a small company taken from a recipe from a non-western shamanic tradition).

    The fact is, the green political position, although somewhat vulnerable towards anti-scientific views, shouldn’t end up with this entire set of prejudices. Only a broad, if ill-defined, rejection of science as a rational enterprise, could end up with the left where it is now, in my view; which makes it all the more urgent to educate comrades about scientific reality.

  8. yeksmesh says:

    >Point on the fact that many organisational formulae in industry are bound to class interest. Efficiency should always make us ask about what target function we’re optimising. Yet much of what is done in industrial production is an advance over previous methods in terms of, say, output per normal labour hour.

    Yes, compared to the previous methods of production that were also created according to the same class interests, with experiments (that are generally not implemented widely) that focus around breaking through these organisational and technological formulas achieving quite good results in improving productivity. Also this illustrates my point of the class character of efficiency, more egalitarian arrangments of work can increase output per labour hour but don’t necesarily align with the interests of managment and capital and attempts to keep workers from say throwing up some resistance when they get an organisational enviroment that better accomodates this.

    >Regarding the left lacking an analysis on science, I don’t think I agree. The analysis is perhaps not explicit, but there is a certain tacit hostility towards it, coming from several strands of thought that for good or ill…

    yeah sure, they might have a tacit analysis of science and I do reconize your charactarization of why people in the radical left don’t like science, but doesn’t this go against your original point of the radical left having anti-science tendencies within it because they think it is inherently tied to capitalism? As all those tendencies basically come down to the point I raised that the origin of a supposed anti-science attitude within the radical left has more to do with the movements the radical left has incorporated or at least tried to rather than an analysis of science stained by capitalism.

  9. James O'Brien says:

    Writing probably developed from attempts by the bureaucracy of the early states to measure, record, and control the exploitation of their subject populations. Yet nobody, surely, advocates the abandoning of writing.

    What was once a tool of a small elite for the control of huge numbers has been transformed into a tool for the liberation of humanity.

    So it is with most technologies, and science in particular. Society is in constant evolution, much of which is due to the unremitting introduction of new technologies as every one changes and then becomes part of the landscape to which it was introduced, thereby defeating the intention of preserving the original social relations. While unveiling the origins of a technology or describing how science is influenced by wider social forces is often very fascinating, it is of minor importance when it comes to their future impact.

    Modulus: I guess it is so obvious that it may be assumed, especially amongst Marxists, but a sine qua non of science is surely materialism. This should be an axiom that need not speak its name, but the decline of Marxism has opened up space for the mystically inclined.

    A strongly scientific culture is important politically, as a scientifically informed political movement will find it much easier to develop coherent policies that gain widespread support amongst its membership, thereby preserving the unity of a genuinely mass organisation. In the absence of a scientifically informed analysis, choosing between strategies becomes a case of will power, of individual volition. This is a recipe for splitting, as there is no overwhelming reason to choose voluntaristic policy X over voluntaristic policy Y.

  10. modulus says:

    Well, in a way that’s the integrating issue that puts this together: the New Left’s distancing from Marxism and particularly from a materialist position, incorporating a lot of idealist and subjective-privileging viewpoints such as I characterised on previous comments has placed obstacles between the broad movement and scientific understanding. It’s absolutely possible–and required, to have anything effective come of it–to combine an understanding that we must take care of the ecosystems which nurture us and keep the biosphere livable with a scientific approach that accurately distinguishes fact from fancy.

  11. Science is concerned with producing and evaluating competing representations of and modes of understanding reality, which always has a political content, albeit to varying degrees. Therefore what counts as science, what constitutes a valid route to scientific knowledge, is a political question inseparable from the social relations of knowledge production. An instructive example is the struggle of feminist academics, who identified within the prevailing positivist epistemological assumptions of the social sciences a denigration of lived-experience which functioned to reproduce the marginalisation of women (of colour particularly) within that sphere.

    This is an excellent example of the rubbish that they teach in philosophy and sociology classes. It’s absolutely wrong on every point and is really based on no actually practice in the sciences or anything relevant to the scientific method. Instead there is a fair bit of scientism in sociology, and sociologists who disagree with positions taken by some of their scientistic colleagues have lead them to totally absurd positions vis-a-vis science itself.

    Further, the complaint against positivism as being in opposition to lived experience is very interesting in how incredibly confused it is. Positivism grounds the scientific investigation in investigations using observations from sense perceptions themselves. How this got confused with Platonic idealism is completely beyond me but the confusion does seem wide spread.

    Give an example of science using empiricism having problems similar and I’ll be much more likely to treat it seriously.

    Science is not concerned with producing and evaluating competing modes of understanding reality. It is a family of techniques for testing models against reality. If one is concerned with prediction then one must seek to test models against empirical evidence. In the details things are a bit fuzzy and the model can become confused with reality in the minds of those doing discovery (Platonism) or about how one should evaluate the quality of the programme. None of these have anything to do with the supposed problems ascribed in some modern schools sociology and philosophy.

    So, no, that is not an instructive example.

    Is science neutral? As a framework it is neutral to first approximation. The attempt to be predictive is not in any way contingent on the relations of productions. The causality is reversed. The relations of production have by necessity pushed science to the fore as capitalism requires prediction. The application of the method can be distorted by monied interests as I pointed out with respect to the pharmaceutical industry, and as with monopoly there are no guarantees on how long such distortions can persist in capitalism.

    Which fields of science find explorations are also dictated by capital, so there is a bias on which models are constructed. However this is not the scientific method but merely the models constructed. There may be some fields that I think we could have explored in more depth to the exclusion of others, but I can’t think of any explorations that I’d rather had never been done.

    The practice of science might serve individual capitalist interests, but as a whole the bourgeoisie generally find it better not to distort it too much. You’ll notice that the investigations into nuclear bombs or spin-glasses don’t suffer such ideological distortions.

    Many people think of science as the products of science (technologies) and these may not be neutral. A machine that serves only to de-skill for instance can not be used by proletarians. Further, science viewed as a collection of facts, in the way that many lay people see it, may not be neutral. However, this view of science is an ideologised view which is often promoted by those who want to put science on the same footing with religion.

    Yet the same science which creates the de-skilled machines can be quite easily retooled to support the public interests rather than a narrow sectional one without serious change. The reified form may not be neutral, but the knowledge of the predictivity of a model pretty much is.

  12. ian says:

    Gavin, your an absolute ledgend

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