When I returned to Twitter, apart from being amazed at the continued quantity and quality of Arthur Charpentier's tweets, I read an article in Nature by Roger Pielke Jnr celebrating 75 years of J. D. Bernal's The Social Function of Science. I had never heard of the author or the book, but what caught my attention, following my spring hiatus, was the following passage
Bernal's great intellectual adversary was Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian chemist who was opposed to Soviet ideals. Polanyi's classic 1962 journal article 'The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory' (Minerva 1, 54–73; 1962) posits that individual scientists pursuing truth led to the most efficient social outcomes. The parallels with Adam Smith's “invisible hand” guiding capitalist economies could not have been accidental.Pielke creates a demarcation between socialist and capitalist stances on science, and I sense he uses Bernal to characterise socialist science with Polanyi characterising capitalist science. Pielke's penultimate paragraph is
Although Bernal lost the intellectual battle over cold-war politics, his ideas on the social function of science have triumphed on nearly every count. The larger and more significant effect of The Social Function of Science has been to anticipate and help the ideal of 'pure science' to reach mythical status, ushering in an era of science focused on societal needs, today characterized as 'grand challenges' by scientists and politicians.Passing over the fact that , as a mathematician I do not associate 'pure science' (pure mathematics) with societal needs, I think Pielke's analysis is simplistic.
Michael Polanyi was the brother of the economic historian Karl Polyani. Karl's reputation was built on his book The Great Transformation that described how the modern (British) capitalist system emerged in the nineteenth century. Karl was not opposed to socialism, The Great Transformation was based on lectures given for the Workers' Educational Association and his marriage to a card carrying communist prevented him living in the US when he was at Columbia. I am interested in Karl's work because he considers the decline of reciprocity in exchange in The Great Transformation, a theme of interest to me. The association of Adam Smith with 'capitalism' is modern, Smith was interested in the process of commercial exchange, which he studied in the context of Aristoelian ethics: reciprocity/fairness. Smith distinguished commercial exchange from altruism on the basis that it was fair exchange, as Aristotle observed "there is no giving in exchange", but just as there is no charity there is no theft in commercial exchange.
Our contemporary understanding of Smith is clouded by the competitive metaphors that emerged in the early nineteenth century. When Michael Polanyi speaks of "free cooperation of individual scientists" I would suggest that he considers exchange in the context of the doux-commerce thesis that dominated the Enlightenment. A 1704 technical text on commerce argues “Commerce attaches [men] to one another through mutual utility”; while in The Rights of Man (1792) Thomas Paine writes “commerce is a pacific system, operating to cordialise mankind”. In the intervening years Montesquieu, Hume, Condorcet and Adam Smith all agreed that commerce was a powerful civilising agent, promoting honesty, industriousness, probity, punctuality, and frugality, in contrast to the excesses of absolute monarchies of the preceding centuries. When Michael speaks of The Republic of Science I would argue that he is thinking of Res publica, 'the public affair'. So for me, Polyani is concerned with the role of science in the life of the polis.
A contemporary of the Polanyis and Bernal was Franz Borkenau, another Marxist but unlike Bernal a Marxist who was opposed to authoritarianism. Borkenau is important to me because he first identified the origins of western science in the scholastic analysis of exchange in The Transition from the Feudal to the Bourgeois World View (1934). I think Borkenau is relevant to this discussion because he encapsulates the point that the demarcation is not between socialist and capitalist stances on science but between democratic and authoritarian stances on science. Unfortunately, Bernal appears to sit on the 'authoritarian' side of the fence.
This is significant in my spring hiatus which has been dominated by reading Cheryl Misak's Truth, Politics, Morality: Pragmatism and deliberation, which was recommended to me by Matthew Festenstein in response to his reading my paper on reciprocity (revised in light of this reading). Misak's theme is “Why must we value cooperation and equality” in politics and argues we can only be sure of the validity of our beliefs by putting them up for criticism and offering reasons to justify them. This is an epistemic argument that she claims justifies democracy: if in politics we seek the best policy we must allow our decisions to be challenged and be in a position to defend the decisions without resorting to authority; this requires that we are cooperative. In my mind, there is a correspondence between Polanyi's and Misak's cases and it is opposition to Bernal's (apparent) endorsement of authoritarian science.
I am no expert, but I doubt the claim that The Social Function of Science has ushered in an era of science focused on societal needs, today characterized as 'grand challenges' by scientists and politicians. The basis of my doubt is my intuition that Vannevar Bush and other mid-twentieth century US science policy makers were guided by the Pragmatism of American democrats like Peirce, James and Dewey, and not those of a British communist. I have two criticisms of Pielke's article, in associating contemporary science with socialism he is asking for trouble, when he could more meaningfully associate it with democracy. Secondly, I am a bit queasy about Pielke's "Pure Scientist" who confines themselves to presenting the current state of knowledge. As a Pragmatist, following Susan Haack, I cannot accept that scientists can be so, 'Pure', and objective, and to suggest they can is disingenuous. I do not think that Pielke would be happy with me suggesting that his model implies a Pure Scientist is more authoritative than others, as Brian Cox advocates, but I also think the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Anyway, Felicity, Roger and I are all speaking at the Circling the square: Research, politics, media and impact conference in May, so maybe we can discuss all this over a Burton Ale?