Thursday 27 March 2014

The Republic of Science

I do all my teaching in the Spring and am finding I have no time to blog or tweet.  This has given me some insight into my old tutorial colleague Felicity Mellor's thesis about scientists keeping quiet, since my social media silence has enabled me to fix some ideas.

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?

1 comment:

  1. Interesting, but, as a physicist, I find the various author's lines of reasoning a bit confusing. Polanyi "individual scientists pursuing truth led to the most efficient social outcomes." and Bernal "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.", both seem to not match what is actually done in science.

    The understanding of science that I was taught, and which I still accept, is that science is an exercise in discovery. That science is based on a well supported belief system which states that: the universe is governed by immutable principles, that by experiment and observation we can divine these principles, and that we can construct quantitative theories which describe these principles, with which we can make predictions for particular systems of interest. This believe system is generally accepted because it has been so dramatically successful over the now centuries. This is also what separates science from empiricism, which is just a collections of facts and descriptions with no ability to predict.

    Here, I think the authors have accepted that science is useful to society, in that the application of science to particular problems -- applied science, and to some extent engineering -- serves to advance the productivity of human endeavors, which is near and dear to the hearts of economists and businessmen alike. The question seems to be, how to best support and promote scientific inquiry that has the greatest impact on society? The nature of this impact on society is where is seems the authors disagree. Should this impact be focused toward a particular goal -- e.g. curing polio -- or should the benefits of science emerge from the actions of scientists following their interests -- and really this is following where their successes lead, and avoiding where their myriad of failures have gone -- to new results?

    In a sense the authors seem to be arguing about the who, what, and how much of society's support for science. That is, doing science takes people, resources, and time, which all have costs. Who bears those costs? I think the history of science has shown that the best result is a mix; scientists who are given a certain level of support and allowed to follow their own research agenda, and projects of focused efforts at solving particular identified problems. What goes unsaid here, is that in the modern world, and I think that the authors were at the cusp of what was becoming the modern world, the government pays for most scientific work. Therefore, the society has a vested interest in what is researched and to what end. So, how will society decide what, how much, and to what end of science to support?


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