issue 182 - April 1988
Modern science claims to be rational
and objective. But that claim, and our
faith in scientific method, puts all our
lives at risk, argues Vanessa Baird.
He didn't know what to do. The war was going badly. People were complaining. Why should they go to the other side of the world to die? Political dissent mounted daily. He needed advice, expert advice - fast.
Had he been born in another era he might have turned to an astrologer, a philosopher or a poet. But, being a twentieth-century President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson consulted the latter-day equivalent: a team of scientists. Not just any kind of scientists, mind you: theoretical physicists - men engaged in 'pure', 'hard' science.
Why? These men had no particular knowledge of warfare or diplomacy. Mass psychology was not their speciality. Nor, more importantly, did they offer remedies for healing those millions of lives torn apart by that war in Vietnam. What they did have, however, was credibility. As scientists they were the High Priests of our times. Because they used Scientific Method to discover Truth, they, if anyone, must have a sound grasp of Objective Reality. And the American public respected a Presidential war policy that was endorsed by such eminence.
Photo: Camera Press
And yet science itself tells us this is a nonsense. After all, surely it was Einstein who declared that everything is relative? Quantum theory - probably the most important advance in physics this century - tells us that there is no such thing as an objective description of nature. Psychologists have been saying roughly the same thing for years: that what you see is what you have been conditioned to expect.
More surprising still is that so many people still have faith in modern orthodox science - in an age where science's most notable contribution to humanity has been the means of destroying the world with the push of a button. Be honest. How many of you are not waiting for scientists to come up with cure for cancer or for AIDS? And would you really believe it if you were told that science had caused these diseases in the first place? My guess is you would want 'scientific proof'. And that would probably be achieved by something called 'scientific method': that is, by people called scientists doing a series of controlled experiments, obeying an established set of rules, measuring their results and coming up with a conclusion.
What is so special about this scientific method? Why should it be any more reliable a system for understanding than voodoo, which also has its rules and methods? If this very suggestion sounds bizarre to you, that is the measure of science's grip on our accepted models of knowledge. But far from being timeless and self-evident, scientific method as we know it is a fairly modern invention.
Before the sixteenth century the prevalent view of the world was generally organic. Things were different but they interrelated. It was natural to think that one's health, for example, could be affected by the moon and the stars. Why shouldn't it be?
But then the ideas of Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes took European culture by storm. Newton saw the world as a machine made up of identical particles of matter held together by the law of gravity. The difference between things was not what they were but how they were constructed. Descartes also had a mechanistic view. He applied it to the human being which he said was split into two parts: mind and body. It was he who put into words science's dominant world view: 'All science is certain evident knowledge. We reject all knowledge that is merely probable and judge only those things that should be believed and that are perfectly known.' Out went all means of obtaining knowledge that could not be encompassed by the narrow rules of the new science. And in came the mad scientist's tunnel-vision that has caused us so much anguish this century.
The scientist became someone who was expected to pursue Truth in an obsessive, monomaniac way. The practical applications of their work were deemed irrelevant to the pursuit of pure science. Scientists were given carte blanche to be amoral - an 'objective' carte blanche which they actually hold up as a virtue.
Take the case of Dr J Robert Oppenheimer who helped create the first atomic bomb. The project had not been completed by the time Hitler surrendered. But instead of discontinuing the work on D-Day, there was a rush among the researchers to speed it up before an inconvenient outbreak of peace made their obsession embarrassing. Oppenheimer justified its continuation thus: 'If you are a scientist you cannot stop such a thing. If you are a scientist you believe that it is good to find out what the realities are; that it is good to turn over to mankind (sic) at large the greatest possible power to control the world.'1
If you forget about the mushroom clouds and burning flesh, Oppenheimer sounds almost reasonable - democratic even. That is the point. Science has a way of seeming to speak with the voice of detached reasonableness. But in reality modern scientific method is, if anything, anti-democratic - it can even be called fascist.
Its insistence on quantification, for example, implies that if something cannot be quantified it does not exist. And the automatic exclusion or degradation of any knowledge not acquired by its own narrow means is nothing short of intellectual totalitarianism.
One energetic critic of scientific method, Paul Feyerabend, argues that orthodox science is as authoritarian and pervasive a power today as the Church was in the Middle Ages. In those days there was no separation between Church and State, just as today there is effectively no separation between Science and the State. The result is equally undemocratic. We are inveigled into accepting the rules of orthodox science in virtually every area of our lives. Children are taught orthodox science in schools as though there were no other form of knowledge. Feyerabend believes that parents should be able to insist that their children are taught at least one alternative model, such as magic, for interpreting the world. We must free society from the strangling hold of an ideologically petrified science just as our ancestors freed us from the strangling hold of the One True Religion', he insists.
It is hard to imagine the New Right endorsing Feyerabend's suggestion. Science and the State are virtually interbred in the US and in Britain. This year the Reagan Administration will spend more than 70 per cent of its science research and development budget on defence. Britain spends 57 per cent of its science budget on military research, making it the second biggest spender in the West.3 Clearly both countries need scientists who will not ask awkward questions about the morality of finding better ways of killing people. Encouraging them to remove their moral blindfolds would clearly not be good policy.
There are other reasons why the Right would not want us to change our approach to science. Newton's mechanistic model of the world as a machine composed of particles governed by fixed laws fits capitalist ideology like a glove. Capitalism requires that we should work like cogs in a machine - not think like human beings. In fact the less human the better, as the advertisement for Fiat cars clearly indicates: 'Designed by computer, silenced by laser, built by robot'.
And where does the worker fit into all this? Marx and Engels both believed that developments in science would eventually benefit workers. But science has proved, if anything, to be anti-worker. With the emphasis on expansion, the health and safety of workers comes low down on the list of priorities. Chemists race to find wonder cures for cancer. But how much research money goes into finding substitutes for the toxic solvents, asbestos or nuclear power which caused the cancer in the first place?
Things are just as bad, if not worse, in the 'state capitalist' countries of the Eastern Bloc. Factory managers there may speak in terms of meeting quotas rather than beating competitors, but there is the same lack of regard for the quality of life of workers. We saw this at the time of the Chernobyl accident when crews of inadequately protected workers were conscripted to do a mop-up job. In the words of philosopher and physicist Fritjof Capra, it is today not 'religion' but 'growth that has become the opium of the people'.4
The physical result of this mad rush for growth is the environmental pollution that is destroying our planet. Just one millionth of a gramme of plutonium is enough to give you cancer. Yet just one commercial reactor produces 200 to 250 kilograms of this lethal by-product each year. It will remain poisonous for longer than humankind has been on earth and we have no safe way of disposing of it. But those small facts are not going to stop us producing it. Presumably that is not the scientist's department. A job for the refuse collector, perhaps?
According to Capra, our so-called scientific way of thinking actually prevents us from being able to think ecologically. This is because rational thinking is linear, whereas ecological awareness arises, he maintains, from the 'intuition of non-linear systems'. In fact 'one of the most difficult things for people in our culture to understand,' he points out, 'is the fact that if you do something that is good, then more of the same will not necessarily be better.'
And if modern science is good, the implication is that traditional science must be bad. This means discarding most Third World knowledge as, at best, irrelevant and backward; at worst as 'unscientific'.
But people in developing countries are beginning to take a more critical look at Big Science. And they have found that it is not just a close relative but actually the twin of Big Business. They have noticed, for instance, the way Western medicine works hand-in-hand with Western pharmaceutical giants to promote expensive, often harmful, drugs in the Third World.
A less obvious result of Big Science's bombardment of the Third World is a loss of confidence in its own traditional sciences. These indigenous sciences are the products of centuries of experimentation and have developed in ways that can be controlled by people to suit their needs. Often they achieve this in ways that cannot be improved upon - even by modern science.
Take the Kenyan Wakara people, who live on the small island of Ukarat in Lake Victoria. This is where the real Green Revolution is to be found. But Wakara farmers have no PhDs in biotechnology and they have had nothing to do with the high-yield seeds of Cargill Inc or the fertilisers and pesticides of Bayer. They have just used their own scientific ingenuity to survive against the odds.
On just seven hectares of fragile tropical soil they have managed to support a population density of 355 people per square kilometre. They do not engage in the ecologically-ruinous practice of growing one cash crop for export or the shifting cultivation practiced in other areas. Instead they grow several crops in rotation - millet, groundnuts, sorghum and cassava - and use a home-grown leguminous green manure for fertiliser. They grow crops all year round and can even keep cattle by letting them out to pasture for limited periods.
The whole system of agriculture of the Wakara is as carefully balanced, controlled and sophisticated as nature itself. Big Science, with its pesticide and fertiliser overkill seems clumsy and crude by comparison. The peasant farmer on the island of Ukarat is clearly a better, more responsible and more effective scientist than the highest-paid biotechnology researcher in any Palo Alto, Calif., lab.
The relationship between Western science and Third World science is as crushing and exploitative as the relationship between rich and poor anywhere. This makes it hard, if not impossible for Western science to perceive the real needs of the Third World and act appropriately. Or in the words of Brazilian philosopher Rubem Alves:
'Have you noticed how tigers have eyes to the front of their heads and deer to the sides? Tigers are hunters, deer the hunted. The questions tigers put to their environment are different from the questions a deer puts to the same environment. And when tigers begin to speak in general terms about the future of animals, they obviously have in mind something quite different from the hopes of deer.'5
This parable is also a metaphor for male and female science. Men dominate science, we know. And women have, on the whole, been exploited by and excluded from it. This exclusion took its most brutal form during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when millions of women midwives and healers were put to death as witches and medicine was put in the hands of male physicians. Methods of excluding women are more subtle today. But the numbers of girls studying science is still minuscule compared with boys.
The machismo of science has exceedingly deep roots, as science policy researcher Brian Easlea found when he examined the development of nuclear weapons. He concluded that male science springs from the same motivations as men's general oppression of women. Even the metaphors they use to describe their work is tellingly aggressive. Nature is to be 'penetrated' and 'forced to reveal her secrets'. Her power is to be 'harnessed'. Anti-nuclear campaigner E P Thompson concurs with this analysis, pointing out that the only reason the UK wanted to buy the Trident missile system was because 'we are in a post-imperial phallic system - and there is a need to show we can still "get it up".
What makes this macho science dangerous - rather than simply comical - is that it works. It has provided a terrifying power over nature. But it has provided it for men who are perhaps the least well-equipped to make wise use of it.
So what can we do to take science out of their hands and put it in the hands of those of us who want to preserve life on earth?
We can 'feminize' science for a start. At its most basic level this means teaching it in a way that is inviting to girls rather than alienating. But it has to be more than that. There has to be a major cultural shift within science. And feminism - with its principles of co-operation, as opposed to competition, nurturing rather than conquest - can bring the necessary ingredients and impetus. Science might then become more human, more relevant, more complex, more exciting. And there should be no more dodging the social, moral and ethical issues.
Next we can look at the earth. Detailed research by microbiologist Lynn Margolis and bio-chemist James Lovelock has revealed that the way in which the biosphere regulates the chemical composition of the air, the temperature on the surface of the earth and many other aspects of our planetary environment can only really be understood by regarding our planet as a single living organism. They call this the Gaia principle - Gaia being the ancient Greek goddess of the Earth. This seems a far more humane and sensible approach than splitting nature into atoms - or, worse still, splitting atoms.
One good sign is that people are becoming more and more ecology conscious - and consequently more and more anti-nuclear energy. So strong and organised is the antinuclear lobby in the US that it is now virtually impossible to get permission to build a new nuclear power station there. Protest in other parts of the world, however, still lags sadly behind and it has been estimated that, even if there are no further nuclear reactors built, we still stand a 95 per cent chance of having another accident on the scale of Chernobyl or Three Mile Island within the next 25 years.6
Finally we can stop being intellectual fascists and start embracing the sciences of other cultures and civilisations. Acupuncture, for instance, has been around for millennia - and it works. But Western medical orthodoxy is only just beginning to take it seriously. In Japan there has been a significant move away from Western medicine and back to Chinese remedies. This includes an acceptance of subjective judgements - both on the part of the doctor and the patient. All this, however, threatens the rigid hierarchy of Western science, with its apostles ranked from 'hard' scientists at the top to 'soft' scientists at the bottom.
All of which makes one wonder what kind of answer President Johnson would have got if he had asked a different kind of scientist - his cook, say, or his gardener - what he should do about the Vietnam War.
1 B Easlea, Fathering the Unthinkable, Pluto, 1983.
2 P Feyerabend, Science in a Free Society, Schocken Books, 1978.
3 R L Sivard, World Military and Social Expenditures 1987-88, World Priorities, 1987.
4 F Capra, The Turning Point, Simon and Schuster (US), 1982 and Fontana (UK), 1983.
5 Roger L Shinn (ed.), Faith and Science in an Unjust World, World Council 01 Churches, CC, 1980.
6 J Schwarz, Nature, Vol.324, December 18/25,1986.
This special report appeared in the our future in their hands - methods & madness in science issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.