CHAPTER FIVE of the book 'SCIENCE LIMITED'

SCIENTIFIC OBJECTIVITY IN QUESTION

Every scientific investigation begins with a surprising fact, something that challenges our preconceived notions of what the world should be.  C.S. Pierce

The prestige of science is undoubted, at least among persons with an Occidental education or those who have no religious conviction of any kind. So there is an all too frequent tendency for people with opinions of all kinds who wish to be taken seriously to call their work scientific. Leaving very obvious crackpot theorists and fradulent profiteers aside, there are many others concerned to attain status as 'scientists'. Not long ago, what were called 'arts' or 'humanities' now style themselves as historical and social sciences'. So what distinguishes scientific work from that of its imitators? Before proceeding with a critical review of the sciences, their internal problems and the problems they create for society, it is therefore necessary to make clear what can reasonably be meant by the term 'scientific' in various important contexts.


WHAT IS SCIENTIFIC, WHAT NOT?

The question "what is science?" can be answered in a variety of ways. How one answers decides how broad or narrow a view one takes. The word 'science' can have a wide variety of meanings. Science can broadly include all activities connected to the systematic gathering, analysis and application of knowledge of nature, society and mankind. Or it can mean only the use of highly precise and specific methods, such as controlled experiments. There are several reasons why the term 'science' is a matter of great contention, not least of which being the prestige attached to it and the many social and economic advantages that can follow for those who claim their ideas, facts or products etc. are 'scientific'.

The traditional answers go along the following lines: science is the pursuit of systematised and generalised knowledge in the form of theories that, ideally, can be tested by empirical methods. Or else perhaps: science is a body of truths that are discovered by the correct application of scientific methods.

There are many problems with each of these definitions, two of which are basic. Firstly, not all sciences arrive at generalised knowledge (such as in those parts of the human sciences relying fully on detailed, 'ideographic' information) and only a few sciences can genuinely test their results by empirical methods (i.e. only those where experimental conditions can be simulated realistically and controlled). Secondly, as generally agreed by every important philosopher of science, it can never be known whether science does or does not reach unchanging or absolute truth. At best, it can hypothesize, putting forward theories that allow predictions of some degree of probability. That is, predictions that are very likely to hold when tested, but about which there can be no certainty.

The universally-held rider to the theory of empiricism is Hume's proof of the ultimate unprovability of any experiential knowledge or the 'uncertainty principle'. This means that scientists agree that even the most well-tried theory is not certainly true and even the most well-founded prediction can, in principle, prove wrong. Experience alone has the last say always. This thesis - itself 'proven' only by common sense or ordinary reasoning - is hailed in science as the guarantee of open-mindedness and anti-dogmatism. It teaches caution and reservation about all past observations and present theories.

A reasonably broad definition of scientific knowledge, then, must include the so-called objectivity of its results as 'systematised hypothetical knowledge based upon controlled observations and/or tested through time in actual experience'.

Starting in part from the basis of common sense, science sets out to eliminate subjective elements systematically so as to arrive at what really is common to all observations, whatever the phenomena studied. It is the world community of scientists' collective acceptance through time of those theories that - all circumstances taken into account - decide at any time what is established scientific opinion. This is not just opinion but rational judgement based on what, in the final analysis, is in agreement with the sensory observations of the majority of observers. It cannot be taken as just subjective, nor as wholly objective truth. It is 'inter-subjective' or commonly verified truth.

The strictest standard of truth in science is that of predictability. If a theory allows the prediction of future events (usually under controlled conditions such as in laboratory experiments) and those events occur whenever the given conditions are present, then the theory is regarded as validated, which is to say that it is thought to come as close to truth as science can. Such predictions can only be made by the natural sciences, not by those dealing with the events of human or societal life.


THE APPEAL TO OBJECTIVE NEUTRALITY

A most serious element in the traditional idea of science is also the view that its findings are 'objective' in the sense of not being influenced 'subjectively', such as by any personal viewpoints, or by social or political influences.

Objectivism is the thesis that reality can be known entirely as it is in itself, quite independently of the biases of any observing subject. This has been shown to be untenable as philosophy. Popular though it is, this doctrine has long been rejected by the soundest philosophers and also by scientists in the very forefront of physics since Eddington, yet it is still alas an entrenched dogma held to doggedly in practice by academic tradition, by teachers and also by most scientists the world over.

As the physicist Max Born pointed out decades ago: "We may compare the observer of a physical phenomenon not with the audience of a theatrical performance, but with that of a football game where the act of watching, accompanied by applauding and hissing, has a marked influence on the speed and concentration of the players, and thus on what is watched. In fact, a better simile is life itself, where audience and actors are the same persons. It is the action of the experimentalist who designs the apparatus which determines essential features of the observations. Hence there is no objectively existing situation, as was supposed to exist in classical physics."

All persons involved in serious science must and do agree with this view, but its many consequences for the practice of science have been curtailed, especially in the so-called 'social sciences'. What some of all those consequences are for understanding of the cosmos and the human condition is one aim of this book to investigate.

Scientific fact is what, on the basis of observational evidence and rigorous analysis, is confirmed in agreement between trained and established scientists. What is so confirmed as having been validated by the hypothetical-deductive method can itself be a matter of dispute. Not all the natural sciences deal with questions that are accessible to controllable experiments, and the human sciences can hardly ever do so at all. In the end, therefore, whatever is accepted as a valid result is decided by expert consensus, that is, 'inter-subjectively'. This is something different to 'objective knowledge'. What is validated and accepted is thus not necessarily what is objectively true.

 

It is less than a half-truth to hold that the universal scientific method is empiricism, requiring strict sensory observation combined with rational analysis. Science also requires general faith in the body of science, belief in the validity of commonly-established hypotheses and theories in the major disciplines. This is necessitated by the circumstance that relatively very few persons can themselves observe experiments of any advanced nature and only a small minority of scientific experts can in practice have direct access to the original data of the great majority of scientific studies. The majority must rely on secondary or indirect sources like publications, information technology and other media.

The doctrine that science is neutral as regards values has been much misunderstood and misapplied. The ideal of not being influenced by strongly asserted values should apply to negative values and such values as would divert science from objective results, like sheer ideology or interests that want biassed or falsified results. In scientific work, emotions are rejected, neutralised or even repressed if they are such that would interfere with perception or cognitive judgement. This is a correct understanding of value-neutrality. What is not correct is the attempt to ban emotions, values and even the open admission and airing of conflicting interests from all relevance or consideration. This amounts to a refusal of scientific self-reflection on the mistaken premise that science is somehow isolated from the society of which it nevertheless is part and parcel.

An example shows this: the complete unwillingness of medical science to stand up against the interests of the tobacco industry for many decades - not until the evidence for mortality from smoking was monumental and overwhelming - illustrates how easily science falls prey to external pressures. Many other such pressures from consumer oriented industries are operative and still effective today.

To believe that truth alone is the guiding ideal of science, however, is to cement the existing gap between scientific and moral thought. The fateful consequences for society of this divorce has only widened since the mistaken idea of value-neutrality became the doctrine, not only of the natural sciences, but also the humanities. As will be shown in some detail, the position is obviously self-defeating, for it overlooks the role of human motives, pre-scientific interest, foreknowledge and the nature of scientific explanation as a special case of the process of human understanding in general. This is acknowledged by the philosophers Husserl, Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas, Ricoeur and others in the continental and hermeneutical traditions, and to some extent by a few little known writers on science in the English language.2

Those who hold that the study of man can be carried out without any form of moral evaluation or 'value' influencing the information, hypotheses, methods or conclusions tend to reject the possibility of conscience being an inherent faculty in man. Such objectivists still appear to believe in the 'truth' as if it were not a value and were also independent of other ethical values. To try to reach understanding of the human condition 'strictly by analysis' from a neutral 'value-free' position is self-defeating in that it fails to take into account all the underlying values and assumptions that makes us who we are and our lives and societies what they are. The researcher's whole understanding of what it is to be a person himself - and all that follows from it - is the basis he overlooks and fails to penetrate when trying to be scientifically 'neutral'.


THE ASSUMPTION OF PHYSICALISM VS. MEANING

Scientific thought and rational or natural philosophy are means of 'controlling' the flow of experience and ideas through a complex process of sifting, sorting and checks and rechecks which serve to reduce the mass of ideas into manageable form. The essence of science is simplification through abstraction, even though on the face of it there seems mainly to be complication. To achieve this it actually selects according to its own type of selection or 'bias', blocking off and organising perception, always in the interests of exact analysis. For science to be exact, the number of variables and conditions studied must be reduced and thus the scope is narrowed.

No science can do any research whatever without making a number of assumptions that may or may not be fruitful and may not even be wholly true. Most scientists have ignored this limitation and have developed a comprehensive belief in the efficacy of scientific method and of most of its generally-accepted conclusions as an answer to virtually all the intellectual questions of mankind. However, the nature of the limits to understanding that science sets and their consequences must be seen clearly - and be transcended.

The most basic assumption of science is materialism or physicalism, which is built into its method... by demanding that all scientific hypotheses be tested by sensory observation. Natural science has developed to the point where all everything is regarded in theory as differing expressions and transformations of one and the same energy. This is assumed to be all that exists or can exist (i.e. ontological physicalism). This assumption therefore also generally defines in effect what experiences and ideas are to be blocked off from the elementary stages of any research onwards.

Natural scientists are notoriously unable or unwilling to go beyond the basic assumption about the nature of reality as matter only, upon which physics rests. Yet physics cannot legitimise itself philosophically, it simply has no coherent meta-physic. Neither empiricism nor positivism or their variants can provide a rational explanation of the whys of the universe that the physical sciences and their imitators only analyse. Scientists hold that to be open to rethinking is always the best policy, but in practice this occurs only where rethinking does not disturb the foundations of science... which also means unproven and unprovable physicalistic assumptions upon which science rests.

The methods for testing any scientific theory may be compared to a prismatic filter that admits only coloured light to pass it. All the colours exist, right enough, yet the existence of white light is denied because it cannot be observed, having been excluded at the outset. This illustrates how the primary assumption of physical science works. The filter which shuts out the pure light is the physicalistically conditioned mind of the scientist. Yet, as we all know, white light is the very basis of all colours.

Natural science also relies upon the assumption of logical principle of contradiction (i.e. exclusion of formally conflicting assertions) and the doctrine of causation as the standard model of scientific explanation. Both these require critical examination (see Chapter 8 and 'At the Limits of Logic'

A further assumption that scientific physicalism involves is that meaning does not arise in an inert world, or even in living organisms, apart from in the minds of human beings. Natural science does not look for meaning in its objects or for purposes they may express, holding that to do so is to indulge in the anthropomorphical or theistic fallacy. Science discovers events, phenomena and their many kinds of factual relationship in space-time, while meaning is something applied to these by human beings, each with some particular interest in interpreting and using these facts. This idea is as fundamental to Darwinism as it is to quantum physics. The assumption is that there is no discoverable purpose or design in the physical universe, no inherent meaning in anything. This assumption is, of course, not provable by any scientific method, yet it has been at the root of science since the explanation by mythology in favour of explanation by natural causes.

That science befriended this belief that the universe is no more than 'matter hurrying meaninglessly by', was criticised long ago by A.N. Whitehead.3 It is but one belief among others, held with a tenacity that reminds of the Marxist-Leninists, who also built an enormous theoretical superstructure on equally materialistic and shaky philosophical foundations.

The sheer irrationality of this fundamental assumption and its usual rejection of any primaeval order is in stark contrast to the scientific belief in ordered laws. As it is interpreted by most scientists, such as by Monrad in biology, this assumption implies that no explanation other than accident or chance can ultimately be offered for the existence of anything. Another rider is the thesis of natural determinism, which requires that everything has a cause and that the cause always precedes the effect in an unbreakable chain of physically predetermined event. Further, the assumption also ignores the fact that explicit meaning does enter the world through the interaction of the human mind (if regarded as a natural phenomenon) and nature. Paradoxically, were meaning not derivable from nature itself - had it been entirely created by and dependent upon the mind, as the assumption implies - then even science would be unable to claim that it represents a meaningful interpretation of the world. These questions of chance, necessity and meaning will therefore be investigated in some depth in later chapters.

A serious consequence of the growing ascendancy of physicalism since the time of the Enlightenment onwards is the corresponding suppression of the contrary assumption and all that follows from it, even to the extent of leaving us with no unambiguous term for what is confusingly called by many partly misleading titles such as immaterialism, idealism, mentalism, spiritualism, spirituality and even religion. Physicalism denies the existence of any spirit, soul, and any spiritual entities up to and including God. It flatly denies the existence of consciousness as independent of the physical brain against all evidence, and it regards the human self as a mere idea without other substance than the body along with its emotional and mental operations. Even human values are relativised and seen as having no reality or objective validity apart from the subjective imaginings of each person or 'psycho-physical organism'. The consequences of this belief for our way of life and society have been very considerable and are proving highly destructive in many ways, as will be discussed later.

The attempt to explain everything on one model, however complex and articulated, is a form of ideology. The attempt to explain everything psychologically is known as psychologism, while comparative 'totalising' theories are found as sociologism, historicism, economism, dialectical materialism and not least physicalism or scientism.

This physical 'scientism' has tended to shed an aura of intellectual respectability on those humanities that call themselves sciences and what is more, to shed public money into their research budgets. But the naturalistic focus is misplaced in studying human actions and this brings only insurmountable theoretical and logical problems to the human 'sciences'. All this is also very wasteful. Science still encourages a general materialistic outlook, which has always been at the root of many of the world's ills and is still a mainstay of the consumer society. As I shall show, the undue influence of physicalism and the methods implied by it leads to an alienated view of human actions and interactions and this in turn leads to estrangement between social science and the public. The denial of meaning and purpose is even extended to the human being, whose subjective life and selfhood are ignored and whose actions are considered as 'behaviour' in principle no different from the physical behaviour of particles and matter


EVIDENCE, PROBABILITY AND EXPERT CONSENSUS

In principle, of course, all serious philosophers of science agree that there is and can be no certainty in science, hence truth cannot be known as such, even when the experts feel sure that their knowledge is absolute. Science is therefore actually neither 'objective' nor 'subjective'. Another way of saying this is that one can very seldom (if ever) present definitive proof in science, but usually only of the presence of convincing or sufficient evidence for an hypothesis.

However, in practice, acceptance of any scientific theory or fact often depends upon the agreement of a few leading figures, those having positions of prestige or influential power within the scientific community. Such pundits can delay the dissemination of genuine scientific discoveries - in the past sometimes by decades. They can also bolster up inconclusive, weak or false theories that have gained currency and prestige. Even the shifting sands of cultural assumptions and public opinion are not without influence on the mind's of scientists and thus sometimes upon their products in the longer term. Therefore, any realistic evaluation of scientific knowledge should somehow also take account of the decision-making processes involved.

Scientists seem least rational when the most deep-lying assumptions of science are questioned. The 'scientific body of opinion' is here ruled precisely by opinion, not certain knowledge, as major philosophers from Plato to Wittgenstein make patently evident. Science has no consistent epistemology to point to and this lack of a theory of knowledge is a very sore point. An insecurity in the science professions may often be compensated by the dogmatic orthodoxy that arises in some disciplines, to protect from external criticism and competition. It is never mentioned by scientists, no longer discussed with clarity and breadth of vision as was the case in with such authorities as Hume, Whitehead, Eddington or Joad. The collapse of philosophical positivism, not least since the criticisms delivered by, say, Husserl, Wittgenstein or Habermas, leaves science with a foreshortened view of itself and the cosmos... in short, a pseudo-philosophy without weight or anchorage in any self-consistent philosophical theory. Much-quoted contemporary thinkers about science have only minimalistic theories about the foundations of knowledge and mostly abdicate in advance where the major philosophical questions about knowledge are concerned.

The most fateful way in which certain researches and schools of science fall short of being objective is seen when they are biassed towards the aims of special interest groups. Scientific problems are chosen and theories developed that lean more towards the interests of some groups and parties than others, usually towards larger and more powerful interests and institutions. Scientific knowledge itself represents power with both physical, economical and social aspects. The ideal of complete scientific objectivity or value-neutrality is never fully attainable because knowledge of any such kind will always tend to favour certain cultures, interest groups and political goals.

The effect of the philosophy of physical objectivism on the social or human sciences is largely responsible for what may well be called the crisis in these subjects, with all their various forms of mainly indirect influence on policy makers, educated people and society at large. Misplaced natural scientific methods and ideals, along with a piecemeal and compartmentalising view of the human being thus encouraged, understanding of human nature and society has been distorted, with many consequent confusions about issues of cause or motive, will or non-responsibility, the inevitability of social change or the inconstancy of social policy and so on.

While there are those whose work in the humanities provide genuine understanding, they are a relatively small minority. This sad state of affairs at most Western style universities is upheld by increasing pressures to make the humanities more evidently profitable to the social economy of the particular State, such as by stimulating a more competitive work force and industry, less money-consuming solutions to welfare problems and other similar considerations.


INERTIA, ACADEMIC CONVENTION AND CHANGING OPINION

The scientific approach may be based on the best empirical evidence available but this only includes, on the whole, what persons of scientific training are willing to accept as evidence. Most facts that scientists accept as givens have not personally been observed, for practical limitations mean that most scientists must rely on the testimony about observed experiments of other persons with access to the equipment. In the first and last instance, all thought relies on the power of reason... and the wrong conclusions can be drawn even from a thousand observable facts if one's reasoning is at fault. Every scientific research always unavoidably builds on at least some fundamental assumptions that are untested by scientific means. At bottom, reason is the only instrument of investigation available for deciding the fruitfulness and scope of both the most primary assumptions and the most theoretical conclusions.

Most scientists, not being unorthodox geniuses of an Einsteinian level, tend to be so consumed by an ingrained attitude of fact fetishism, that they lack a corresponding degree of independent reason with which to review and question the more basic issues involved in scientific activity.

A study of the history of science, not excluding recent developments, shows that intellectual fashion has a great influence on what is investigated, what is neglected and also on the acceptance and interpretation of data. Theoretical conclusions are ever being overturned by the advance of knowledge, but rejected hypotheses and even some general theories are also reinstated by the same process.

The historical view, therefore, warns us against over-reliance on the validity of scientific results, particularly those that have not been subjected to the very most thorough testing and critical evaluation, also preferably to thoroughgoing philosophical investigation of their assumptions and implications.

All opinions change through time, and the most well-established scientific opinion is no guaranteed exception. Such was the case with the best known revolutions in scientific thought: the paradigm shifts from the geocentric to the cosmocentric, from creation by divine fiat to evolutionary theory and from classical physics to relativity. Yet scientific opinion seldom shifts at all quickly, especially when such major breakthroughs are made. The slowness is partly conservative, due to influential and established 'experts' advocating judicious care in advancing towards truth, partly and even more so to the inertia against change of established ideas, particularly when they have predominated for a long time. The interests that uphold existing theories and their many practical implications are of many personal and social kinds and these can exert strong pressures.

Scientific claims are, of course, subjected to open discussion within researcher's peer groups and this involves a certain amount of 'policing' of research methods, results and theoretical reasoning. However, against this works the sheer pressures of collegial conformity and desire for theoretical continuity rather than breaks. This is one of the most unfortunate concomitants of any internationalised and highly institionalised enterprise. This pressure is kept up on and within the scientific community by all those who have invested their energies and reputations in the existing ideology and is further sustained by the huge apparatus of literature and other media that has been built up over a long time and which thus predominates in favour of the status quo. This inertia increases as science advances, so that the voices of warning or severe criticism of science are suppressed... firstly through ignoring them and, when that no longer works, by ridicule or out-and-out semi-intellectual bludgeoning.

Excessive orthodoxy is perhaps most often a consequence of threatened interests, career prospects, professional esteem or pride. This can also involve relative dull-wittedness or lack of understanding. Yet, as we saw in Einstein's fight against quantum physics, even a great revolutionary genius can become dogmatic after enthronement. Such persons often become opinion-makers, and often also on subjects in which they have no special knowledge or expertise, to which the naiviety of some of Einstein's political engagements when he rose to fame bear witness.

It is an interesting paradox that, the more original and creative a theory, the more massive and traditional do the list of bibliographical references have to be for it even to get the chance of a hearing in circles that dominate in each science. Documentation can, of course, be useful and even necessary in much work - particularly as a means of academic discipline for students - but when it becomes an obligatory exercise for impressing colleagues or showing 'well-read credentials', it is a useless fetish. But the reliance through bibliographical documentation on the old to justify the new create an unsolvable paradox if it is a ground-breaking or critical seminal work! Conventional wisdom is often shown to be in error in the history of even the most sound sciences, and going by the record, this appears to be the inevitable fate of the majority of what is produced in the social, historical and psychological sciences... within some years or decades most of it becomes quite obsolete as cultures, societies and people change and when researchers' interest is diverted to new problems and shifting fashions of thought.

Documentation can, of course, be useful and even necessary in much work - particularly as a means of academic discipline for students - but when it becomes an obligatory exercise for impressing colleagues or showing 'well-read credentials', it is a useless fetish. It is largely and expression of an academic formalism which sets excessive store by conventions, special jargons, traditional ways of presenting materials etc.

Reliance on bibliographical documentation is reliance on the old to justify the new, which creates an unsolvable paradox if it is a ground-breaking or critical seminal work! Hence, originality that represents a break with tradition or the predominant theory and practice for the institute in question, should be backed by sound and thorough documentation. This is not possible where the new work does not prolong an existing tradition, but breaks fresh ground.

Conventional wisdom is often shown to be in error in the history of even the most sound sciences, and going by the record, this appears to be the inevitable fate of the majority of what is produced in the social, historical and psychological sciences... within some years or decades most of it it becomes quite obsolete as cultures, societies and people change and when researchers' interest is diverted to new problems and shifting fashions of thought.


DISTORTIONS CAUSED BY PRESSURES FOR ORIGINALITY

At least since the 1960s, the drive for scientific progress has become a widely recognised factor in economic competition in modern industrial states. One of several unfortunate side-effects of this is the increased demand for scientific 'originality'. Of course, all new discoveries are original, and science aims to discover what was not known previously. At the same time, it may seem paradoxical that much truly original work is excluded from the pale of scientific respectability, and hence from funding. The reasons for this are all too often that the work challenges existing work in which interests are already vested, or it has no obvious pay-of, at least in the shorter term.

However, a modern-day fascination with the subjective processes of originality as 'creative thought' has brought about a leaning towards the unusual and the bizarre in some sciences. That the newer and more unheard-of theory always attracts greater public interest than the known and true is now a fact of book marketing. Eye-catching titles and exaggerated claims help to propagate this kind of work. Particularly in the kind of lucrative science writing in astrophysics, micro-physics and biology, the weirdness approaches science fiction. Much of it may well be sheer science fiction, though unwittingly so from the authors' viewpoint.

The weaker a science in validated theory and strict methods, the greater the scope for theoretical 'originality'. To satisfy the demand for it, more and more peculiar hypotheses are mooted, new terminologies are cooked up in the psychological field, and a whole spectrum of doubtful partial theories abound, especially on identity and selfhood. These tend to run ahead of insight through self-knowledge, which is shown by their speculative intellectual content and the abstruseness of the language and argument usually employed to justify them. Many have in recent years largely proven to be a product of free-floating fantasy based on the thinnest of empirical evidence, but supported by massive bibliographical documentation, which is the chief way in which the academic world measures ability in non-scientific or human studies.

To satisfy the demand for originality of work that rates so highly in scientific and academic appointments and in publishing, more and more peculiar hypotheses are mooted, new terminologies are cooked up in the psychological field, such as a whole spectrum of doubtful partial theories abound especially on identity and selfhood. Eye-catching titles and exaggerated claims help to propagate this kind of work. These tend to run ahead of insight founded on experience or secure self-knowledge, which is shown by their speculative intellectual content and the abstruseness of the language and argument usually employed to justify them. In recent years much speculative astronomy, physics and other science is the product of more of mathematical invention and often free-floating fantasy based on the thinnest of empirical evidence. In the human sciences, such 'original' and hence publicity-creating ideas are supported by massive and often irrelevant bibliographical documentation, which is the chief way in which the academic world measures ability in non-scientific or human studies.

In the more official field of scientific employment, to become known - to get oneself a name as a scientist - is one way of helping to secure both the opportunity for research funding and consequently one's own employment, finances and standard of living. This reinforces the general pressure for 'originality' in all areas of research. Such originality must invariably not go too far but stay original with a fairly narrow band of creativity by edging one or another established frontier a little further outwards.

The production of publications that serve no other useful purpose than to fulfil job criteria, fill CVs, get notice in science publications both serious and popular, or create an impression of scientific method may not be so noticeable at the very highest level of work by secure and well-established figures, but it otherwise seems prominent in many varied branches of science in academia practically 'right across the board'. Still, the need to stand out and to 'market oneself' is even now leading to some rampant examples of what amount to a strange amalgam in the media between science and show business. The sound-bite is possibly already becoming as important for the politics of scientific funding as the dumb, near-unreadable technical report used to be. It is rather like witnessing the replacement of State broadcasting by commercial outlets... more popular appeal, lower common denominators of intelligence. The main question thing more and more becomes, 'will it make money?'


INDIVIDUAL COMPETITION, SELF-MARKETING AND PRESTIGE

The problems of science and its repute today are not confined to its social, institutional or philosophical failings. The actual world of scientific activities is very often nowadays the playground of individualists concerned with their independent progress through personal copyright of 'original ideas'. The motives behind science are not always in the common interest. The outcome of scientific research is seldom predictable any more than the social and other consequences that will follow from discoveries.

An image of scientists has been projected and zealously protected to make them seem a class above and apart from other poor misguided citizens, when the fact is that one finds bad, middling and good ones among them, both intellectually and morally speaking. Scientists on average suffer very much the same emotional, psychic and moral ills as other people do. Besides, years of concentrated analytic thinking and associating professionally mainly with others who think along similar lines and develop similar mind-sets tend less to widen the outlook than reinforce group attitudes.

A series of scientific biographies in recent years have shown how Nobel prize ambitions have been the driving force behind much selfish individualism. This engenders unwillingness to share results at the formative stages of research. The evidence goes to show that scientists' motives are usually mixed, sometimes selfish and negative. Name and fame are frequent motivating ideals, and the ambitious often work so isolatedly and secretively as to not wish to share their ideas with colleagues until copyrights and recognition are secured. The literature also shows how plagiarism is a recurrent problem in scientific work. Professional secrecy is strongly reinforced by private industrial interests that fund scientific research, such as in medical and medicinal industry, in firms with biological and chemical interests and in specialist fields too numerous to list.

The 'cold-fusion' furore in nuclear physics in 1989 illustrated graphically how large a role publicity plays in the dissemination of scientific claims. The timely use of the fax machine to universities and other centres of scientific information get around the usual long drawn out filtering process that serious publication usually involves. Such a revolutionary discovery as nuclear fusion in a test-tube was bound to grab headlines, especially as the usual vetting instances of science were bypassed. This led to official suppression by dubious methods of cold fusion by the scientific power establishment; meanwhile cold fusion is still being researched world-wide nonetheless and with success in scores of laboratories.

A striking idea and an extravagant claim, it is evident, will usually have a much better chance of publicity and eventual acceptance than a more mundane-seeming discovery, however true the facts or lasting the hypotheses are confirmed to be by history. The relative prominence that the more 'mind-boggling' astronomy and astro-physics have achieved in the Western mind is out of all proportion to the social, political or other importance of these fields.

These models and theories have far less explanatory power concerning the human condition and predicament than any of the deeper philosophical or mystical-theological theories of the world. Even the literary novel, poetry etc. has much more to offer in that respect. The all-embracing theories of space, time and physical creation, of black holes and quasars and so on ad infinitum have practically no practical implications of any importance to human society other than the gigantic expenses incurred by the long list of multi-billion dollar experiments, from cyclotrons to space telescopes.


1. Physics in My Generation Max Born. (London 1956).

2. Contemporary Hermaneutics Joseph Bleicher. (London 1980). 3. Science and the Modern World (London 1926).


Continue to Ch. 6: Scientific 'freedom' & Group Interests
The above material is the copyright of Robert Priddy, Oslo 1999.