The following article was originally written in 2013 but in the light of the EU Referendum, which has been characterised as a triumph of ignorance and misinformation over knowledge and reason, I thought it was worth giving it another airing. I strongly dispute the above caricature of the EU debate. Certainly Michael Gove’s comments that “people in this country have had enough of experts” weren’t helpful but they did tap into a growing disconnection between academia and the wider population. Rather than hand-wringing and decrying the “ignorance” of the working class (and it is always the working class who are blamed for this) academics might want to ask why this distrust of experts has gained so much traction. That was what I was musing on back in 2013…
This blog is named after a passage from Mikhail Bakunin’s God & The State,
“(Do) I reject all authority? Far from me such a thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the boot maker… For such or such special knowledge I apply to such or such a savant. But I allow neither the boot maker nor the architect nor the savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism censure. I do not content myself with consulting authority in any special branch; I consult several; I compare their opinions, and choose that which seems to me the soundest. But I recognize no infallible authority, even in special questions.”
Bakunin recognised that we needed experts to help us understand the universe but he also recognised that experts were subject to social factors that could undermine their objectivity. In a world where science is painted as a neutral and objective arbiter of a rational world, we have to remember that science does not take place in a vacuum – and if we can argue that our mere presence can alter the outcome of an experiment then we must also recognise that multiple layers of power and wealth relationships will also exert a distorting influence. This is not to denigrate science. If anything, it is an echo of William Morris‘ call for us all to become, as much as we are able, polymaths for the good of society,
“What I claim is liberal education; opportunity, that is, to have my share of whatever knowledge there is in the world according to my capacity or bent of mind, historical or scientific; and also to have my share of skill of hand which is about in the world, either in the industrial handicrafts or in the fine arts… I claim to be taught, if I can be taught, more than one craft to exercise for the benefit of the community.”
Champion of popular science, Robin Ince recently warned against the danger of dumbing-down science in order to make it more accessible. Undoubtedly our modern technological world would be inoperable without people specialising in certain fields. It would be a mistake to dumb-down a field of knowledge to facilitate the participation of those who had limited knowledge of the subject – even in the name of democracy – but herein lies the problem; there is a deficit of democracy in the quest for knowledge – and we all suffer for our collective failure to address it. We do not live in a world where the quest for knowledge can be pure. We live in a world of wealth, power and patronage – and, for all their protestations to the contrary, scientists do also. You don’t have to look any further than Charles Darwin and the corruption of his theory of evolution into a four-word mantra for free market economics, to see that we live in a world where scientific knowledge is used to justify economic and political ideologies. It doesn’t matter that it was Herbert Spencer and not Charles Darwin who gave us “survival of the fittest”. Nor does it matter that in Mutual Aid, Pyotr Kropotkin showed that co-operation was the key to our collective survival. What matters is how scientific findings are understood by society as a whole – and how they are acted on. This simplification of theories into sound-bites may well be exactly what Ince was referring to. But this isn’t dumbing-down in the name of democracy. It is dumbing-down in the name of privilege.
Pierre Bourdieu described how the wealthy and powerful convert economic capital into knowledge capital which in turn will be used to multiply their economic capital. Scientists and politicians might belittle social theory as a woolly “soft” science compared to their “hard” testable sciences. But, if we want to test Bourdieu’s theory we can see examples of such behaviour all around. Just look at the petro-chemical industries funding of global warming debunkers, the tobacco industry’s similar approach to the ill effects of smoking or the GM industries aggressive and often litigious approach to studies into bio-diversity. This has significant consequences for us all – so we need independent experts – perhaps more than we ever have.
But if you want to study to join the ranks of the experts it is increasingly difficult to do so if you are poor – or even lower middle class. The Russell Group of universities are now pushing for fees of £16,000 pa. Their argument is that excellence costs – and in doing so they have provided us with another neat example of knowledge capital being transferred to economic capital! Apparently, excellence will only be found amongst those in the population who can afford to spend the best part of £50,000 on a degree that is already uncertain to deliver the much vaunted graduate premium – unless you have the contacts to make it pay. If the Russell Group really believed in excellence they would be pushing for better state funding to open up Higher Education to all. Of course the traditional HE model cannot cope with the scale of intake being suggested – so we are faced with a logical choice. Do we limit access to HE by selection, be it academic or economic, or do we see increased access to HE as being part of our human evolution and enable our HE provision to evolve with it? If this is not going to lead to dumbing-down but wising-up then it means using new technology to deliver a good quality and well supported distance learning HE option rather than the two-tier system that is developing with web-based MOOCs.
This inequality among the ranks of experts matters because all research requires interpretation of data – and in that act of interpretation the researcher will bring their own life experience to bear. Obviously their work is open to peer review – but who are their peers? If the only people who can afford to become expert researchers come from the upper classes then this will inevitably impact on their interpretation of the data. Although in “hard science” this might not matter so much, in socio-political and economic research this could be catastrophic for any claims of objectivity. And, despite claims to the contrary, the borders between the “soft” and “hard” sciences are extremely porous. As Boris Johnson proves, we have not come so far from the scientific quackery of eugenics that we could not slip back. Just look at the way the poor are increasingly blamed for their own condition. This can only be challenged by those who understand the experience of being poor having the opportunity to argue their case on equal terms to the “experts” – and if we agree that experts are an important element of our modern world then the only alternative is to enable the poor to gain the education that enables them to join the ranks of the experts. If we are genuine in our wish to be a modern knowledge based society this is essential.
Another consequence of us not democratising access to knowledge is the propensity for scare stories to snowball. Andrew Wakefield is widely vilified in the scientific community for what is generally seen to be his flawed research into cases of autism and the MMR vaccine causing a catastrophic drop in vaccinations. Of course this viewpoint is contested and it was with great trepidation I agreed for my own child to have the MMR. There are those who would see the state step in to enforce such vaccinations but this rather misses the point. Rather than vilifying individuals for heretical research perhaps the academic establishment should ask why such ideas gain traction. There is clearly a popular distrust of science – and what we need to be asking is why that should be the case. All too often, those with vested interests are the ones who have the resources to fund research programmes. Again we see examples of transferable capital reinforcing the position of big business. While many scientists reject the suggestion that he who pays the piper calls the tune, the likes of the tobacco, global warming and GM debates suggest there is considerable truth in this. Even if not actually influencing the conclusions of the research then in choosing the direction and nature of research that is to be funded. Nobel scientist Randy Schekman recently claimed this process also extends to what gets published in prestige journals. Those who challenge the status quo often face personalised attacks which can end their careers. Not long ago it was Árpád Pusztai’s research into GM crops that was being attacked – and now it is Gilles-Eric Séralini. After a while this control becomes internalised with researchers knowing what sorts of projects will get funding, which will be considered “serious science”. Similar processes to those identified by Chomsky as creating a false consensus in the media have also been identified by Ron Westrum in science, where collegial recognition is such a powerful social reward that scientific promise is not considered independently of others reactions to it. As Max Planck said, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Thomas Kuhn’s model of paradigms of scientific progress posits a disciplinary matrix of what constitutes good science in the normal phase of science. However he argued that during scientific revolutions new methods and ways of understanding are adopted to meet challenges for which the previous scientific model was inadequate. Does corporate power add another impenetrable layer that prevents science from progressing, leaving it in a state whereby the only science allowed to thrive is that which reinforces the primacy of free market ideology? What does this mean for a society that claims to have rational scientific method as its guiding principle?
In Against Method and Science In A Free Society Paul Feyerabend argued that, although science has been an instrument of enlightenment and liberation, there was nothing in it that was inherently liberating and that now, exempt from criticism, scientific ideas are taught in schools in the same way as religious ideas once were. In this way he suggested that science was actually a threat to democracy and undeserving of its privileged position. He argued for the separation of science and state in the same way as church and state have been separated in some countries. Furthermore he suggested that we should be skeptical of experts who he said should be controlled democratically by juries of laypeople. Feyerabend argued for a free society in which all traditions had equal access to the centres of power. Obviously this opens the door to creationism, eugenics and all sorts of other viewpoints that are anathema to modern science – but this is the logical consequence of elitism in knowledge! It is not the democratisation of knowledge that leads to dumbing-down but the elitism. If knowledge is retained by an small group of experts whose links with the economic elite become self-supporting and exclusive, then science’s claim to be the pursuit of objective truth becomes suspect. Once knowledge is preserved among the elite, science becomes as esoteric as religion and the choice between the bearded man in the clouds and the bearded man in the cords becomes, quite literally, an act of faith. The relationship between science, wealth and the state becomes as dangerous as the relationship between religion, wealth and the state. If this elite group of experts, whose position is so defined by patronage and self-referencing, demand acceptance of their truth and cast out heretics as dogmatically as the church ever did, then the free interplay of ideas that drives progress becomes too embroiled with the politics of privilege. How can we then be surprised when the rejection of science arrives hand in hand with the rejection of wealth and power – no matter how erroneously?
There can also be another reason for this rejection. Western science tends to offer primacy to the measurable “objective” over experiential “subjective”. One could argue that this has served us pretty well – but beyond simple counting and measuring it begins to break down. Again, subjectivity rapidly intrudes, despite protestations to the contrary. Why does the world that is measured have more value than the world that is experienced? It could be argued that this is numerical data is prioritised precisely because it is easily measured whereas individual experiences are difficult if not impossible to quantify or measure and not because subjective experience is of less value. Of course you can ask people to self-assess on a numerical scale – but this introduces at least two elements of subjectivity; the person who creates the scale and the person who interprets the scale. But does this matter? Yes. We measure to quantify. We measure to compare. Does it really matter if a third party can “objectively” measure the pain felt by two people? Can one person’s suffering be reduced by comparison to another’s? Do we then decide that their suffering is more acceptable than the others? Do we quantify a person’s usefulness to society in the same way? Of course we can see evidence of such decisions being made every day – and they are based on rational foundations. On science. Or so we are told. But is it really? Or is it based on a selective reading of science being used to legitimise political action.
In 2004, 60 scientists, including 20 Nobel Laureates, accused the Bush administration ofdistorting scientific data for political ends but as we have seen, scientists are likely to be shot down if they challenge the status quo. Recently Ian Boyd, Chief Scientific Advisor to DEFRA, quite explicitly warned scientists against dissent, pointing out that “there is no imperative for science to be included in policy making.” In other words, science is co-opted to lend credence to political activity but politicians will ignore them if the science does not fit the policy – or the economics. Therefore our society’s claim to be based on rational, scientific grounds does not stand up to scrutiny. Ironically, the marginalisation of science that so worries scientists when discussed by Feyerabend has already happened – but it has been marginalised by power and economics rather than democracy and superstition. The rich have consulted their cobbler – and finding his expertise not to their liking, they have rejected it in favour of some other cobblers they have bought and paid for.
So is science irredeemably compromised? No. Compromised it certainly is – but not irredeemably so. We achieve nothing by being anti-science, anti-knowledge or anti-expert. But we do need to recognise, and more importantly challenge, the socio-political processes that compromise scientific method. We also need to recognise that our current scientific method is inadequate if it can only deal with the quantifiable. It is no longer acceptable to reduce human existence to a mechanistic model. There is no logic in an argument that refuses to consider aspects of existence that do not lend themselves to simple measuring – just on the basis that we are not able to measure them. That is a reductive argument that is as dangerous as any fundamentalist religious dogma because it lends credence to the view that only the quantifiable has value. It is an argument ideally suited to a short-termist free market ideology – but not one suited to a holistic understanding of the integrated, interconnected world that we undoubtedly live in. So we need to evolve – and science, as a core part of our understanding and interaction with the world around us, likewise needs to evolve. It needs to become collaborative again rather than combative – often so combative that it ends up being mediated by the courts. We need more knowledge distributed among more people, creating more experts and enabling more people to consider more ideas within a more robust scientific method that recognises and seeks to avoid the distorting effects of power and wealth. That is the path to progress – but it is not the only path we are offered. We have a choice. We can allow things to stay as they are; a select few get their place among the elite in return for allowing themselves to be wheeled out as a rationalist fig leaf to cover naked power and corruption. Or we have the courage of our forefathers, to re-imagine human civilisation and its place in the universe. We can make popular science a popular movement; part of a much needed New Enlightenment which reclaims rationalism from the corporate religion of greed.