Reimagining Science for Our Future

Complexity murmuration

Where will science be in the future?  If we argue against the excesses and anomalies of Modernity – the metaphor of the reducible machine, knowable by breaking everything into soulless bits – and we also argue that many of the philosophical ideas of the Pre-Modern have merit – connection, belonging, enchantment, virtue, the irreducibility of many though not all things – then we get a curious response.  You want to go back to the dark ages?!   One cannot step forwards perhaps.

One of the features of Descartes was his setting up of such either-or dichotomies; body from soul, culture from nature etc.  And so questioning Modernity apparently means we want us to go back to the past – to the Pre-modern – when what we are really searching for is something that is neither one nor the other, but new, and perhaps incorporates the best of both.

Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis.  Pre-Modern, Modern, Future.   Richard Lewontin raises this new way here in his Massey Lecture series. Lewontin - Constructing a third view.png Neither pre-modern, nor modern, but a Third Way.

I do think Science has to work within a wider epistemological context to avoid the trap of Modernity, and our potential destruction.  It has to get out of the trap of taking Modernity’s metaphor of a the world as a machine, and turning that metaphor into a real thing within their own minds.  Parts of our world are *like* a machine in some ways, but they are not machines.  Dispassion can be both a virtue and a vice in both searching for knowing, and in acting upon that presumed knowing.  It depends.  And it is a moral (i.e. a value) position to presume that you can frame the planet, people, even life, as inert ‘things’.

Besides being very clear that the machine metaphor is merely a convenient – and often contextually wrong – social construct (i.e. supposedly objective science that lives and breathes the machine metaphor is based upon an unscientific metaphysic, for those who delight in ironies), science has to embrace complexity and reject Ceteris Paribus, the idea that the rest of the world remains unaffected by the focus of the effects of shifts in variable A on variable B.  You never do one thing in a complex system.  You have to be very careful in framing real-world complexity as a simple machine.

ComplexityScienceScience also has to see its place within a moral policy-making world, and within a wider knowledge system.  Once you see yourself as influenced by social context, you can judge what suits a science that advances our commonwealth of knowledge, and contrast that with a science that serves the interests of private power and a dominant idea.

Unquestionably, one of the very worse external influences on science from that wider policy-making environment is extreme Modern versions of economics, and from that exemplar of dispassionate sociopathy – the Corporate world view.  Yet some idiot in Treasury thought corporatising New Zealand government science would be a smashing idea.  It was – smashing – in a way.  More on that later.

But back to morality and a broader metaphysical milieu.  To say that science is unconcerned about morality and metaphysics is positivist nonsense (positivism relates to what ‘is’ as a ‘fact’ – the presumed preserve of science by those called positivists – or scientism).  The questions, the framing of the methodology, interpretation; all have normative influences (what ‘ought’ to be as a ‘value’).

Paradigms underpinned by assumptions.gif

Paradigms are underpinned by ontological and epistemological assumptions

You cannot divorce fact from value.  Else why put this particular question for science to answer if there is not a ought relating to that question?  Why this methodological framing?  Why this interpretation?  Why structure scientific enquiry in this way?  Ask down the responses – why?  why? –  and you get to values, morality and metaphysics as the bedrock.

Take an extreme, as practiced when the machine metaphor was undiluted by social outrage.  If the animal is *just* a machine, then live vivisection is morally irrelevant, moral questions need not arise.  In modern days, which we hope are more enlightened, if genetics is deterministic and predictable, and corporate commerce is benign, then corporately-sponsored genetically engineered food requires neither moral nor strategic critique.  Only  quantitative scientific critique is relevant, and even then, only such scientific critique as is consistent with the mechanical metaphysic – in other words, only critique that confers with our unquestioned metaphysics and value framing need apply.   Objectively, of course.

But what if your metaphysics is entirely wrong?  What if mega-corporations are far from benign, and consistently deal in power games and the management of public perceptions?  What if you are dealing with a complex, inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable system?  Thirty to forty thousand human genes manifesting as over 140,000 traits would suggest that is a relevant question.  The metaphysical milieu matters.  It is integral to science as practiced.  Science is not and never has been an inert soulless rock of objectivity orbiting far above humanity.

V0017128 A physiological demonstration with vivisection of a dog. Oil

Emile-Edouard Mouchy 1832 Live Vivisection

If you want to look at extremes of normative influence – of the reality of there being a sociology or ‘political ecology’ of science – look no further than money and sales.  Solving things – a moral and policy-influencing emphasis most would contest as ‘good’ – is what science has done for us in the past, and still does in most cases.  It was once particularly good.  In New Zealand, we once had a very adaptive and well-connected knowledge system from crown research arms of government departments to policy makers (who were often departmental and professional colleagues) and to the experiential wisdom of the those of us who lived and worked within a place.

It was connected, not atomised into silos.  It was collaborative.  Today we would call it a very good ‘knowledge system’ – motivated, socially-connected and caring people, working with others to define the context and sort out a problem or examine an opportunity.  Ideas and action didn’t have to go through the administrative torture of contested bids and milestone reporting.  More efficient, more effective, more adaptable, more rewarding, more motivating, focused on solving not selling.  But the high priests of mechanical Modernity – neoliberal economists – destroyed it.  They made our science more Modern, and arguably a lot less wise with the increased competitive disconnection they created in the image of their own supposedly objective idea of mechanical market-dictates-the-good virtue.

In 1992, someone with an economics degree had the bright idea of bringing the apparently superior and much more Modern social construct of corporatism and money into the fray – to improve effectiveness of course – and we got a reemphasis on bureaucracy (because scientist can’t be trusted to care about solving things) in the interests of accountability (which was supposed to lead to ‘efficiency’ which in turn would lead to ‘effectiveness’).  They also created horror stories of inefficiency, with various reports of administrative costs of 60 percent and more to ensure those profligate scientists spent our money wisely.  Nice job, chaps.

Science in New Zealand took a step back from integrated knowledge into the competitive and uncooperative silos of Modernity, and the focus of New Zealand government science shifted from knowing and solving to emphasising business managers over scientists and creating products to sell.

science-corruptedThere is a reason why many feel that short-term commercial imperatives are the corrupter of science.  Tobacco industry science.  And that is but one example of a normative influence.

There are lessons here.  To acknowledge and work within those sociological and philosophical realities requires science to embrace and learn from the Humanities, because Science is so obviously integral to humanity and to Humanitarian studies.  What happened in New Zealand science structures cannot be defined as an objective state.  There is sociology, politics and philosophy in spades.

Acknowledging and critiquing the reality of that wider knowledge system potential includes not just a sense and dialogue around what is ‘good’ as virtue, duty and vice (rather than what is expedient and what exploitation can be rationalised using utilitarian numbers) but also an acceptance that the practical wisdom (Aristotle’s Phronesis) of knowing what to do in this place, here, now, requires an acknowledgment of the knowing of those who are connected to a community and a place over time.  We had a certain type of science prior to 1992.  We have a much more disconnected and archetypically Modern version today.   There are all types of science.  We used to be more connected with and respectful of experiential knowing (aka, the field) understanding that it does not represent an ‘inferior’ knowing, but something integral to wisdom.

Create a more disconnected science in the image of the Modern machine, and you create a more arrogant science, a less knowing science, a less fallibilist science ( in the sense of having the curiousity to doubt rather than believe), a more fallible science that sees only what it wants to see with disregard for the charging bull, a more quasi-religious type of scientism thats place itself on a false pedestal of knowing.  And we end up with less wisdom, and the machines of Modernity accelerating toward the thresholds we are heading toward.  We increase the frequency of mistake, and possible the severity of those mistakes.

A future science would embrace complexity and reject Ceteris Paribus, which means endorsing  fallibilism and humility as key scientific tenets ; it would see and realise its place within a moral policy-making world, and within a wider knowledge system.  Part of that would involve embracing and learning from the Humanities without any sense that the STEM subjects are either superior, or that Humanities and Art live in separate Modern atomised silos that compete with Science.  And it would completely reject the continuation of a corporate business structure for government science as a major corrupting influence on these very changes to Lewontin’s Third Way that are needed.

This is not an argument for rejecting science – and it is certainly not an attack on science, however much some will see it so –  it is an argument for a better science that serves the wider commonwealth of knowledge; a strong rejection of scientism (any idea of there being a ‘faith’ of science); a move toward a better knowledge system where science doesn’t see itself as a superior driver by some metaphorical machine emphasising reductionism.  It is a part of knowledge, not the whole.  Thinking otherwise just leads to the continued treadmill of more technofixes created in response to symptoms that previous technofixes have caused, ad infinitum.  We need to step beyond that morass to ensure the direction and questions are relevant.

It is a reimagining.

Chris Perley


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3 Responses to Reimagining Science for Our Future

  1. B.J.Ridler says:

    The bidding process for “science” effectively removes the likelihood of new ideas emerging. The content required is laid out before the bid can be submitted and the milestones agreed to (to obtain the funding) eliminate any possibility of following interesting “side roads” to new knowledge.

    So we are left with a static scientific environment (or one designed to provide the results required by those who control the funds – “a more quasi-religious type of scientism thats place itself on a false pedestal of knowing.”) rather than an innovative and dynamic one.

    I wonder if many now really understand the concept of “humility” because without out it, statism will win and we will all lose?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. fenemora says:

    Science learning from the humanities is indeed a laudable aim, and scientists as humble but critical observers also laudable. But unfortunately incompatible with the current competitive and ego-driven bidding model. But how do we re-imagine science in that third realm between native intuition and infinitesimal reductionism? I think there are some subtleties in all this, related to the types of science we are talking about. Reductionism has a place in basic physics; it seems more limited in the social sciences.


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