The science wars express something more than a substantive debate over epistemological issues, and something deeper than a dispute over academic status. What we are witnessing is a new chapter in an ongoing struggle over the meaning of modern science. Here’s Ashoka’s erudite and in-depth analysis of the subject, in two parts, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.
Commentators sometimes claim that sociological factors explain the intensity of the conflict, and that this philosophical quarrel gains its emotional tenor from an underlying struggle over academic turf. Thomas F. Gieryn argues, for example, that sociologists and literary theorists are trying to portray their own disciplines as the only sources of authoritative judgment–an assertion that physicists, chemists, and biologists naturally dispute. The science wars, he writes, are a series of “credibility contests in which rival parties manipulate the boundaries of science in order to legitimate their beliefs about reality and secure for their knowledge-making a provisional epistemic authority that carries with it influence, prestige, and material resources.”
For Gieryn what is really at stake is social status. But I am not convinced. I believe that the science wars express something more than a substantive debate over epistemological issues, and something deeper than a dispute over academic status. What we are witnessing is a new chapter in an ongoing struggle over the meaning of modern science. American democracy, at least, in the United States of America.
This is a struggle that took shape in the first half of the twentieth century, especially during the 1920s and 1930s. The vigorous debates of that period about the political meaning of science inform today’s political, institutional, and cultural climate, and by reconsidering them we may discover the deep roots and true stakes of the science wars today.
In the late nineteenth century, a few Americans began to argue that the nation could best guarantee its political health by expanding its scientific institutions. After the turn of the century, an increasingly broad group of academics–some based in the natural sciences but most in the social sciences, philosophy, history, and educational theory – were joined in this endeavour by journalists and educators outside the academy who agreed that science held great social promise.
This group of ‘scientific democrats’ included (to name only a few of the most famous) the philosopher John Dewey, President Herbert Hoover, the physicist Robert A. Millikan, the anthropologist Franz Boas – and Vannevar Bush, the electrical engineer who directed the wartime effort to build the first atomic bomb. They constituted a large proportion, perhaps even an outright majority, of those Americans engaged in research, study, and writing during the first half of the twentieth century. And, although their views were far from uniform, they shared enough ideas that we can consider them a social movement.
For the scientific democrats, the most salient fact of American life during the Gilded Age was the spread of egoistic and self-seeking behaviour. As the frontier closed and the economy industrialised, the nation seemed increasingly in danger of developing some of the most feared solvents of a republican society: a permanent class of dependent wage earners and an economically parasitic elite
One response was the Social Gospel movement in American Protestantism. Theologians of this bent emphasised that the path to individual salvation ran through social salvation, and they advocated for, among other moralities, the worker’s right to a living wage and safe working conditions. Other responses included socialism and trade unionism
But the scientific democrats felt that none of these programs could adequately address the political challenges of an industrial society. Since most of these democrats had been raised in evangelical Protestant environments, they still believed that personal benevolence was central to solving the nation’s industrial woes. They, therefore, rejected what they saw as the narrowly material goals of the socialists and the trade unionists.
Yet they also moved away from institutional Protestantism, believing that it was still tainted by a stringent Calvinist emphasis on self-denial and failed to explain how benevolence, by itself, could transform a complex industrial society. The “major problem of life,” as Ralph Barton Perry put it, was to foster simultaneously “sentiments” and “modes of organization” by which “human suffering may be mitigated, and by which every unnecessary thwarting of human desire may be eliminated.”
To solve this problem, the scientific democrats proposed a return to the scientific method, as they understood it. (By the standards of contemporary physics or biology, what they meant by ‘science’ was quite broad–it implied a general commitment to the experimental investigation and theoretical explanation of a variety of phenomena, both natural and social.) In their optimistic view, modern science had proved its power in practice, by harnessing natural resources and creating new inventions such as the steam engine and the railroad, creating an industrial society with the potential to overcome scarcity. The task now was to apply the methods of modern science to the improvement of social organization itself. The application of such methods might allow the nation to close the gap between its professed ideals and the realities of industrial social life, by organizing a new kind of political community that was capable of enlightened self-rule
By taking as givens both political democracy and an industrial system based on extensive personal interdependence, the scientific democrats were forced to reject the nineteenth-century equation of civic virtue with economic independence. In effect, the scientific democrats neatly severed the two halves of what Sacvan Bercovitch describes as the nineteenth-century American model of “representative selfhood”: “independence of mind” and “independence of means.” What virtue, they asked, was economic independence supposed to have protected in the first place?
Their answer was intellectual freedom, a social-psychological state that allowed the individual to participate constructively in collective action and decision making. The problem, as they saw it, was to restore the intellectual freedom that had been lost during the rise of the industrial economy. According to Lyman Bryson, “scientific or objective thinking” was the source of “the only kind of freedom that is worth having, the freedom to use the mind in all its untrammeled strength and to abide by clearly seen conclusions.” And in order to keep the people from “suffering at the hands of those who have the knowledge and would use it against them,” Bryson continued, society had to provide for “common ownership” of such “effective thought.” Science would protect the public against not only errors in judgment, but also “enslavement” by the more knowledgeable. Universal access to science would liberate the public from its mental bondage.
To modern ears, the scientific democrats’ program may sound as deeply authoritarian as the intellectual tyranny they feared. But the now common charge that these figures imposed a concrete ethical system under the cover of absolute neutrality misses the point, for the scientific democrats defined intellectual freedom in far different terms than we do. Scholars have long noted that Progressive Era reformers developed a positive notion of political freedom, in which removing obstacles to action only the first step toward making was freely chosen action possible. The scientific democrats understood intellectual freedom in equally positive terms, conceiving it as the possession of sufficient resources to think effectively in a social setting, rather than as merely the absence of coercion. “No man and no mind,” Dewey wrote in 1927, “was ever emancipated by being left alone.” Freedom was a product of social relations, not of the escape from them. Meanwhile, science seemingly reinforced the point that an attitude of pure neutrality or pure self-seeking was counterproductive; what characterized science as a cultural practice was the participants’ emotional commitment to the pursuit of collective truths.
During its first phase, in the years before World War I, the movement for scientific democracy centered on two goals. The first was increasing the cognitive and social authority of science. This meant familiarizing the public with the inevitability of industrialization, as well as expanding the predictive power of the physical and social sciences, establishing these disciplines on a firmer professional basis, and strengthening the universities with which these disciplines were increasingly associated. Despite internal divisions, the nascent movement united during these early years behind a general program of persuading Americans that a commitment to ‘science’– however vaguely defined – promoted social integration and the only kind of democracy compatible with an industrial society.
[To be continued]
©Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
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