Interface of Science and Democracy: From the Perspective of a Scientist – II

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Nineteenth-century American interpreters of science offered a narrowly empirical reading based on the work of , as filtered through the writings of the Scottish common-sense realists. But to the scientific democrats it was abundantly clear that morally normative facts were not simply strewn about the landscape to be collected and assembled by any frontiersman. Abandoning common-sense realism, then, the scientific democrats developed a range of new theories based on the work of European thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, Karl Pearson, and Ernst Mach. Here’s the second and final part of the erudite debate by Ashoka, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.

The second shared goal prior to World War I was more subtle, though equally consequential: redefining how scientific inquiry itself was understood. Nineteenth-century American interpreters of science offered a narrowly empirical reading based on the work of Francis Bacon, as filtered through the writings of the Scottish common-sense realists. They held that all individuals possessed a truth-finding faculty that could perceive the orderly, lawful structures of the universe, just as the eye perceived light and shape. Scientific facts were like objects to be collected or discovered, available to all and requiring little analysis beyond systematic classification. The scientist was like a pioneer on the prairie, struggling to organise the elements of an inhuman but morally responsive nature.

But to the scientific democrats it was abundantly clear that morally normative facts were not simply strewn about the landscape to be collected and assembled by any frontiersman. The general public consistently got the facts wrong, and, more importantly, consistently read the social implications of even the most well-established facts – in particular, the irreversible rise of the industrial economy–incorrectly. Abandoning common-sense realism, then, the scientific democrats developed a range of new theories based on the work of European thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, Karl Pearson, and Ernst Mach. These theories, typically designated either positivism or pragmatism, held that the production of scientific knowledge required coordinated effort by specially trained individuals.

When these scientific democrats invoked objectivity as a characteristic of scientific knowledge, they meant neither that the knowledge was absolutely certain, nor that the generalisations, would necessarily hold permanently true. As one researcher summarised recently, “All the great scientists of the last hundred years (and some much earlier ones) have in one place or another clearly stated that their purpose was to create plausible theoretical models for the organisation of and that these models must not be considered representations of absolute reality.” Objectivity, for these theorists, meant that scientific knowledge was as immune as possible to the influence of the observer’s own desires. Science was, in the new theories, most fundamentally a means of error correction, producing not perfect truths but simply the best available truths.

In the wake of World War I, a new variant of scientific democracy appeared, endorsed by such figures as Dewey, Perry, Bryson, and Eduard C. Lindeman. Rather than leave the organization of society to the political-economic conclusions of a small group of scientific experts, this group of ‘deliberative democrats’ wanted to engage the public in the intellectual represented by science. If science was the preeminent form of free communication, then it was also the preeminent means by which the social organism could alter itself democratically. By Dewey’s account, “Society not only continues to exist by transmission, by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication.” Even if substantial socialization of property was the wave of the future, the process would attain only through the public’s active intellectual participation.

The deliberativists agreed with their predecessors that the scientific as such was value neutral, in that it neither forced any particular values nor produced facts that were inherently normative. Yet they suspected that the scientific methodologies inherited from their European predecessors were themselves part of the social problem; science would have to be purified or Americanized so that it could perform its appointed task of buttressing democratisation. So the deliberativists set out to create not merely a new science but what they often called ‘a science of science’–a methodologically self-conscious form of inquiry that, by going beyond both realism and positivism, would automatically generate democratic knowledge. The most influential formulation of this idea was Dewey’s instrumentalism. This philosophy held that all intellectual constructs and even the scientific itself were merely tools for the achievement of values, available for use by any and all actors in the pursuit of any and all conceivable ends.

A purely methodological conception of science had positive consequences for the organization of intellectual life. It allowed the specialized disciplines to claim scientific authority without stepping on each other’s toes. In lieu of transcendent or universal principles, standards of explanation could be determined locally, according to the specific characteristics of the phenomena under investigation. It also provided a quasi-political role for a new group of scientific democrats: first- and second-generation immigrants, almost all of them Jews. These figures were deeply committed to the tenets of democracy, but found the far less egalitarian and open than it proclaimed itself to be. Suspicious of crass business values, and harbouring idealised images of the highly integrated Old World communities they or their parents had left behind, they faced what one historian has called a standing ideological challenge “to relate the myth of America to the context and conditions of modern America.” Tools of inquiry that retained their validity no matter who created or used them offered an important means by which they could help close the cultural gap.

On the other hand, installing this methodological definition of science at the heart of American democratic theory forced a split between institutionally committed religious thinkers – no matter how supportive they were of modern science’s findings – and scientific democrats. A strict insistence on scientific methods ruled out reference to authority or mystical visions as guides to political action. The program of the deliberative democrats was, in this regard, radically secular. And because it denigrated in principle the beliefs and religious convictions held by many ordinary Americans, the movement was never able to win the democratic support its own vision demanded.

The ascendancy of the movement to create a scientific democracy did not in any case last long. The Great Depression, the rise of fascism and Nazism, and America’s entry into World War II and subsequent emergence as a global power with a large standing army presented formidable new challenges to the ideal of a deliberative democracy. By the 1950s, with new support in all quarters for research and a seemingly endless Cold War underway, the language of scientific democracy had lost much of its critical edge.

The rhetorical identification of science with democracy remained a staple of Cold War rhetoric, but in the publicly visible invocations of this equation, both science and democracy were defined in strictly fashion and shorn of the deliberative idealism championed by Dewey. Defenders of science had jettisoned Dewey’s emphasis on science as a tool for the pursuit of human values in favour of rigorous new theories of objectivity that gained their support from the work of the logical empiricists in the new field of philosophy of science. The new, post-war emphasis was summarised by Harvard economics professor John D. Black, writing that the growth of science secured a new Bill of Rights for Americans:

To every man shall be given a job suited to his abilities, or a shop of his own in which to turn out products or services needed by his fellow men, or a piece of land upon which to make a living for his family. To every woman shall be given a home or these same opportunities. To every father and mother shall be given the same opportunities for their children to be well-fed and educated and successful as are given to any other children. No man or woman is entitled to any share of the world’s goods larger than he produces; but he shall be given an opportunity to produce according to his abilities and his ambition and a necessary minimum of food, clothing, and shelter, regardless of his means; and the child shall not be denied an equal opportunity merely because of the poverty of the parent.

Such a deeply chastened consensus set the stage for an inevitable reaction.

When the ideological pressures of the Cold War eased in the early 1960s, a new generation began to wonder why consumption and military spending were politically untouchable. The situation was galling, in part, precisely because educated middle-class Americans– and the generation of the 1960s was no exception–had entertained such lofty political hopes for science and the universities. Faced with the argument that not even those scientists funded by the Department of Defence bore responsibility for the use of their discoveries, many social critics turned against the language of scientific objectivity itself. Believing that they were forced to choose between democratic values and the benefits of science, many Americans were prepared to reject the dream of the scientific democrats and their Enlightenment-inspired vision of a society modelled on the intellectual freedom of scientists.

As they entered academia, these critics retained their focus on science as the ideological core of the American social and political system. Assuming, as had the scientific democrats, that intellectual and institutional change were causally linked, they insisted that the critique of objectivity offered a theoretical lever for moving society toward social justice. In fact, historian Edward A. Purcell, Jr., writes, the “most characteristic and significant intellectual endeavour of the Sixties” was the “attempt to re-evaluate the nature of science: to analyse its sociological bases, to illuminate its political functions, and, above all, to deny its pretensions to exclusive and total access to truth.” The goal was to “dethrone objectivist science as the supreme intellectual authority.”

And as the conservative ascendancy of the 1970s and 1980s swept away hopes of social reconstruction, the critics redoubled their efforts to unmask the pretensions of science to enlighten and liberate. Meanwhile, defensively minded scientists dug in their feet and took a stand for the possibility of objectivity, even if they personally sought different political goals than those articulated by Black. The outspoken entomologist Edward O. Wilson wrote in a characteristic recent passage that “The propositions of the original Enlightenment are increasingly favoured by objective evidence, especially from the natural sciences.” The stage was set for the science wars.

Still, the original vision of scientific democracy has yet to disappear fully from the American scene. Despite the sound and fury of contemporary arguments in the academy, the prospect that science can have cultural as well as material benefits for ordinary Americans has not entirely lost its hold on the national imagination. And while it seems unlikely that any group of will ever voluntarily surrender its hard-won claims to institutional authority, the time may come again when natural and social scientists, leaving behind the disputes of the 1990s, undertake a new joint effort to redeem the promise of democracy under the banner of intellectual freedom.


©Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

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Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the 'most educationally qualified in the world'.
Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad