Sunday, March 28, 2010

Joseph Ben-David - Scientific Growth - Ch. 9: The Profession of Science and Its Powers

Ben-David is looking at scientific research as “profession” with certain defining characteristics including:  higher education as an entry requirement; a monopoly over the practice of their profession; control over who is admitted to their ranks; and a limitation over their contractual obligation to their clients.  But the corporate institutions of scientists need to legitimate their activities within the social order, lest they be seen as subversive, and the scientific method as it is practiced by scientists is one of the tools that is used to prevent subversion, by promoting self-regulation.

Another aspect of the professionalization is the creation of autonomous academies with some official standing, which can provide scientifically competent judgements that would be accepted and honored by the general public.  Such institutions include: the Royal Society of London, which represented science to the public and rewarded scientific discovery and the Paris Academy of Sciences, which was more controlling and came to be perceived as a political body regulating science rather than representing it.

Ben-David claims that in pure or basic science, only the scientific community has the competence to assess the results of research and to make informed estimates about the scientific potentialities of persons and projects (shades of Polanyi) but that when it comes to the application of science, the scientific community is not more capable of judging the practical results of the research or guessing the practical potential of people or projects.  Nor does he believe that the scientific community should act as the allocator of funds between different fields, because purely scientific considerations do not provide all the necessary criteria for a rational choice (shades of Weinberg’s trans-science).  Scientists can, however, estimate the upper limits of the funds that can be expended on research without undue risk of waste and the lowest limit needed to maintain scientific capacity.

He seems to want a middle ground between science and the public, science and governments, and the republic of science and trans-science.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Alvin M. Weinberg - “Science and Trans-Science” - Minerva 10 (1972); 209-22

For Weinberg, the relationship between science and society is more complicated than the view that science provides the means and politics provides the ends.  He wants to introduce the notion of trans-science, the idea that there are questions of fact that can be asked of science, but cannot be answered by science.  Questions such as the biological effects of low-level radiation, or the probability of extremely improbable events.  And even entire disciplines have aspects of trans-science, engineering judgment, for example, or simply the elements of scientific uncertainty that are inherent in any advancing technology.  He also considers the social sciences as trans-scientific, since we can’t predict human behavior (no psycho-history รก la Asimov), because the subject matter is too variable for rationalization.  There is also the axiology of science.  Questions of scientific value, criteria for scientific choice, the valuation of different styles of science, moral and aesthetic judgments.  All of these fall into the realm of trans-science.

But how do we settle the issues of trans-science?  How do we weigh the benefits and risks of new technology?  There is the political process, which establishes priorities and allocates resources.  There are adversary procedures.  The formal, legal and quasi-legal proceedings where opposing views are heard before some sort of board empowered to decide the issue.  But in order for these processes to work, scientists must help define the science/trans-science border and inject some intellectual discipline into the republic of trans-science.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

M Polanyi, "The Republic of Science: its Political and Economic Theory," Minerva 1 (1962): 54-73

Polanyi wants to model the scientific community as a republic, and hence as a political body, with activities coordinated by the mutual adjustment of individual initiatives; each taking into account the activities of the others.  Under this model the problems to be investigated are chosen by the scientific community in order to guarantee that their efforts and resources will not be wasted.  The criteria for their selection are: plausibility; scientific value: accuracy, systematic importance, intrinsic interest; and originality.  He recognizes that there is a tension between the first (plausibility) and the third (originality) criteria.

As a republic, the authority of scientific opinion is mutual and is established between scientists, not over them.  He claims that scientific activities cannot be controlled from a central authority or directed from outside the community in order to serve public interest.  It is an organic growth from existing knowledge to new knowledge and cannot be predicted or shaped.  Any such attempts at direction or shaping will only result in mutilation.  The paradox of the republic of science is that its tradition is one that upholds authority while at the same time cultivating originality.  It is an association of independent initiatives that combine towards an indeterminate achievement.  It is a society of explorers.

No authoritarian technics, here, but neither do we have the federal government controlling science.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

D. Kevles, "The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America" (NY, 1978)

Kevles is writing a history of the professionalization of science (and perhaps of the “Greatest Generation” of scientists?).  He traces the professionalization of science back to the late 19th century (post Civil War).  The goal of the emerging class of scientists (the name was coined by William Whewell in 1840, and replaced the tern “natural philosopher” during this time) was to exclude amateurs, improve the condition of science in the colleges and universities and enlarge the role of science in the federal government.  One of the early marriages between science and the government was the Army sponsorship of geographic and geologic surveys, a connection that linked science and western exploration.

 Even at this early stage of things, the scientific community made the distinction between “abstract” and “practical” science.  Abstract science was the study of nature for the sake of understanding its substance, its workings, its laws.  Practical science was the exploitation of nature and of nature’s laws for the sake of material development.  But the public did not understand this distinction, nor did they understand the dependence of technology on scientific progress.

Of course the connections between science and government grow tighter during military conflicts, especially World War II, where it can probably be claimed that science won the war.  (The Atomic bomb ended the war, radar won it).  The story that Kevles tells us is one of the growing involvement of science with government.  We see increases in federal spending on science, the creation of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, the National Science Foundation, the Atomic Energy Commission, the expansion of military research laboratories.  (Is this authoritarian technics taking over democratic government?)  And ultimately we see the politicization of science with the formation of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and scientists speaking out against government policies and research efforts (ABM, for example, or SDI).

So does science serve society or does society and government serve science?  With the political and social changes that take place in the 60's and 70's we see science going from a position of prestige to one of distrust.  Does science get tarred with same brush as the political institutions?  Or do failures in big science contribute to the distrust of government?  Big science, big government, where do we draw the lines?  Or has government fallen into the technology trap?  Only technology can save us from the problems that technology has created, only technology can provide us with the security that is increasingly hard to find in an increasingly unstable world.  Can we spend our way out of a recession?  Can we invent our way out of the mess that our inventions have left us in?

If science won WWII, did it lose Vietnam?  Are we giving too much agency to science?  Ultimately it all comes down to human beings and how we use the knowledge available to us.  If science has agency, it is because we have given it to it.  The Frankenstein of the novel is the scientist, not the monster, only in the movies does the monster get a name.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Lewis Mumford, "Technics and the Nature of Man," Technology and Culture 7 (1966): 303-17

In this article, Mumford is challenging the basic assumption that defines man as a tool-using animal.  Many anthropologists and ethnologists have made the claim that it was tool use that led to the development of the human brain, but as Mumford rightly points out, there are other species that use tools (chimpanzees, for example) and their tool use has not led them into the same developmental pathways that man has followed.  He would argue that it was the creation of significant modes of symbolic expression, rather than more effective tools, that was the basis of Homo Sapiens’ further development.  As evidence to back up this claim he points out the creation of the cave paintings by an early man that was still quite primitive in terms of the tools he had.

The fixation upon man as the tool user, which may also be an expression of presentism, casting our modern day obsession with machines back upon our ancestors, has led to a fascination with the machine to the exclusion of other aspects of humanity’s existence.  But, Mumford, would argue, at its origins, technics was life-centered, not work-centered or power-centered.  The greatest technical feat of early man was the domestication of plants and animals, a feat that did not require great sophistication in our tools, but did require a concentration upon sexuality in all its varied manifestations, a concentration that was abundantly evident in cult objects and symbolic art (the Venus sculptures, for example).

The mechanization and regimentation of society through industrial and bureaucratic organization eventually replaced religious ritual as a means of promoting the stability of mass populations.  Leading us, ultimately to a present in which the focus of human activity has shifted form an organic environment to the Megamachine, and a future in which all forms of life and culture will be reduced to something that can be translated into the current system of scientific abstractions and transformed en masse to machines and electronic apparatus.

In order to bring technics back into the service of human culture, we need to cease our further expansion of the Megamachine and instead concentrate on the development of those parts of the organic environment and the human personality that have been suppressed.  We must replace automation, the proper end for a machine, with autonomy, the proper end for a human being.