Science In A Better World
refers to an accumulated body of information about the components
of the cosmos and to testable claims or theories about how those
components interact, as well as to the processes by which we add
to our information, claims, and theories, reject them as false,
or determine that they are possibly or even likely true.
personal knowledge that the grass I see from my window is green
is not science. Experiences per se are not science, nor are perceptions,
though both can be valid and important. It isn’t by way of
science that we know what love is or that we are experiencing pain
or pleasure. Science doesn’t teach us how to talk or what to
say in most situations or how to add or multiply numbers. Most of
life, in fact, including even most information discovery and communication,
occurs without doing science, being ratified by science, or denying,
defying, crucifying, or deifying science.
yet, most knowing and thinking, and especially most predicting or
explaining, is much like science, even if it is not science per
se. What distinguishes what we do every day from what we call science
is more a difference of degree than a difference of kind. Perceiving
is perceiving. Claiming is claiming. Respecting evidence is respecting
evidence. What distinguishes scientists doing these things in labs
and libraries is their personal and collective discipline.
doesn’t add new claims about the properties of reality’s
components to its piles of information and its theories, nor does
it assert the truth or falsity of any part of that pile, without
diverse groups of people reproducing supporting evidence and verifying
claims under very exacting conditions of careful collection, categorization,
and calculation. Nor does science advance without reasons to believe
that what is added to the scientific pile has significant implications
vis a vis the pile’s overall character, history, and development.
is most happily added to science’s knowledge pile is checkable
evidence or testable claims or new paths connecting disparate parts
that verify or refute previously in doubt parts of the pile or that
add new non-redundant terrain to the pile, in turn giving hope of
providing new vistas for further exploration.
we look in the sky and say the moon circles the earth, it is an
observation, yes, but it is not yet science. If we detail the motions
of the moon and provide strong evidence for our claims about its
circling the earth that is reproducible and testable by others,
we are getting close to serious science, or even contributing to
it. If we pose a theory about what is happening with the moon, and
we then test our theory’s predictions to see if they are ever
falsified or especially if they predict new outcomes that are surprising
to us, then we are certainly doing science.
defines science as “the
observation, identification, description, experimental investigation,
and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena.” The
defines science as “a branch of study
which is concerned with a body of demonstrated truths or observed
facts, systematically classified by being brought under general
laws, and which includes trustworthy methods for the discovery of
new truths within its own domain.” Seventy-two Nobel Laureates
agreed on the following definition: “Science is devoted to
formulating and testing naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena.
It is a process for systematically collecting and recording data
about the physical world, then categorizing and studying the collected
data in an effort to infer the principles of nature that best explain
the observed phenomena.”
Feynman, one of the foremost physicists of the 20th century, pithily
sums up the whole picture: “During the Middle Ages there were
all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of rhinoceros horn
would increase potency. Then a method was discovered for separating
the ideas— which was to try one to see if it worked, and if
it didn’t work, to eliminate it. This method became organized,
of course, into science.”
can say with confidence that the type of economy a society has can
affect science by affecting the information that is collected and
the claims about it that are explored, the means and procedures
utilized in the collection and exploration, and who is in position
to participate in these processes or, for that matter, even to know
about and be enlightened by science’s accomplishments.
are at least two individual and two social motives that propel science.
First there is pure curiosity, the human predilection to ask questions
and seek their answers.
Why is the sky
if you run at the speed of light next to a burst of light?
What is time
and why does it seem to go only one way?
What is the
smallest piece of matter and tiniest conveyor of force?
How do pieces
of matter and conveyors of force operate?
What is the
universe, its shape, its development?
What is life,
a species, an organism?
How do species
form, persist, get replaced?
socialize, what is an economy, how does it work, and what is a
polity, culture, family, and how do they work?
minds want to know these things even if there is nothing material
to be gained from that knowledge.
second personal motive for science is individual or collective self
interest. Knowledge of the components of reality and their interconnections
sufficient to predict outcomes and even to impact what happens can
not only assuage our curiosity, it can increase the longevity, scope,
range, and quality of life. What is the cause and cure for polio
or cancer? How do birds fly? How does gravity work?
causes us to open the door to the unknown with gigantic desire and
energy; but we drive whole huge caravans through the doors of science
in part because of the benefits we gain. The benefits can come from
the implications of the knowledge itself, but also from remuneration
for scientific labors or achievements. There can be material rewards
for gathering information and for proposing or testing hypotheses
about reality. Pursuit of these rewards is also a motive for doing
science. Likewise, the benefits to be had beyond the satisfaction
of fulfilling one’s curiosity are not confined to material
payment. One can attain status or fame, and doing science is often
at least in part driven by pursuit of the social prizes, notoriety,
stature, and admiration that accompany discovery.
Science and Economics
economy can increase, diminish, or push people’s curiosity
in one direction or another. It can affect as well the ways that
scientific knowledge can directly benefit people, and, of course,
the remuneration and other material rewards bestowed on people for
doing science, as well as the social rewards they garner.
the U.S., science has become ubiquitous revealing the inner secrets
of materials, space, time, bodies, and even, to a very limited extent
as yet, minds. But science has also become, in various degrees and
respects, an agent of capital. Distortion arises when the different
methods and problems scientists utilize are biased by motives other
than scientific inquiry undertaken for its own sake.
journalist George Monbiot reports that “34 percent of the lead
authors of articles in scientific journals are compromised by their
sources of funding, only 16 percent of scientific journals have
a policy on conflicts of interest, and only 0.5 percent of the papers
published have authors who disclose such conflicts.”
the pharmaceutical industry we find that “87 percent of the
scientists writing clinical guidelines have financial ties to drug
subtly, commercial funding and ownership affect what questions are
raised and what projects are pursued. If patent prospects are good,
money flows. If they are bad, even when reasons of general curiosity
or improving human welfare warrant a line of inquiry, funding is
hard to come by.
the most extreme, citizens may wind up “guinea pigs as in the
Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment between 1932 and 1972, or in experiments
between 1950 and 1969 in which the government tested drugs, chemical,
biological, and radioactive materials on unsuspecting U.S. citizens;
or [as in] the deliberate contamination of 8,000 square miles around
Hanford, Washington, to assess the effects of dispersed plutonium.”
On a larger scale, in the U.S. the Pentagon now controls about half
the annual $75 billion federal research and development budget with
obvious repercussions for the militarization of priorities.
recently sat on an airplane next to an MIT biologist interested
in human biological functions and dysfunctions. He was not at all
political or ideological, but he had no confusions about the way
things work. “What we do, what we can do, even what we can
think of doing,” he told me, “is overwhelmingly biased
by the need for funding, which, nowadays, means the need for corporate
funding or, if government, then a government that is beholden overwhelmingly
to corporations or to militarism. More, the corporations plan on
a very short time horizon. If you can’t make a very strong
case for short run profits, forget about it. Find something else
to pursue, unless you can convince the government your efforts will
increase killing capacities.”
Good Society Science
would be different about science in a good society, one with a participatory
economy, say, rather than with capitalism? Four primary structural
things would change, which in turn have many implications.
scientist would work at a balanced job complex, having a mix of
responsibilities balanced for empowerment and quality of life
effects, like everyone else, rather than occupying a higher or
lower position in a pecking order of power.
scientist would be remunerated for duration, intensity, and, to
the extent relevant, difficulty of their work, not for power or
output, much less for property.
scientist, with other workers in his or her scientific institution—whether
it’s a lab, university, research center, or other venue—would
influence decisions in proportion as he or she is affected by
The level of
resources that future scientists will be allotted to engage in
their pursuits will be determined by the overall economic system
via participatory planning, with self management.
a result future science will no longer be dependent on power and
wealth—indeed these won’t even exist in centralized forms—nor
will those involved in scientific pursuits earn more or less remuneration
or enjoy more or less power than those involved in other areas.
there be huge expenditures on tools for advancing our knowledge
of the 15th decimal point of nuclear interactions or the 14 billionth
light year distant galaxy even before we have figured out how to
reduce the hardships of mining coal or containing or reversing its
impact on the ecology or before we develop alternative energy sources?
Will research be undertaken on grounds of military applications
instead of on grounds of implications for knowing our place in a
are questions that will arise and be answered only when we have
a new society. What commitment to a future vision tells us is the
broad procedure people will follow, not the specific outcomes that
people will choose, though we can certainly make intelligent guesses
about the latter, as well.
the latest and greatest particle accelerator project was being debated
in the U.S., a congressperson asked a noted scientist who was arguing
for allocating funds to the super collider, what its military benefits
would be. The scientist replied it would have no implications for
weaponry, but it would help make our society worth defending. The
scientist’s motivations and perceptions failed to impress Congress,
which voted against the project.
we know that a future society would have allotted the billions required?
No. We don’t know one way or the other. But we do know that
the final decision would be based not on the project’s military
benefits, but rather on how the project would contribute to making
society a more desirable and wiser place.
a desirable post-capitalist economy would in no way inhibit scientific
impulses. Instead it would greatly enhance them both due to having
an educational system that seeks full participation and creativity
from everyone and due to allotting to science what a free and informed
populace agrees to. Science, in the sense of creatively expanding
the range and depth of our comprehension of the world, depends on
real freedom—which is to say real control over our lives to
pursue what we desire.
is co-founder of South End Press and Z Communications. He is currently
on the staff of ZNET. He has written numerous books on politics and
vision including his most recent
Parecon: Life After Capitalism