I should clear up the obvious question – no, I am not a ‘political scientist’ by training or profession.
I think, however, that I could legitimately call myself a scientist and I certainly am interested in politics and the political dimension of what it is to be human.
On this website, ‘Political Scientist’ is used in the sense that Steven Pinker used it in his book The Blank Slate. (He was, as usual, being clever – so I’ve borrowed his cleverness, though perhaps with opposite intent to his.)
Science came along at much the same time as modernity and mercantilism. It was part of the project of progress and very much a part of European politics. A lot of the work of the early scientists was to do with calculating the trajectories of cannon balls, improving the engineering of defensive walls and inventing new and better weapons. If you’ve ever wondered why the physics of mechanics and astronomy were the first to ‘take off’, there’s your reason – the powerful rewarded just that kind of science (astronomy, of course, helped seafaring navigation).
Far from being a disinterested search for the ‘truth’, science – and scientists – were concerned with highly practical matters that their patrons and masters were also particularly interested in.
There’s another interesting fact about early scientists: Many of them were also magicians. That is, they were into various occult attempts to gain control over the world, from alchemy to astrology. The link between science and magic, therefore, is the pursuit of control over the natural world.
The idea that science has become much ‘purer’ and is now a simple search for the truth, despite such very socially, economically and historically embedded origins is, therefore, a nice idea in these supposedly democratic and benign times – but there is very little support for it.
Going back to Pinker’s book, the ‘Political Scientists’ he referred to in the title of Chapter Six in that book were, specifically, those scientists who were clear and explicit about their political affiliations and who saw their scientific work as a means for progressing those ends.
The predictable spectre Pinker raises over the openness of these ‘political scientists’ and their convictions is that of political ideology interfering with the production of scientific knowledge – less in the work of these scientists (after all, it is peer reviewed like any other) but more in their efforts to publicly counter the work of other scientists. The first pages of that chapter are accounts of how biologists and psychologists such as E.O. Wilson, Robert Trivers and Richard Herrnstein were responded to by fellow scientists.
The very first page, however, refers to an address that Pinker attended as a graduate student by the computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum. Pinker was, apparently, quite perturbed by Weizenbaum warning that – amongst other things – the computer program devised by Alan Newell and Herbert Simon to apply analogical reasoning, in Pinker’s words, “was really designed to help the Pentagon come up with counterinsurgency strategies in Vietnam” and that Weizenbaum had claimed that “the only conceivable reason to study speech perception was to allow the CIA to monitor millions of telephone conversations simultaneously” (p. 105).
I’ll put aside the question of how accurately Pinker has related Weizenbaum’s claims in that address. I’d just note that Weizenbaum’s suspicions reflect, fairly accurately, the necessary and sufficient conditions for the growth of scientific knowledge – that it be compatible with the interests of the powerful (or of those groups gaining in power).
Pinker’s account in The Blank Slate also misses the obvious – that being political is unavoidable. Why do I say that?
A naturalistic view of human values and morality – of the kind David Hume assumed – makes it certain that all our acts are inherently ‘political’. Action manifests values/ends and the contest over the enactment of values is the heart of political intent.
It would be an astounding fact – one which, in Popperian terms, would falsify naturalism- if it were discovered that individual scientists were not acting politically. Pinker can accept (and report) that “liberal and conservative attitudes are largely, though far from completely, heritable” (Pinker, 2003, p. 283) but cannot see that, at the level of the individual scientist, that might affect all scientists perceptions (what they see, what ‘stands out’ for them).
But what he and those who run similar arguments seem particularly unable to understand is that the ‘natural variation’ in the perceptions of scientists then gets filtered through the institutions of science (with their deep links to power and wealth) so that only certain scientists’ perceptions dominate.
For all he castigates ‘political scientists’ for trying to quash the views of other (‘non-political’) scientists, look at whose accounts now dominate the media reporting, the coffee table books and the daily conversations of the ‘intelligent layperson’. It’s not those of the ‘political scientists’.
That’s an interesting social fact. How is it to be explained? Has the truth simply won out? Or has the ‘right’ account of – in this case – human nature won because of its ‘fit’ with modern, consumer capitalism and free markets?
I’ll be exploring some of these questions in my posts.
I should put my political cards on the table. I believe we are social beings first and foremost. A scientist cannot transcend the political – we are all political scientists.
Science may have a chance of at least generating some transcendent understanding to the extent that scientific activity truly is a political contest. In Hegelian or even Marxist terms, it is the dialectic that allows something beyond the thesis and antithesis to emerge.
Ironically, by criticising ‘political scientists’ Pinker, Wilson and co. are actually undermining the very process by which scientific endeavour has the best chance of becoming something more than the partisan expression of political ideology.
If you understand the above, great – you’ll appreciate what I’m trying to do here. If you don’t, my apologies. I hope I’ll make myself clearer as I continue to post.