Robert C. Priddy

Writings on diverse themes from philosophy, psychology to literature and criticism

  • Robert Priddy

    In this blog I post information and critical views concerning ideologies, belief systems and related scientific materials etc. I am a retired philosophy lecturer and researcher, born 1936.

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Archive for April, 2015

The changing role of sciences’ effects on human society

Posted by robertpriddy on April 20, 2015

Note: This article follows on from ‘Science agendas in transition’

The pressure of national and public interests: The ascendancy of the natural scientific community in controlling much educated opinion, such as through education and the media, is surely preferable to the alternatives of obscurantism found in many other areas of human culture. Yet through its predominance as an industrial and economic growth factor – with the consequent lobbying of its interests – it also can contribute to deleterious effects. Through it ambitions of expansion, applied sciences have long supported the dangerous but almost universal doctrine of economic growth without effective limits. Since the recognition of the pending crises of climate change, increasing exhaustion of natural resources, pollution, the breakdown and elimination of eco systems and apparently unstoppable world population growth, scientists have increasingly turned their efforts in the direction of counteractive science and technologies, the so-called ‘green revolution’. Unfortunately the pressure on governments to maintain and also improve achieved living standards does not encourage critical developments in social, economic and political sciences to concentrate on the revolution in thinking necessary if the world-wide conflicts that an eventual spreading breakdown of the world social order may be averted.

The many influences of the sciences on society – both of the range of physical sciences and all the social sciences – are only studied on a minimal scale as yet, and then without the depth and breadth or vision that is desirable if this crucial aspect and effect of science is to be understood. Both observation and reason insist that many uses of scientific knowledge are unplanned to say the least, but are also unseen and more unfortunate in many more areas of life than many supporters of scientific progress realize. This is partly due to the fund-consuming theoretical physical sciences and applied technological science whose vast budgets and research policies have momentous consequences for the world. Yet they are relatively free of all but peripheral democratic controls and they proceed to further the various interests they represent largely unexamined behind closed doors, both factual and figurative, doors upon which even the media have seldom brought themselves to knock. Since human cloning and associated genetic bio-technologies became a real possibility, however, public interest causes a resurgence in the scientific ethical debate on medicine, genetic manipulation and eugenics.

The disproportionately large investments from governments, major corporations and multinationals, in most cases with profit still as their overriding consideration, has also been driven by the military and weapons industries. This has only contributed to an intellectual-ethical malaise. Critics point out how the profit motives of the pharmaceutical industry also has too much influence over what is researched (or not) in medicine and the ‘health industry’ – and promoted and prescribed. However, since global warming and all its possible consequences has finally placed itself firmly on the world agenda, there is undoubtedly a shift in values towards ‘green thinking’ taking place in many large concerns, due to the realization that profit margins cannot survive without major adjustments and a change of course in many technologies. Nonetheless, those scientific projects which can advance technology or provide hard data of kinds useful to planners and policy makers still hold the confidence of those who rules the corridors of power. Investments fall off greatly in sciences that contain notable critical, reformative and humanistic elements. 

Setbacks to human knowledge occur and have had many causes: major wars, totalitarian regimes, colonial and missionary destruction and suppression, famines, plagues and various natural disasters. War being ‘the mother of invention’, advances in science have often been greater as a result of such disturbances than the relatively minor and temporary setbacks. Perhaps the major hindrances to any system of knowledge (other than practical limits) come about when the assumptions on which it is based are successfully challenged and cause a Kuhnian paradigm shift. This has been seen regularly since Copernicus,in Einstein’s relativity, in math’s and in logic where axioms were challenged and substituted for more inclusive concepts and so forth. In the C21 it seems likely that the methodological, philosophical and social assumptions of the last century with its interdisciplinary boundaries transformed through the expansion of ecologically initiated crossover thinking and the study of complexity (holarchy). The science community, becoming globalised on a far greater scale than ever through the computing revolution, will presumably overstep those interdisciplinary boundaries built up through university bureaucracies and interest groups in educational and research institutions. 

Social values and the common good in science: The regeneration of an intellectuality informed by genuine insight into human values is increasingly seen by many people as a necessity for the future of secular societies and world development. Much improvement cannot take place, however, without clearing the ground through an analysis of the causes of misplaced materialism and consumerism in modern society. The intellectual climate will have to turn the tide against the losses incurred by the degeneration of understanding due to excessive dumbing down and qualitative loss of the breadth of vision, such as via mass media and falling standards of general education. Due to the global internet, the scientific establishment no longer has such an effective level of influence or control over determining what is fact as it once commanded. 

The control of research investments by a relative handful of scientists – or on their relatively unquestioned ‘expert advice’ to policy makers – is a threat to democratic decision-making.That ‘knowledge is power’ is an observable – though highly complex – fact, not least because it is a social, political and economical commodity sought after by interest groups with many different agendas. ‘Control of knowledge gives power’ almost qualifies as an axiom these days, perhaps along with ‘knowledge is money’, as shown by the purposes of the competing financiers of the worldwide science-based industry, not least the by the patent and intellectual rights business. The scientific establishment has such a high degree of control that power can sometimes indirectly determine what is scientific fact. The control of research investments by a relative handful of scientists – or on their relatively unquestioned ‘expert advice’ to policy makers – is a threat to democratic decision-making. 

Whatever the material conditions of a society, intelligent thought is a necessary factor in any social and moral renewal, even the predominant one, for thought obviously gives rise to attitudes, which give rise to acts. This point of view may be rather out of fashion nowadays, depicted as some kind wishful idealism, the reason being that the dominant trend-setters are rather consumerism, economism and popular culture. Add to this the tendency of current sciences hardly ever to examine a course of events as the consequence – or even as partial product – of human thought and ideas, but almost always vice-versa. The historical swing of the pendulum towards physicalism and sense observation in recent centuries, though extremely profitable for understanding of the physical universe, may have taken advanced civilization too far towards social materialism. While it took centuries to clear away all kinds of superstitious theological nonsense and speculative metaphysics, the suppression of thought and opinion which starts from a contrary assumption to physicalism has already caused an upsurge in so-called ‘spiritual’ and outright religious thought aiming to reinstate ignored beliefs, which may be regarded as hypotheses no less speculative than many a far-reaching scientific theory (with micro-physics as one example). To move closer to a more balanced – less pendulous – view of everything, a reasonable counterweight to the blanket physicalism of hard-data scientism seems necessary.

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Science agendas in transition

Posted by robertpriddy on April 15, 2015

There has been a promising change in the public face of science which has occurred in many media since the 1970s and 80s. I trace in outline some recent trends in perceptions of science by the public, the media and by scientists themselves. Of course, science is in exponential growth and a very considerable outreach and development has taken place in many of the sciences in the past few decades, especially due to the ubiquity of virtually unlimited computing power and its related technologies.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the prevailing attitude of many intellectuals in the official media often showed an almost unquestioning belief in the efficacy of science with very little critical reflection about major underlying issues. The sciences and those referred to collectively as ‘scientists’ were often regarded too simply as the final court of appeal on virtually all the most important questions facing humanity. The near-deification of the sciences, at least in Europe and the US during the second half of the 20th century, made it the chief measure of human progress in many of the world’s most influential minds. This attitude was encouraged by the nature of claims made by some very prominent figures, especially in the physical sciences, claims which developments have sometimes confounded, sometimes made redundant. Together with powerful commercial interests and governments in highly industrialised states, a rather dangerously overstated view of the capabilities of the sciences to solve most vital human problems was promoted. The need to reexamine the limitations of science in the understanding of ourselves and the cosmos seemed long overdue.

Certain great challenges to the scientific community have shown up the relative uncertainty of scientific applications in dealing with major issues. One such was the debate over the safety of nuclear power, in which a hard-core of scientists gave excessive assurances, only to be confronted by the disasters of Three Mile Island and, above all, Chernobyl. A second challenge was to the scientific community’s unfortunate judgements and misrepresentation of such an embracing and admittedly complex issue as the decisive causes of global warming. The original huge consensus among scientists that the over-production of carbon-dioxide and other industrial waste gases were the determining cause of an oncoming global warming catastrophe became highly controversial when by the discovery of major inaccuracies in their important data (such as the rate of decline of Himalayan glaciers). This made the general public aware of the difficulties of scientific prediction on global and other matters which cannot be studied under laboratory conditions. Though opponents of the hypothesis of global warming caused by human activity were often outright anti-scientific or in blatant denial – not least religiously inspired – the intricacies of this major issue and the struggle of scientists to handle it became widely debated. This appears to have stimulated a considerably greater public awareness of – and healthy moderate skepticism about – the practical limits and theoretical uncertainties of much scientific research. Also, and somewhat paradoxically, the global warming controversy helped to publicize the ever-increasing expansion of research efforts – and the consequent increasing successes – of many scientific endeavours. The attack mounted on scientific theory of evolution in the form of religious creationism also came to the fore in a well-known U.S. court case in the USA against teaching ‘creationism’ in schools, with the result that the attack was defeated both scientifically and legally in a most decisive manner.

The overall achievements of science are immense, both from the viewpoint of the vastly increased knowledge bringing answers to questions that have always mystified humankind and from the unlimited practical improvements to human life. Yet this should not occlude pointing out and investigating remaining weaknesses – the often unproclaimed ‘gaps’ in its data and understanding of where the limitations to its explanation lie. Further, the theoretical avenues it explores, the practical and directions it takes at the expense of other potential aims are a matter for increased scrutiny, even though this is often strongly influenced by political forces. In the later 20th century its power, virtual certainties and superiority over other kinds of understanding were often made without requisite reservation of judgement, especially through the popular media, though this tendency has since fortunately been on the decline. Many shortsighted and truncated dogmas were long upheld by the inertia of ‘average’ scientific opinion, as the history of scientific breakthroughs and wider ‘revolutions’ richly illustrates. Some such linger on. The social inertia of out-dated or truncated theory of science and attitudes are doubtless operative to some extent in all countries, especially those with backward and traditional educational systems or unreformed academic universities.

Some of the signal changes in recent science include the shift away from a narrower kind of physicalism and quantitative methods in the biological and human sciences, which will shortly be discussed under the title ‘Science and materialism’.

Further, the overriding role of major interests from governments and  military-industrial complexes in the direction of sciences has changed as post Cold War public concern and pressures to deal with a wide range of relatively neglected issues took effect. These include a wide range of environmental issues, from pollution, destruction of habitats and eco-systems, to depletion of various vital earth resources and climate change. This will be discussed under the title ‘The changing role of sciences’ effects on human society’

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