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.