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The links between science studies and British “declinist” discourse April 22, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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Rose and Rose

In trying to characterize the roots of contemporary history of science and science studies, one of the crucial features I have hit upon is their presentation of science, and particularly its place in society, as historically and continually beset by a widespread failure to understand the nature of science and the science-society relationship.*  This failure structures narratives which involve various tensions, confusions, and failures of policy and morality, all of which ultimately necessitate the latter-day formulation of an iconoclastic critique of science.  These narratives, in turn, have the effect of inflating the apparent present-day novelty and cogency of these professions’ central critical insights.

Now, this has long been an interesting issue for me, partially because it actually mirrors a major point in my work on the history of operations research, scientific advising, systems analysis, and related developments in World War II and after.  These developments were often cast as representing a realignment (or potential realignment) of the relationship between “science” and “the state”. As David Edgerton has pointed out, the purported need for such a realignment is a characteristic feature of narratives of British national “decline,” which explain that decline at least partially in terms of a national failure to appreciate and take proper advantage of science.  C. P. Snow’s 1959 book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution is a well-known manifestation of this narrative, but it was widespread before and after Snow’s contribution.

A big question that has weighed on me is whether that older discourse is directly related to the contemporary one.  Recently, while working on the conclusion of my book, I believe I found what may be a “golden spike” linking the two discourses buried in radical British science journalist J. G. Crowther’s (1899-1983) Science in Modern Society (1967, in which operational research features prominently) and Hilary Rose and Steven Rose’s Science and Society (1969).

Importantly, the bulk of Crowther’s and the Roses’ books is taken up by long, detailed discussions of the evolution of British science policy, with some international comparison (particularly with America)—something lamentably quite rare in today’s historiography.  However, the overarching theme of both books’ discussions is that science policy has been marked by serial failure.  As both books are heavily informed by the Marxist critique most associated with J. D. Bernal (1901-1971), this failure is specifically taken to be a failure to ensure that science serves socially beneficial ends.  According to both books, this tradition of failure could only be halted by arriving at a more appropriate appreciation of the “social relations of science”.  Their broad titles (quite typical of that time) speak to that conviction.

A major element of Marxist declinism is its emphasis on the relations between scientific knowledge and industrial needs, which is linked to an unrelenting criticism of academic pretensions to practice “pure” science.  Bernal argued in his 1939 book The Social Function of Science that part of Britain’s failure to take proper advantage of science could be connected to a persistent failure to interconnect the worlds of university science and industry to their mutual benefit.**

However, the Bernalist critique was more than just one of a failure to take advantage of science—it also related to the capitalist and militaristic interests that non-university scientific labor in fact served in the absence of a more overt socialist policy.  Thus, what we might call anti-social applications of science were also a central concern dating back to the 1930s.

Although neither Crowther nor the Roses gave the issue more than a couple of pages, both were concerned that the history of science would neglect the insights of Marxist historiography.  Such neglect, they argued, would promote misleading images of science, leading to further anti-social applications of scientific labor.  This is a very brief one-paragraph discussion in my book manuscript, but I thought it might be useful to call attention to some extended passages here.

According to Crowther (290-291), the growth of a new “history of science establishment” threatened the publication of papers on the subject of “science as the product of social and political forces.”  The decline in such publications, he insisted, did not signal that the task had been completed.  Rather, he thought:

It is a sign of reaction, not the culmination of a movement, for there never can be an end to the social relations of science, and the need for their study.  The small volume of work published on the subject within the recognized field of the history and philosophy of science, since 1940, in spite of its decisive contemporary importance, is the result of a long-range natural protective action, by dominant interests that do not wish to have the social and political implications of their scientific policy comprehensively investigated.

They prefer that historians of science should withdraw into the socially disembodied history of scientific ideas.  This would tend to establish the notion that science exists without any obligations to society.

So, since 1940, the historians of science have given less and less aid to the solution of the problem of science and its relation to society.  The effect of this is to strengthen the traditional conservative theory of the dominant interests, and widen and harden the ancient fissure between the intellectual and the social life.  A ruling conservative ideology is left more firmly than ever in control of the new scientific powers.

For their part, the Roses were concerned that science would be misunderstood as something that was unaffected by society, leading to a sense of “inevitability” surrounding its products.  However, they reversed Crowther’s chronology, supposing that the history of science had once presented naive portraits of scientific advance, but that the situation was beginning to change (240-241):

Much of our modern world has been shaped by science.  Yet equally, as the preceding chapters have shown, much of our modern science has been shaped by the requirements and constraints placed upon it by the society in which it is performed.  It is this integration which makes fallacious any attempt to describe science as some sort of external agent acting upon a society and thus transforming it, an agency suggested, for instance, by the title of a recently published series of essays by Bertrand Russell, The Impact of Science on Society—equally inappropriately the title of the journal published by UNESCO on aspects of science policy.  Such a title implies a science which falls upon society like a stone, moulding, bending, or crushing it.  Even Karl Mannheim’s classic essay on the sociology of knowledge in Ideology and Utopia fails to consider science as an aspect of knowledge which could be socially determined.

This reference to Mannheim is of particular interest, by the way.  As David Kaiser points out in his 1998 piece, “A Mannheim for All Seasons” (free pdf), Mannheim’s failure to contend with science as a social product would be specifically cited by David Bloor several years later as indicating the need for a concentrated—and iconoclastic—sociological research program to investigate scientific knowledge production.

Back to Rose and Rose:

Many people undoubtedly feel this sense of inevitability—both non-scientists and scientists.  Nuclear fission and hence the bomb were inevitable, molecular biology and hence genetic engineering, information science and hence computers and artificial intelligence are inevitable, battery chickens are inevitable, going to the moon and the motor-car are inevitable; in the immortal words of Robert Oppenheimer, one of the leading physicists in the U.S. controversy over whether or not to go ahead on the building of the H-bomb, whatever can be seen by the scientist as technically ‘sweet’ becomes inevitable to him; it becomes for the rest of society to decide whether to use it or not; all the scientist does is to put the choice in the way, like Eve’s snake; society, in some sense, will decide without vitiating the virginal neutrality of science.  But whatever the perceptions of the scientists, or the doubts of those within the rest of society who must live with the results of incessant technological innovation and the mixed blessings that they bring with them, science is not an unpredictable act of gods in white coats, nor is it the product of forces of an unspecified ‘progress’ which are outside the powers of our control.  The sort of science that is done today, in Britain, the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R., is neither inevitable nor necesarily in any abstract sense ‘the best’, as we have seen in tracing the origins of modern scientific society and in comparing national science policies.  It is the product of certain philosophies, ideologies, economic and political structures.  It is thus to a considerable extent modifiable and plannable.

Rose and Rose made clear that casting science as “socially determined” and thus “plannable” did not mean that “science does not have its own inner logic, that certain types of experiments and their results do not lead on systematically to others by the steady and persistent application of that body of procedure which is discussed by philosophers of science under the name of scientific method.”  According to them, “This procedure may move by way of the inductive, hypothesis-making structures described originally by Bacon, or, at certain critical points in the history of any science, by a type of ‘scientific revolution’—a qualitative change in the natue of our perception of the natural world, of the sort which has been so illuminatingly discussed by the historian Thomas Kuhn.”

They emphasized, “With hindsight, science appears to advance in a more or less ordered manner irrespective of the prevailing social environment in which it is performed.  This is the way which, until relatively recently the history of science has been taught.”

According to Crowther and the Roses, a proper history of science was one that would elucidate science-society relations, and so promote a proper science policy.  As I noted in my “Kuhn’s Demon” post, at a certain point the history of science switched in critical accounts from being a source of iconoclastic images of science, to being regarded as complicit in the production of false images.  I suspect it is possible to trace that switch in narrative to these books.

While these books may have been instrumental in changing the main message of a critical narrative about science and its failure to find a proper place in society from one of Marxist declinism to the concerns of contemporary science studies, the narrative line that runs straight through these books is one where misleading ideas about science and improper science policy characterize history up to the moment when the informed critic of science can arrive to set things aright.

*For the record, here are three other intertwined characteristics I would presently highlight:

  1. The post-Marxist imperative to elucidate the relationships between scientific knowledge and ideology, including the emergence of an “ideology of science” that actively conceals those relationships.
  2. The notion that theories of science worth their salt should map seamlessly onto the historical record of science.
  3. The notion that non-rational activities are central to the success and integrity of scientific knowledge, and urgently require elucidation.

**Incidentally, one can detect echoes of the Bernalist emphasis on university-industry relations in Edgerton’s recent editorial at Research Fortnight on Thatcherite science and industrial policy .


1. Will Thomas - April 24, 2013

After a bit of reflection, a few other observations:

1) I haven’t explored the issue, but I reckon that the Bernalist emphasis on fostering strong science-industry relations is closely related to the British strand of sociology (esp. Cotgrove and Box), which denied the Mertonian suggestion of an innate “strain” between science and industry. Crowther seems to have been especially hostile to Merton. (Is there a link to Mulkay here?)

There may be a political dimension here where there was a socialist inclination to link felt strains to the private interests that industrial research serves in a capitalist economy, and to believe that such strains would be diminished once industry was socialized, and science and society were brought into closer alignment. But this is an issue to be looked into rather than a strong conclusion.

2) Alongside the shift from Bernalism to science studies, one should mark a shift from a materialist interest in science-technology-industrial-social/economic policy relations to an intellectualist interest in science-knowledge-expertise-policy relations.

3) Additionally one should mark a shift from a critical ideology that was overtly political, i.e., the belief that proper science-society relations could only exist in a socialist or even communist society; to a “professional” ideology, which has no overt politics, but rather insists that the science studies professions themselves possess the key to developing more proper science-society relations.

(This notion of professional ideology matches up with journalism critic Jay Rosen’s description of journalism’s professional ideology, characterized by the reporter’s aspirations to “savviness”—it’s a good bet the development of both ideologies are related, even though science studies usually sees itself as at odds with science journalists.)

It seems likely the move away from politics is directly linked to SSK proponents’ claim that their “naturalistic” program was not political or “evaluative”.

In spite of all these shifts, I would still like to emphasize the continuities noted in the main post.

2. Michael Bycroft - May 5, 2013

I enjoyed this post (and the next two) but I’m not sure what you mean by a “missing spike” linking science studies and British declinist discourse.

I can see the analogies between what Crowther was saying and what the Roses were saying. But this is less a “missing spike” that it is an instance of “parallel tracks” (to continue the railroad metaphor).

I can also see that both books represent a “missing spike” in the sense that they mark a transition between the view of history of science as a source of iconoclasm and the view of history of science as a potential source of harmful misunderstandings about the science/society relationship. But this a link between two visions of history of science, not a link between science studies and the declinist discourse.

So I can see a missing spike, and a link between science studies and declinist discourse, but not a missing spike that makes that particular link!

Or is your point rather that the Crowther and Rose books had common source of inspiration, ie. Bernal’s book?

On a different note, if you have not read it already you might be interested in a paper by Simon Schaffer called “Newton at the Crossroads,” Radical Philosophy 37 (1984), 23-28.

The article is a positive re-assessment of Boris Hessen’s famous Marx-inspired paper on “The social and economic roots of Newton’s Principia.” Schaffer argues that there are important continuities between Hessen’s paper and the social history of science being practice in the early 1980s. According to Schaffer, these continuities are obscured by the fact that Hessen’s work was unapologetically evaluative whereas the new social historians claimed to “close no evaluative or political options.”

The continuities that Schaffer mentions are “the rejection of genius and free enquiry as explanatory principles in the history of science” and the idea that “conflicts of ideological interest affect the form in which cosmologies are expressed.”

I have not yet worked out whether Schaffer is saying that the newer social history *is* evaluative (despite its claims to the contrary), or whether he is just saying that it *should become* evaluative. But he does seem to be arguing for a reversal of the transition you mention in point 3), ie. for a return from “professional theodicy” to “critical ideology.”

The other citation that springs to mind here is one that seems to make the opposite recommendation. This is the section at the end of Stephen Shapin’s chapter entitled “The Social Uses of Science” in the 1980 volume “The Ferment of Knowledge.” There Shapin describes what he calls a “new contextualist” approach to the history of science, and explicitly rejects the analogy between this approach and Marxist approaches (he preferred to link the new contextualism to Wittgenstein).

I’m not sure how much can be inferred from these excerpts about how Shapin and Schaffer saw the relationship between their on work and that of the older Marxist historiography of science. But it is interesting that it is Schaffer who argued (in the Radical Philosophy article) for a close link between history and politics, and Shapin who seemed to reject that link in the “Ferment” chapter.

The reason this is interesting is that one might expect the opposite to be the case in light of what you observed in an earlier post (http://bit.ly/16HVpaB) about their respective contributions to their co-authored book “Leviathan and the Air-Pump.”

Will Thomas - May 5, 2013

Hi Mike, the golden spike refers to the following two argumentative points: 1) Britain is endangered/in decline because it cannot properly interrelate science, politics, & society; 2) modern society begets various confusions and failures because it cannot properly interrelate science, politics, & society.

The question that was bothering me was: are these merely rehearsals of a common theme, or, at some point (most likely in the 1960s) did proponents of what was to become science studies get their arguments directly from the declinists/Bernalists? I take both Crowther and the Roses to be writing mainly in the Bernalist vein. But, in their dissatisfaction with an internalist history of science, we can find just such a direct connection to historians’ later concerns.

Of course, there are many other sources of science studies thought: Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge, the Frankfurt School, Kuhnian paradigms, Wittgensteinian philosophy, anthropological relativism, etc.

So, the “golden spike” may just be a subjective one: no, the parallels I am seeing between these people ascribing major significance to OR and the argumentative forms deployed by my profession are not coincidental. Perhaps it is actually an obvious point, but I never felt like I could convincingly get the modern historiography of science out of British science criticism before.

Back when I was doing my series on Schaffer’s oeuvre, I think that was one of the few articles from the 1980s that I never got a hold of. I’d have to find the piece before I could speak convincingly, but I’d say that Schaffer abides by a post-Marxism which contrasts to the Bernalists’ political Marxism.

Where an overtly “political” argument would have a “science-society relations can only be stabilizied under a [socialist/libertarian/what have you]” form; the post-Marxist argument would have the form of “science-society relations can only be stabilized once the inherent politics of scientific knowledge is acknowledged”. In the post-Marxist view, what these politics are is not especially important, so long as an “ideology of science” is not used to conceal them. While I have no knowledge of Schaffer’s political views, in particular, I’ve gathered that a lot of post-Marxists view socialism in a more favorable light than liberal capitalism, mainly because its ideological commitments are written on its sleeve.

To my mind, the really clever thing that Schaffer always did, and that I think has not really been acknowledged, was to draw links between the contents of natural philosophical cosmologies and different religious-political positions; see also Toulmin, of course. I’m particularly fond of Schaffer’s arguments about the invisible (“Wallification” is a lost classic on this score), and “spirit”.

Schaffer takes this (I think, Foucault-inspired) argument to apply at the meta-level to claims of “realism” and insulation from society, which he posits to be rhetorical positions designed to lend credibility to particular, politically charged claims about what exists in the world. His “Augustan Realities: Nature’s Representatives and Their Cultural Resources in the Early Eighteenth Century” is a good example of this claim.

I confess, I find this tactic most compelling when Schaffer has something specific to say about a particular intellectual culture. For example, the anti-Catholicism/Thomism in Hobbes’s critique of experimentalists’ claims that the air has a spring-like quality is a wonderful addition to our understanding of Hobbes. Conversely, I find it a bit repetitive when he seems to be highlighting a political connection for the sake of iconoclasm, which I feel he did in the various examples he marshaled in his anti-realism Augustan Realities piece. One reason why I haven’t kept up with the Schaffer oeuvre series was because it was beginning to seem less like his works exhibited an overarching research project, and more like he was applying a particular analytical trick to random bits of history.

I think the key difference between Schaffer and Shapin is that Schaffer has a tendency to look to explicitly political contexts (Jacobin, Jacobite, Whig, Victorian/Imperial…), where Shapin’s contexts tend more toward things like gentlemanly culture. But, in this case, I think the difference you are detecting is that Schaffer and Shapin are simply emphasizing two sides of the same coin. Schaffer is saying that science cannot claim to be apolitical; where Shapin is saying that the historian need not choose their political lens, and can simply, in the spirit of relativism, relate different sciences to different political contexts.

Michael Bycroft - May 5, 2013

Thanks for the detailed reply, thanks to which I am now grasping the golden spike, so to speak.

Is the next step to show that later STS scholars read the books you cite by the Roses and Crowther, and drew from them the idea that “modern society begets various confusions and failures because it cannot properly interrelate science, politics, & society”?

Thanks also for the crisp distinction between Marxism and post-Marxism, which rings true to me. And I find your remarks on Schaffer and Shapin useful too.

Good luck rustling up the Radical Philosophy piece.

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