The Politics of Reason

5 Jun 2011

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.1 [1 This quote reportedly appeared on the wall of Albert Einstein’s office at Princeton, though the attribution is questionable at best. A more likely origin (with the phrases reversed) is William Bruce Cameron, Informal Sociology (Random House, 1963), p. 13.]

A popular experiment in economics is the Ultimatum game, in which two participants decide how to divide a sum of money between them. One chooses the split, after which the other may accept it or reject it, in the latter case leaving both empty-handed. If the participants are rational members of Homo economicus the first will offer as little as possible and the second will accept regardless, since any return is better than nothing.

Needless to say, things do not play out this way with members of Homo sapiens. In most cultures, people will generally neither make nor accept such lowball offers. The consistency with which this occurs precludes the possibility that they are acting randomly, or that they are all insane. Clearly they are taking into account factors other than the money. This contrast between ‘rational’ and actual people suggests a possible working definition of rationality: to a rational person, things count only if they can be counted.

This is fine so far as it goes, but ‘rationality’ is not a neutral term. Words like ‘unreasonable’ and ‘irrational’ carry strong negative connotations, with implications of stupidity, contrariness and insanity. Rationality is a weapon. By classifying things as either rational or irrational we state that factors that can be counted are more highly valued than those that cannot; that one set of heuristics—our set of heuristics—is better than somebody else’s. In other words, to divide the world between the rational and the irrational is an inherently political act.

Historically, no group in society was quicker to seize upon rationality as a political weapon than scientists. Beginning in the 1820s, the French philosopher Auguste Comte explicitly linked his philosophy of positivism, a belief in rigorous scientific proof as the only path to truth, with the goal of aggregating political power to a scientific elite.2 [2 Theodore M. Porter, ‘How Science Became Technical’, Isis Vol. 100, No. 2 (June 2009), p. 301.] Thinkers such as Comte and his predecessor, the Marquis de Condorcet, succeeded to the point where science and rationality have become almost synonymous in the public mind. That has never been true in reality: science has always proceeded through means not exclusively rational. Philosopher Paul Feyerabend, surveying the history of science, concludes that ‘The only rule that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes.’3 [3 Paul Feyerabend, Against Method 4th ed. (Verso, 2010), p. 7.]

To the lay public it must have seemed plausible enough, though—an exclusive caste claiming access to higher knowledge through strict adherence to their impenetrable rituals. This was not unfamiliar territory. And so it came to pass that during the Enlightenment scientists and engineers gained in political power, largely at the expense of the church. Comte went so far as to start his own secular religion.

Advocacy of technocracy as a form of government reached its apogee during the Great Depression, but soon fell out of favour. It was, after all, profoundly antidemocratic. Yet the notion of science as a purely rational enterprise and of scientists as disinterested interpreters of truth persisted in the public consciousness. Politicians have been complicit in this, for science can be used not only as a weapon but as a shield: an unpopular decision can often be explained away with a claim that ‘science’ demanded it.

In the early part of the 21st Century we often hear the complaint that politics is corrupting science. The complaint is not without merit, but we should remember that science has also had a corrupting influence on politics. For too long the public have been promised that science will deliver certain knowledge, incontrovertible proof, absolute truth. We should not be surprised to see these arguments turned against science by political opponents. ‘Let us wait’, said the tobacco-industry shills, ‘until we have proof that cigarettes cause cancer. Is that not the way of science?’4 [4 Contemporary examples following this template abound; identification of them is left as an exercise for the reader.]

It is not, of course. In the immediate post-war years, philosophers of science abandoned logical positivism and its insistence on verification in favour of Karl Popper’s falsifiability criterion. Feyerabend goes even further: ‘The right method must not contain any rules that make us choose between theories on the basis of falsification. Rather, its rules must enable us to choose between theories which we have already tested and which are falsified.’5 [5 Feyerabend, Op. cit., p. 45. Emphasis original.]

Science historian Theodore Porter sums up the problem:

Our modern compact between science and the state, which consigns science to the domain of positive fact, is itself in many ways a fiction, for the role of sciences in regard to public issues of all kinds has never been more encompassing. Yet that fiction shapes our public engagement with science—and even what we mean by science. …

When science denies its own depth in favor of pretending to the straightforward application of method and the production of information, it participates ironically in the anti-intellectualism it otherwise purports to combat.6 [6 Economist Friedrich August von Hayek made a similar argument in his Nobel memorial lecture, ‘The Pretence of Knowledge’ (1974).] And yet on this field of struggle it is bound to be outmanoeuvred by the real opponents of truth, masters of scientific disguise, who sow doubt everywhere by claiming that what threatens their interests has not followed the rigorous standards of ‘sound science’.7 [7 Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science (Basic, 2005). Citation original.] Thus is science hoist [by] its own petard.8 [8 Porter, Op. cit., pp. 308–309.]

This situation will continue so long as science is expected to provide a quasi-religious level of certainty in its results. It will not be easy to change. For many people, this would mean giving up a deep-seated desire for certainty. For scientists and engineers, it means giving up any ambition for the power that is always granted to the oracles of gospel truth. But give these up we must. The alternative is to remain perpetually locked in a political struggle where the opponents of progress hold the better weapon.

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