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Prof Gray, ideology-free science does not exist

“Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.”

Martin Heidegger, famous if controversial 20th century German philosopher

Towards the end of last year, the respected and outspoken Professor Glenda Gray gave a well-publicised interview in which she extolled the virtues of the practice of so-called “ideology-free” science. Gray is the first woman president and chief executive of the South African Medical Research Council as well as the chair of the research committee on Covid-19. This remark has worried me for some time now. I thought it worthwhile to correct this erroneous idea of “ideology-free” science, since there is no such thing. 

The conviction that there is, widespread among natural scientists, is premised on two insidious notions: firstly, the belief that science is an “objective” endeavour, and secondly, the politically dangerous scientism, which holds that only the scientific project is able to uncover “valid” knowledge. 

That respected and important scientists can be so ignorant of the disputed place and contested status of “objective” science in the modern world is disconcerting but also understandable. Not only are all attempts at knowledge construction mediated through language (which means it’s twice removed from the source), but we can only know reality in terms of both time and space since, as the famous 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant noted, these parameters determine what and how our minds are able to perceive and make sense of perception stimuli.

More than fifty years ago, Thomas Kuhn, one of the great minds in the philosophy of science in the 20th century, argued convincingly in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) that scientists (and he was referring specifically to natural scientists) work strictly within a paradigm (an event horizon) within which they are “condemned” to solve puzzles. Rather than solely progressing in a linear and continuous way, science “advances” by way of replacing paradigms with other, incommensurable ones, and its criterion for “truth” is consensus among the members of the scientific community. No objectivity there.

Kuhn, who was himself a trained physicist, showed how these scientists are unable to see beyond the horizon of their circumscribed understanding of their particular subject (whether biology, physics, or astronomy). It is only once they run into too many incongruities – or unsolvable puzzles – that a paradigm shift occurs. 

Examples of such incommensurable paradigm changes are Darwin’s theory of evolution (which threw the world of biology, though perhaps not geology, into great confusion), Einstein’s theory of general relativity and Copernicus’ heliocentric view of the cosmos.

Darwin was so concerned about the implications of these newfound ideas (that speciation meant that humans were not created as an immutable life form but were the result of incremental changes over time) that he withheld his argument for almost thirty years. Darwin was forced, however, to rush his manuscript into print in 1859 when Alfred Russel Wallace, exploring in the Malaysian archipelago, came up independently with a similar model of fluctuation to explain variation in the animal and plant world. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is of course one of the seminal texts in the history of science.

Similarly, Einstein’s theory of general relativity collapsed Newton’s world of classical mechanics. In turn, Einstein’s paradigmatic views on relativity were unexpectedly tweaked by the discovery of quantum mechanics in the early years of the 20th century by the German physicist Max Planck, for which he received the 1918 Nobel Prize in physics. 

Einstein, incidentally, did not receive his own Nobel Prize in 1921 for his theory of relativity, but rather for his work on the photoelectric effect, presumably because at that point the former was still too novel and not yet well understood. Einstein, for his part, was said to be so perplexed by quantum mechanics that he famously remarked that God does not play dice with the universe. As a committed atheist, Stephen Hawking did not care less whether or not God was playing games and he attempted to improve on both Einstein and Planck’s works by developing a theory of everything, which at the time of his death in March 2018, remains a work in progress.

By the same token, Copernicus’ heliocentric worldview gave a far more elegant explanation of the movement of heavenly bodies than the geocentric model of Ptolemy (who thought the earth was the centre of the universe) that had endured for centuries. In the late 20th century, Copernicus’ heliocentric model, which had caused such a ruckus in the 16th century, was again replaced by an expansionary model of the universe in which the galaxies, which make up our observable universe, are racing away from each other at great and increasing speed, fuelled by a big bang event of some sort around 20-billion years ago. Will this expansion of the universe eventually result in a big crunch? Perhaps a new paradigm is needed to suggest a plausible answer, but the discovery that 90% of all matter in the universe is dark matter, the expansion of which gravity could ultimately weigh down, would seem to indicate that this is a distinct possibility.

Does this brief excursion in the history of science mean that Copernicus was wrong and that Hawking might ultimately be proven to be correct, as opposed to the views of Einstein and Planck? No, not at all. 

In the final analysis there is no such thing as objective knowledge. Hence, having dispensed with this cumbersome notion, we are in a position to appreciate that all attempts at knowledge construction (which are also tied up intimately with power) are necessarily tainted with ideology.

All knowledge is context-dependent. 

Einstein’s discovery of relativity was made possible by Niemann’s work on non-Euclidean geometry (essentially the geometry of curvature) in the second half of the 19th century. Darwin read Charles Lyell’s scholarly text on geology, The Principles of Geology (1830), in which Lyell argues that the formation of the Earth’s crust took place through countless incremental changes over vast periods of time. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, the well-known 19th-century German philosopher, knowledge is nothing if not perspective.

As the Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek points out in the delightful documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012), it is impossible to be ideologically neutral, since we are steeped in ideology, irrespective of our point of departure (politically on left, right or somewhere in-between), whatever our concerns are. According to Žižek, all of us are already eating from the trash can of ideology all the time and we cannot but do so. Any and every pair of spectacles are necessarily politically tainted. 

“Prejudice” of this sort is a precondition for the very possibility of thinking, as the contemporary German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer demonstrated. 

The erroneous idea of an ideologically neutral science cannot account for new paradigm shifts, which are likely to bring forth new understandings for their times, until these are again replaced by new thinking for new contexts.

My effort to correct this idea is not just a theoretical exercise. Science’s so-called objective and neutral authority to impact and invade our world is taken for granted. Scientists in the modern world have usurped the unquestioned role and authority previously commanded by priests in medieval Europe and in some such spaces into the 20th century. Science can by definition not be objective and is certainly not the sole source for valid knowledge. Peddling the idea of an ideologically-neutral science to a gullible and equally ignorant public is a dangerous and incorrect notion that demands critical inquiry.

Author

  • Dr Casper Lӧtter is a conflict criminologist affiliated to North-West University’s School of Philosophy (Potchefstroom) as researcher extraordinaire.

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