Even today, more than fifty
years after its first edition, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions remains the first port of call to learn about the history, philosophy or sociology of science. This is the book famous for talking about science as governed by ‘paradigms’ until overtaken by ‘revolutions’.
Kuhn argued that the way that both scientists and the general public need to understand the history of science is Orwellian. He is alluding to 1984, in which the protagonist’s job is to rewrite newspapers from the past to make it seem as though the government’s current policy is where it had been heading all along. In this perpetually airbrushed version of history, the public never sees the U-turns, switches of allegiance and errors of judgement that might cause them to question the state’s progressive narrative. Confidence in the status quo is maintained and new recruits are inspired to follow in its lead. Kuhn claimed that what applies to totalitarian 1984 also applies to science united under the spell of a paradigm.
What makes Kuhn’s account of science ‘post-truth’ is that truth is no longer the arbiter of legitimate power but rather the mask of legitimacy that is worn by everyone in pursuit of power. Truth is just one more – albeit perhaps the most important – resource in a power game without end. In this respect, science differs from politics only in that the masks of its players rarely drop.
The explanation for what happens behind the masks lies in the work of the Italian political economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), devotee of Machiavelli, admired by Mussolini and one of sociology’s forgotten founders. For Pareto, what passes for social order is the result of the interplay of two sorts of elites, which he called, following Machiavelli, ‘lions’ and ‘foxes’. The lions acquire legitimacy from tradition, which in science is based on expertise rather than lineage or custom. Yet, like these earlier forms of legitimacy, expertise derives its authority from the cumulative weight of intergenerational experience. This is exactly what Kuhn meant by a ‘paradigm’ in science – a set of conventions by which knowledge builds in an orderly fashion to complete a certain world-view established by a founding figure – say, Newton or Darwin. Each new piece of knowledge is anointed by a process of ‘peer review’.
As in 1984, the lions normally dictate the historical narrative. But on the cutting room floor lies the activities of the other set of elites, the foxes. In today’s politics of science, they are known by a variety of names, ranging from ‘mavericks’ to ‘social constructivists’ to ‘pseudoscientists’. Foxes are characterised by dissent and unrest, thriving in a world of openness and opportunity.
Foxes stress the present as an ecstatic moment in which there is everything to play for. This includes a decisive break with ‘the past’, which they know has been fictionalized anyway, as in 1984. Self-styled visionaries present themselves, like Galileo, as the first to see what is in plain sight. Expertise appears as a repository of corrupt judgement designed to suppress promising alternatives to already bankrupt positions. For Kuhn, the scientific foxes get the upper hand whenever cracks appear in the lions’ smooth narrative, the persistent ‘anomalies’ that can’t be explained by the ruling paradigm.
But the foxes have their own Achilles Heel: They are strong in opposition but divisively self-critical in office. Kuhn’s great opponent Karl Popper put a brave face on this feature, echoing Trotsky in calling for a ‘permanent revolution’ in science. But if the field of play in science is opened to all-comers, then the game itself might become unrecognizable. Few scientists nowadays deny the attractiveness of extending the public’s sense of ‘scientific citizenship’, but equally few would have it morph into ‘proletarian science’, whereby the research agenda is dictated by the people.
Post-truth politics was laid bare in 2016 when the leonine Hillary Clinton called Trump’s supporters ‘a basket of deplorables’ for trying to undermine the current progressive agenda. The foxy Trump responded by calling Clinton and her agenda ‘corrupt’ and ‘crooked’. American democracy suffered in the process. This perhaps helps to explain why the lions of the scientific establishment have largely ignored the foxes in the midst rather than contesting them openly on common ground.
The Royal Society and British Academy recently held a high-profile interdisciplinary conference on ‘New Trends in Evolutionary Biology’. Officially, the event was open to the widest possible range of criticisms of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis. Yet the invitation did not extend to proponents of intelligent design theory who have publicized most of the same criticisms of the synthesis. It would seem that the paradigm shift demanded by advocates of intelligent design would have been a step too far.
Sunday, January 14th, 18:00