Science and Ideology: Beyond the Positivist versus Relativist Antimony

While we’re on the subject of the difference between (analytical) theory and ideology, we’ll take a brief look at the relationship between science and ideology. See if you can see what’s wrong with the following statement:

 “This statement is both objective and non-ideological and therefore good.”

The problem here is that to say any statement is “good” or more “valid” than any other is itself a value judgement. In other words the statement is self-contradictory because it is both ideological and non-objective. Although when stated baldly, the equation non-ideological = good is obviously fishy to anyone with a passing acquaintance with the difference between normative and factual statements. Yet this “positivist” value judgement (more of which in a minute) is a surprisingly common, if unstated, assumption amongst a great deal of science and engineering practitioners.

Generally, people who believe fervently that a broad gulf separates science from flat-earthers, climate change deniers and woo-merchants, often respond to the charge that science is necessarily also ideological with counter-accusations of “relativism”.

Certainly there are some extreme relativists who deny that there is any difference between scientists and 9/11 truthers, etc. Doing so on the basis that all truth is relative and different truth claims are just incompatible “language games” that cannot be commensurated. Absolute relativists deny that the empirical approach of testing theories against real-world evidence has any bearing on truth claims. Clearly is this was actually true, life as we know it would be pretty much impossible, so absolute relativists are on a path leading into a black hole for practical thought.

However, just because there is a clear divide between people who ignore evidence and people who try to make their theories fit the evidence, does not mean that science can completely escape the effects either of the socio-cultural background assumptions of the dominant ideology, or the economic effects of the cold hard cash needed to pay for research and scientists wages.

 Let’s have a diagram:

IdeologyScienceEconomic3Body - Gradient

(Here “{}” refers to the empty set - i.e. there is no pure empiricism that doesn’t involve human observers, with their necessarily ideological filters, because empiricism is necessarily a relation between observers and the observable. [Capital] is in angle brackets to signal that it is an emergent effect of our system of social relations, rather than an entity or conscious agent - hence it’s relative autonomy from the ideological sphere - that is, while it shapes ideology, it is not itself directly a product of ideology)

Grand. So what’s positivism again? Crudely put, positivism is the belief that ideology and truth are mutually exclusive, That what is ideological is false and what is true is not ideological. In other words empiricism has the power to transcend the ideological and metaphysical blinkers on people’s worldviews and render them moot.

Leaving aside the obvious internal contradictions (e.g. when something previously held to be true is later shown empirically to be false, does it thereby then become ideological? where does the ideological content come from? was it always there?, etc) this position has two main corollaries. 

In the negative, a naive positivist position holds that once a theory has been contradicted by empirical evidence, that theory no longer contains any useful information. 

In the positive, if a posited theory is verified by exhaustive evidential testing, then it is “the truth” and its validity is ipso facto proof of its non-ideological character.

The key thing to note is that whatever popularity positivism may have amongst scientific practitioners on an ideological level, at the level of practice (praxeology) scientists are routinely driven to use non-positivist critical thinking methods to problem-solve.

Critical debugging

To illustrate let’s consider problem solving in computer programming (coding). While coding is not in itself science, enough science now involves some use of computing to make the problems of debugging familiar to most scientific practitioners. 

In any process of code development a point is reached where the results the code is producing are not the one’s it’s “supposed” to be producing. There is a mismatch between the virtual model in the coder’s head of what the programme should be doing, and the actualised, concrete model in code that is doing something different. At this point the negative corollary of naive positivism is no use to us. All it can tell us is that either our coders virtual “ought” model or the code’s actualised “is” model is wrong, depending on whichever point of view you wish to take. And that whichever model is “wrong” has nothing more to tell us. Impasse.

This is where critical thinking kicks in. The coder (if capable) is self-aware and open to the fact that she is fallible and that her internal model of what the code should be doing - but clearly isn’t - is a combination of some recent logic that is clearly in focus and a mass of previously thought out stuff that is currently being summarised as a set of assumptions. The process of debugging then usually proceeds most productively in inserting (or enabling) reporting/signalling code (or using a step-through debugger) that can expose more of the changing internal state so as to find which of those assumptions is actually wrong. Sometimes the simple act of enabling the verbose debug messaging and re-running the tests is enough. But really knotty code problems needs critical introspection as to what you are not seeing, what your hidden assumptions are. This is the art of critical thinking. 

Neatly wrong

To put it another way, in response to H.L. Mencken’s oft-repeated aphorism that “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” positivism holds that the only thing of note about such a solution is that it is wrong. Whereas critical thinking examines carefully what it is about this specific wrong solution that makes it plausible, and above all “neat”. Deconstructing the plausibility of a popular false solution identifies the cognitive and factual errors behind it, which is useful in itself. But more useful still is gaining insight into the existing deep-rooted, affect-grounded, frames that make it “neat”, the latter a coded signifier for “does not produce cognitive dissonance with my current worldview/ideology”. Understanding what’s “neat” about a false solution starts to outline the true shape of the edifice (paradigm) we need to crack to make progress.

The obvious next step is to apply that principle of critical thinking to positivism itself. Given that positivism is “wrong”, what is it that makes it so plausible and commonplace?

Selection bias

Lets return to our coder example. Coders save previous versions of their code, in the various stages of development, in version control management systems (e.g. git, etc). But generally they don’t save the “non-working” versions (sadly there are exceptions to this). In other words all the intermediate “wrong” stages of the code are simply discarded. This is simple efficient behaviour in pursuit of working code. But it means that even though the debugging process requires critical thinking, it is overlain by a positivist framework.

This is a general pattern, not just in coding, but in engineering and science in general. There is inevitably a critical thinking process in the work of generating new alternative candidate hypotheses for testing, but the testing process evaluates “fitness” in a binary accept or reject fashion. Conceptually there are two conjoint processes in the methodology, one which makes candidate theories proliferate, and a second that selects or discards the results. Cybernetically speaking, the second, selective process is the corrective feedback mechanism that acts as the governor to the creative “engine” that proliferates the candidate series. However, if it is clear in the case of the physical analogy that the governor does not do the work of James Watt’s engine by itself, the shift from steam power to brain power masks this underlying reality. Once both engine and governor are part of an individual’s thinking process the importance of the selective process appears predominant. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the psychological division of labour between conscious and unconscious thought processes in which the selective process runs mainly in the conscious mind while much of the generative process starts off in the unconscious. Again many technical and scientific practitioners are aware of this psychological division of labour, without necessarily ever having felt the need to think through its implications in terms of the relation between the critical and positivist thought processes. Consequently there can be an overemphasis on the positivist aspect that is then carried over into the overall ideological narrative of what the dominant character of the scientific method is. 

Progressive authority?

However the cognitive components behind the bias that many practitioners have towards seeing the scientific method as primarily positivist, are probably overshadowed by the greater reinforcing effect of the socially pervasive ideology of liberal progress. 

Again, to appreciate the insidious negative aspects of the ideology of liberal progress, we have to have an understanding of its advantageous side, that makes it neat and plausible. 

From the Enlightenment onwards, the negative corollary of positivism - that once a proposition has been falsified by empirical evidence, it can be dispensed with - has been a highly productive means of freeing thinking from the shackles of theology and superstition, the dead weight of tradition, and the authority of classical speculative and anti-empirical metaphysical thought. In this sense, “negative” positivism put the free into free-thinker. The appeal to replace authority and tradition with evidence-based reasoning opens an era of libertarian thinking.

However, if the progressive aspect of positivism’s negative corollary is the tearing down of the authoritarian blinkers of ancien regime thought, the reactionary aspect of the positive corollary - i.e. the assertion of, if not the absolute truth of empirically-grounded theory, at least it’s freedom from ideological or economic distortions - is an attempt to set up new positions of authority in their place. Not so much individual positions of authority as collective ones. That is to say that authority is claimed in the name of the weight of consensus of the practitioners active in a given scientific or technical field. 

In other words as scientists and technicians we accept that we can be individually wrong but only in relation to other practitioners in our own field. Collectively the agreed (or majority) position of the body of recognised practitioners in a given field cannot be challenged from anyone outside of that field because they simply do not have the knowledge to do so in any credible fashion. 

Now that may be a bit of a caricature in some ways. of course individuals differ in how open they are to dissenting voices from the “outside”. Further there is a huge difference in barriers of entry to different fields, Some fields are impossible to do cutting edge experimental work outside of the established research institutions. Other fields are basically open to anyone who can do the maths. Nonetheless, the general pattern of making a collective claim to authority on the basis of the “scientific consensus” in a given field is a commonplace.

In the case of defending the consensus around the issue of climate change against the big oil-funded climate change deniers, we can see the need for establishing the legitimacy of your position as evidence-based as opposed to the obvious venally-inspired propaganda of the opposition. The problem however, is that in a capitalist society where the competition for legitimacy is routinely settled by recourse to established authority and power, the distinction between claiming legitimacy and claiming authority, tends to be obscured. This naturalises the slippage from arguing for the legitimacy of the empirical scientific method itself to backing the claim to authority of the recognised practitioners of a given field. 

This results in the recasting of fields of enquiry as social “force fields” that can claim social authority. In fields such as cosmology or particle physics where controversies have little or no impact on public policy, this passage from scientific legitimacy to corporative authority has little visible effect. However in fields such as health and Big Pharma, genetical modification of crops and Big Agri (e.g. Monsanto) the claim to authority of a given field of scientific practitioners is more contested and more problematic. Particularly when many of the recognised experts from those fields are either directly employees of the corporate interests with a stake in the policy debate, or are tied to research institutions that are directly or indirectly reliant on periodic funding from the same sources. 

The MMR vaccine controversy is still routinely referenced by many self-described “defenders of science” as an index of how vulnerable the general public is to “anti-science” arguments and thinking. In fact a great deal of time was wasted in the confrontation between the since discredited Dr. Wakefield and the scientific establishment by the refusal of the latter to acknowledge the very real financial incentives the pharma companies had in backing the new MMR vaccine. In the end it was the exposure of the financial conflict of interests Wakefield himself had that contributed as much to his public discrediting as to the uncovering of falsification in the results of his 1998 Lancet paper that triggered the controversy. 

The details of the episode are not as important as the general attitude, then and since, from the medical establishment that the public should accept their word on the basis of their collective “scientific” authority. And failing to see that the obvious economic incentives for Big Pharma in getting MMR declared safer than the pre-existing single vaccines (whose patent period had expired - by combining 3 into 1, the MMR vaccine was given a fresh 30 year “superprofits” patent) undermined their legitimacy. In capitalist society, authority is a class issue. Working class people’s scepticism in taking at face value declarations by experts that the economic interest their paymasters have in them declaring a given item safe, has in no way swayed their judgement, is based not on ignorance but on the “empiricism” of bitter experience. In other words public scepticism in such cases is not so much a rejection of evidence-based reasoning but its embrace.

Boundary policing

If the positivist claim to non-ideological status is a cornerstone of the passage from scientific legitimacy to scientific authority, then it also increasingly both creates and polices a divide within science itself. At first sight this boundary simply reflects the age old debate about the different character of “physical” science versus social science. However on closer inspection the boundary that partitions disciplines today into two separate, even opposing, camps is both more recent and the authority that polices it comes from a surprising source.

An illustrative case in point is the discipline of social psychology. In the immediate post-war period social psychology was a single inter-disciplinary field engaging both psychologists and sociologists. Today there are two fields bearing the same name, one in psychology the other in sociology. The sociological version inquires into the interactions of individual psychology with the structures, values and culture of society. The psychological version specifically rejects consideration of such “ideological” factors and concentrates on how individual psychologies are affected by awareness of being socially observed. The latter version also emphasises its rejection of grand overarching theories in preference to specific and focused findings and experimental research. (The resonance with postmodernist rejection of meta-narratives is instructive). A similar division also occurs in framing analysis, which began as an interdisciplinary field, was developed by sociology, and now has a specifically non-sociological psychology version, as developed by Tversky and Kahneman. Their version has, in turn, opened a new interdisciplinary connection, this time to neoclassical economics. 

In fact this connection is emblematic of a trend since the 1970s and the rise to dominance of political neoliberalism. In which the methodological individualism of the rational expectations theory of neoclassical economics (which, lest we forget, describes itself explicitly as “positive economics” or non-normative, value-free or “non-ideological” economics) has become the hegemonic pattern by which “serious” science is marked out from its ideologically-contaminated social or “pseudo-science” pretenders. Psychology is not the only field to break off from an interdisciplinary engagement with the wider social sciences to align with []. In the field of genetics Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene theory - and its correlate rejection of group selection - has in recent years come under attack from various sources as an importation of neoclassical methodological individualism into evolutionary biology. An attack to which, spluttering aside, Dawkins has yet to come up with a credible response to. 

The irony of this contemporary boundary between “proper” and (by implication) “improper” science is that it is effectively policed by reference to a social science, economics, that in other contexts many if not most science practitioners find of at best dubious empirical foundation if not outrightly laughable as a “non-ideological” discipline.

But if the contemporary interdisciplinary “colonialism” of neoclassical economics is being observed and critiqued by practitioners from evolutionary biology, psychology, medicine and other life sciences (not to mention other social sciences and heterodox economics) we should not mistake this particular neoliberal instance of positivism for the general tendency itself. The ideology of positivism has been an inseparable component of liberal progressivist ideology since long before Auguste Comte gave it a name. 

this text is excerpted from a longer text, “The Primacy of Praxis”, of which it was previously a sub-section, for the purposes of brevity.)



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