Political Science

Posted by | Chris | 14.7.10 | 3 Comments

While on holiday I read Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics. It’s a excellent book full of ideas and some brilliantly lucid insights into philosophical and scientific problems. I’m going to try and write another post inspired by my reading but in this one I want to write about a perhaps unexpected aspect of the book; a sociological critique of science and the academy.

It’s a surprising pleasure to read a scientist concerned with the “groupthink” of his discipline and the hegemonic powers of modern universities. It’s also a testament to Smolin’s intelligence and urbane attitude that he is clear about the need for interdisciplinary criticism; e.g. philosophy for the metaphysical problems of physics and sociology for the organisational problems of academia.

One of the chapters of this section deals with a distinction in the practice of science between master craftspeople and seers. Craftspeople are the technically gifted workers of a stable paradigm, people working within a theory to explore its applications. Seers are those more creative or enquiring people concerned for the fundamental questions of a theory, the basis for accepting certain paradigms and the possibility of new imaginative approaches.

Smolin’s distinction can be compared interestingly to Pierre Hadot’s Promethean and Orphic approaches to nature. The Promethean sees nature as a standing reserve, a resource to be probed, exposed and technically exploited. The Orphic is more poetic in his vision, creating with the signs of nature new forms of understanding.

Neither Smolin’s nor Hadot’s divisions represent a binary opposition or absolutely distinct categories; in both cases there is a potential for fuzzy boundaries and overlap. Indeed, in this respect the comparison is illuminating since under Hadot’s scheme it would be easy to imagine contemporary science as Promothean. Yet Smolin’s chapter is full of examples of potentially Orphic scientists, the creative seers who inspire revolutions.

In Smolin’s sociological critique of the academy he highlights the exclusion from contemporary debate of the kind of seers he argues are necessary for progress in physics. By biases in peer review and the short-term goals of administration elder scientists control tenure and grants which they reward to younger scientists active in accepted areas of study. Independent minded and critical young scientists are deprived of opportunities by a hegemony unwilling to accept deviation from the dominant ideology.

Smolin attributes the lack of genuine new theories or discoveries - or progress in the five fundamental problems laid out at the beginning of the book – in the last 20-30 years to an academic system privileging the technical continuity of craftspeople and excluding seers. “It is fantasy to imagine that foundational problems can be solved by technical problem solving within existing theories” (314).

I cannot help but think that the situation in contemporary physics departments is a reflection of wider cultural adherence to the ideological tenets of market based or neo-liberal capitalism. In contemporary capitalism the Promethean attitude is at it’s most extreme; everything is a resource to be measured and exploited. What is lost in this any possibility of a wider cultural value.

In physics “people with impressive technical skills and no ideas are chosen over people with their own partly because there is no simple way to rank young people who think for themselves. The system is set up not just to do normal science [in the Kuhnian sense, opposed to revolutionary science] but to ensure that normal science is what gets done” (339). Smolin’s criticisms of string theory then can be considered in the sense of an ideological critique.

That we live at the end of history means that we no longer want to be asked questions about our ideology. That we in a post-metaphysical world means the same for our ontology. The growth of string theory is contemporaneous with the growth of neo-liberal capitalism and post-modernism, which is the cultural logic of late-capitalism . Smolin in fact mentions a “post-modern conference on string theory” that took place. The post-modern title referred to the fact that this theory redefined scientific practice and needed no empirical testing. Since there were no alternatives (or rather there were but they had been excluded from the discourse) it must be right.

“There must be an honest evaluation of the wisdom of sticking to a research program that has failed after decades to find grounding in either experimental results or precise mathematical formulation” (352). The same need for evaluation (by empirical reality i.e. material inequality, environmental degradation, mental health etc. if not mathematical formulation) can easily be said of the capitalist logic of contemporary culture. The dogmatic assertion of right, even in the face of obvious failures, marks the post-logic of politics, science and the academy.

In the UK at the moment the changes in funding and the focus on the STEM subjects, to the detriment of the humanities, is going to reinforce precisely the hegemony Smolin criticises. Smolin makes one or two references in the book to his undergraduate education and encounters with philosophy. It seems likely that it was precisely this broadening of his academic understanding that inform his wide-ranging interests as well as his critical skills. New students in British universities in STEM subjects, with limited chances for encounters with humanities or other disciplines, are going to end up precisely “with impressive technical skills and no ideas”.

A little while ago Alex, Zach and I had a discussion about what Marxism was. I remembered after the fact a discussion on Levi Bryant’s blog about the BP oil spill. Whereas most analysis of the event in the media has focused on individuals “what Marxist analysis reveals is how such apparently individual events are effects of the systematic functioning of capital”.

I’m not suggesting that Smolin is a Marxist (though he’s certainly aware of Marxist thought). For one, as the discussion on Bryant’s blog also points out, Marxism may be a historico-materialist form of criticism but not all historico-materialist form of criticism are Marxist. There is no doubt however that Smolin is interested in a structural criticism of politics, science, and the academy. It is not the fault of individual scientists that string theory enjoys dominance despite its failing, but instead an effect of a system geared towards certain criteria which distort the functioning of culture and science.

Any explicit politics is in fact left out of The Trouble with Physics. In which case it becomes even more intriguing to learn (in a brief note in the introduction I think) that Smolin has considered writing a book on physics and politics. I can’t find any other information on this but Smolin’s Ted Talk arguing that “Our concepts of society have paralleled our understanding of space and time” is brilliant:


3 Responses to “Political Science”

  1. Zachariah
    14/7/10 09:41

    I had very similar thoughts about the BP oil spill: even if every executive at BP were fired, it would still miss the point.

    Your post also reminded me of a couple of books (that I haven't read):

    Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism by Frederick Jameson.

    The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change by David Harvey.

  2. peter
    15/7/10 03:02

    really interesting post chris. your end thoughts on string theory match mine - it is the self-organisation of the overall effect (i.e. an emergent property) that causes string theory to be dominant. no one scientist causes it. it is the positive feedback loops between multiple scientists (what bataille would cause the accursed share) that leads to an exponential result of the current situation.

    in this case the result is detrimental and strikes me as being analogous to the medea hypothesis - in that the emergent organisation of the particle-physics-community is committing suicide through a lack of diversity. an apoptasis - a self-organised destruction. this is horrible when u consider it in terms of being one of main ways of combatting fideism. if our speculative resources for enquirying into nature become MONOpolosised and dwindle into monotony they stagnant and die. an evolutionary conception of thought points to dark times ahead if this is not actively (th)fought; because while academia stagnants and encourages fideism, the fundamentalists and mystics cloud the debates and entice the times of the dark ages when free thought was stiffled.

    i realised ive waffled a bit but this sort of stuff about group dynamics (what id like to call the affective network) is what i wrote my dissetation on and it fascinates me

  3. peter
    26/8/10 05:14

    wow, that's the first time i've been able to view that smolin talk. that was amazing. in less than 15mins he covered some crazy ideas, brilliantly. i dont even know where to begin with thinking about them. the way we weaved scientific conceptions of the universe with social thought was just genius in the fact that he got a complex idea across really simplistically.

    i wonder how his ideas here of a relational universe of actors in networks ties in with the speculative realists (iain et al) and also our panpsychist discussions. could this immananent self-organisation he talks about be moulded into a panpsychist conception of dynamic matter? where all things have a value - i'm thinking here of the stuff chris told me about the vibrant mAtter book - and that this is both a non-anthropocentric model and yet a romantic view of reality.
    the only problem for me is disorder - the nihilism that brassier wants to address. if the universe is so ordered why is there disorder? does this imply two forces? one that destroys and one that creates or is a slimy oscilating zero that is both destroyer and creator? etc

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