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Science is a social institution about which there is a great deal of misunderstanding, even among those who are part of it. We think that science is an institution, a set of methods, a set of people, a great body of knowledge that we call scientific, is somehow apart from the forces that rule our everyday lives and that govern the structure of our society. We think science is objective. Science has brought us all kinds of good things. It has tremendously increased the production of food. It has increased our life expectancy from a mere 45 years at the beginning of the last century to over 70 in rich places like North America. It has put people on the moon and made it possible to sit at home and watch the world go by.
At the same time, science, like other productive activities, like the state, the family, sport, is a social institution completely integrated into and influenced by the structure of all our other social institutions. The problems that science deals with, the ideas that it uses in investigating those problems, even the socalled scientific results that come out of scientific investigation, are all deeply influenced by predispositions that derive from the society in which we live. Scientists do not begin life as scientists, after all, but as social beings immersed in a family, a state, a productive structure, and they view nature through a lens that has been molded by their social experience.
Above that personal level of perception, science is molded by society because it is a human productive activity that takes time and money, and so is guided by and directed by those forces in the world that have control over moneyand time. Science uses commodities and is part of the process of commodity production. Science uses money. People earn their living by science, and as a consequence the dominant social and economic forces in society determine to a large extent what science does and how it does it. More than that, those forces have the power to appropriate from science ideas that are particularly suited to the maintenance and continued prosperity of the social structures of which they are a part. So other social institutions have an input into science both in what is done and how it is thought about, and they take from science concepts and ideas that then support their institutions and make them seem legitimate and natural. It is this dual process--on the one hand, of the social influence and control of what scientists do and say, and, on the other hand, the use of what scientists do and say to further support the institutions of society--that is meant when we speak of science as ideology.
Science serves two functions. First, it provides us with new ways of manipulating the material world by producing a set of techniques, practices, and inventions by which new things are produced and by which the quality of our lives is changed. These are the aspects of science to which scientists appeal when they try to get money from governments or when they appear on the front pages of newspapers in their public relations efforts to maintain their prosperity. We read repeatedly about how "science has discovered" something, but more often than not those announcements are hedged with qualifiers. Biologists discover "evidence for" genes that "may one day" lead to "a possible" cure for cancer. While their over-optimistic reports breed a certain cynicism, it is nevertheless true that scientists do actually change the way we confront the material world.
The second function of science, which is sometimes independent and sometimes closely related to the first, is the function of explanation. Even if scientists are not actually changing the material mode of our existence, they are constantly explaining why things are the way they are. It is often said that these theories about the world must be produced in order, ultimately, to change the world through practice. After all, how can we cure cancer unless we understand what causes cancer? How can we increase food production unless we understand the laws of genetics and plant and animal nutrition?
Yet it is remarkable how much important practical science has been quite independent of theory. In Chapter 3, 1 will consider one of the most famous examples of scientific agricultural change: the introduction of hybrid corn all over the world. Hybrid corn is said to be one of the great triumphs of modern genetics in action, helping to feed people and increase their well-being. Yet the development of hybrid corn and, indeed, almost all plant and animal breeding as it is actually practiced has been carried out in a way that is completely independent of any scientific theory. Indeed, a great deal of plant and animal breeding has been done in a way indistinguishable from the methods of past centuries before anyone had ever heard of genetics.
The same is true for our attempts to cope with killers like cancer and heart disease. Most cures for cancer involve either removing the growing tumor or destroying it with powerful radiation or chemicals. Virtually none of this progress in cancer therapy has occurred because of a deep understanding of the elementary processes of cell growth and development, although nearly all cancer research, above the purely clinical level, is devoted precisely to understanding the most intimate details of cell biology. Medicine remains, despite all the talk of scientific medicine, essentially an empirical process in which one does what. works.
Also in Chapter 3, I will consider the relationship between scientific biology and changes in life expectancy. It is not at all clear that a correct understanding of how the world works is basic to a successful manipulation of the world. But explanations of how the world really works serve another purpose, one in which there has been a remarkable success, irrespective of the practical truth of scientific claims. The purpose is that of legitimation.
Posted February 7, 2011
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