Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Knowledge is Power

At the dawn of the modern science era, in 1597, Francis Bacon, a founding empiricist, used the phrase 'knowledge is power'. To Bacon, "knowledge itself is power", that is, knowledge of how the world works would lead whoever had it to extract resources and wield power over the world--science would enable Empire.

This view of science has persisted. It was important in the early founding of the Royal Society and other prominent British scientific societies in the 17th and 18th centuries and beyond. The technology and even basic knowledge that was fostered did, indeed, help Britannia to rule the waves.

Basic science was the playground of the classic idle wealthy of the 1700s and surrounding years, and applied technology was developed by people not formally beneficiaries of 'education' as it was done in those times. In the US, major scientific investment, such as in large telescopes, was funded by private philanthropy--of wealthy industrialists who could see the value of applied science.

We tend perhaps to romanticize the 18th and 19th centuries, the era of Newton, Darwin, and many others, who advanced science in all areas--geological, physical, chemical, and biological, without doing so for personal or financial gain. But at the same time, there was much activity in applied science and technology and even in 1660 when the Royal Society was founded with government support, gain was one of the objectives.

An informative series about the history of the Royal Society and of other scientific activities in Britain was aired the week of Jan 4 on BBC Radio 4, on the program called In Our Time--the four parts are now available online. Much of the discussion shows that the interleaving of government funding, geopolitics, and avarice were as important when the Royal Society was funded, as now, in driving science.

There can be no doubt about the importance of systematic investigation of the ways of Nature in transforming society during the industrial revolution. The result was due to a mix of basic and applied science. The good was accompanied by the bad: daily life was made easier and healthier, but episodes of industrialized warfare made it more horrible. On the whole, it has allowed vastly more people to live, and live longer, than ever before. But it's also allowed vastly more people to struggle in poverty, too. (The discovery of novocaine for use by dentists may alone justify the whole enterprise!)

The post-WWII era seemed to foster lots of basic science. But in the US the National Science Foundation and other institutions poured money into science largely, at least, in response to the fears that the Soviet Union whose space program was far ahead of ours, might gain on us in world prominence. So there was a recurring pragmatic drive for supporting science.

The university dependence on research grants was one of the beneficiaries of this drive. We think this has been awful for science, since careers depend on money-generating by faculty, and that leads to safe, short-term thinking, even if more funds mean more opportunity. The intellectually thin Reagan administration's demand that research should translate into corporate opportunity was just a continuation of the materialistic element of support for science.

In a way, we're lucky that basic science, disinterested science actually got done, and lots of it at that! Human society probably can't be expected to put resources into things so abstract as basic science, with no promise or obvious way to lead to better pencils, medicine, or bombs. So it's no wonder that universities, bureaucracies, and scientists alike hype their personal interests in terms of the marvels to be returned to the funders.

Such a system understandably leads to entrenched vested interests who ensure their own cut of the pie. We routinely write about these vested interests and the effect we believe they have on the progress of knowledge. But, as anthropologists, we have to acknowledge that the self-interest that is part of the package is not a surprise. After all, why should we be able to feed off the taxpaying public without at least promising Nirvana in exchange? Human culture is largely about systematized resource access and distribution, and this is how we happen to do that these days.

Under these conditions science may not be as efficient or effective as it might otherwise be. A few MegaResearchers will, naturally, acquire an inordinately large share of the pie. Much waste and trivia will result. The best possible science may not be done.

Nonetheless, it's clear that knowledge does progress. A century hence, it will be our descendants who judge what resulted from our system that was of real value. The chaff in science, as in the arts, sports, or any other area of life, will be identifiable, and will be the majority. But the core of grain will be recognized for its lasting value and impact.

BUT that doesn't mean we should resign ourselves to the way the system works, to its greed, waste, hierarchies, and its numerous drones who use up resources generating incremental advance (at best). That is part of life, but only by the pressure of criticism of its venality and foibles can the System be nudged towards higher likelihoods of real innovation and creativity in knowledge.

It's remarkable that blobs of protoplasm, evolved through molecules of DNA and the like from some primordial molecular soup, understand the universe that produced it as well as we actually do. And we will continue to build on what we know; empirical, method-driven activity is a powerful approach to material gain. Embedded in inequity, vanity, venality, and other human foibles, we nonetheless manage to manipulate our world in remarkable ways.

The history of the Royal Society and other science societies that reflect the growth of society generally, as reflected in these BBC programs, is a fascinating one. But that doesn't change our belief that, in principle at least, we could make better use of our knowledge and abilities to manipulate our world toward less inequity, vanity, venality and so on.

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