Friday, May 6, 2011

Saving Society through Science?

We've posted recently on the comparative successes of science in the 'hard' areas like physics and molecular biology and many others, and the rather bleak failure in the social sciences to live up to the hopes of the period known as the Enlightenment, that knowledge, reason, and science would lead to the perfection of society.  Utopian thinking dreamt of real perfection, but we don't have to be completely idealistic to ask how well the dream has been approached if not achieved.

Emile Zola
In our earlier posting we asserted that social science has been a rather dismal failure in that regard, despite extraordinary investment in research resources, the growing of university departments (psych., sociology, political science, economics, family studies, ethnic studies, and many others).  Tons of books and many board-feet of library shelves housing journals have resulted, but it's hard to say that society is better in major ways as a result of this kind of knowledge.  Cynically, what has been better is the lifestyle of social scientists.

It may be argued that the idea of such perfectability through knowledge is overstated and that it was not really something that 'stuck' after the 1700s and 1800s period itself.  But here is a quote, one of many on the subject of science triumphing over faith from the famous French novelist and political agitator (dreamer?), Emile Zola:
Was it indeed true that the cultured young were still and ever in their silent forge, renouncing no hope, relinquishing no conquest, but in full freedom of mind forging the truth and justice of to-morrow with the invincible hammers of observation and experiment? (The Three Cities Trilogy: Paris, Vol 2)
And later, Zola says, referring to the priest who has lost his faith,
And now the young men of intellect of whom he had despaired, that generation of the morrow which he had thought spoilt, relapsing into ancient error and rottenness, had appeared to him full of virile promise, resolved to prosecute the work of those who had gone before, and effect, by the aid of Science only, the conquest of absolute truth and absolute justice.
We have many criticisms of the life sciences, not so much because we haven't solved all the problems in biology but for the amount of largesse and the braggadocio and self-aggrandizement that is involved.  The same kind of boastful self-promotion is going on in the social sciences, especially as social scientists rush to do genomics--explaining all about your behavior and society in terms of genes.  This awful abandonment of social science in favor of genetics is a clear confession of failure but not an acceptance that loss of funding should go with it--until and unless social sciences begin to live up to what we should expect of them: to understand behavior and society so as to improve it and the world we live in.

Societies are perhaps the ultimate 'emergent' phenomenon, not predictable from measurement on individuals any more than the pressure of a gas can be predicted by enumerating each of its molecules.  It's a major challenge.  We can easily imagine an improved society, but we don't yet know how to engineer or even to predict it.

Zola's comments show that for quite a while there was a belief that science would do this.  The implicit promise of those still feeding at  the NIH and NSF funding trough shows that the belief, or at least the rationale, persists.  Isn't it time for some results?


Holly Dunsworth said...

Maybe studying people is the problem. Studying everything else but people puts people in a different perspective. And maybe a healthier one. And maybe a useful one as well. One that could improve people.

Ken Weiss said...

Maybe. The problem is that we cannot disengage our studies of ourselves from ourselves, and when we include other animals we tend to over-state and over-extrapolate from them to us. It happens every day: we're this or that way because of our primate (or hunter-gatherer) ancestors.

The great truth is that we are the cultural beast and that culture supplants, distorts, modifies, or reflects our 'innate' nature in so many ways that to understand culture we should not look too much to biological evolution. Worse than that, the evolutionary theorizing often--routinely!--attributes human traits to 'evolution' when many or most of the traits involved (e.g., selfishness, kin-favoring, etc.) were in place hundreds of millions of years before that, and are not primate- much less human-specific. What makes them human-specific is their various cultural contexts.

Unfortunately, the dual factors of the collapse of cultural anthropology into anti-scientism, and the mushroom like replacement with superficial evolutionary borrowing from Darwin not to mention the geneticizing of cultural behavior, have both done damage to the real problem, which is to understand culture on its own terms.

Personally, I see no relief in sight.