Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Truth is Out There

I've been re-reading The Bias of Science by Brian Martin, published in 1979, which figured in my master's thesis. (Which, by the way, was titled Which Way is Up? Social Welfare and the Ideology of Progress.) I find that some of Martin's monograph holds up okay, some of it not so well. But it strikes me that overall, there's been a fairly radical reversal in the zeitgeist in just 30 years.

Martin builds a political and social critique of the scientific enterprise around a dispute which is nearly forgotten: whether it was wise to operate a large fleet of supersonic transports (SSTs). Proposals for SSTs were promoted in the 1970s in the U.S., Britain, France and the Soviet Union. They were controversial mostly on environmental grounds -- opponents were worried about sonic booms (unquestionably real) and the possibility that emissions of oxides of nitrogen from jet engines in the stratosphere would deplete the earth's protective ozone shield. Martin closely analyzes two scientific papers, one supporting the danger of ozone depletion and the other minimizing it, and finds them both tendentious in various ways.

One key point of Martin's critique is that a debate framed almost entirely as environmental directed attention away from economic issues. It scarcely seemed remarkable at the time that a large public investment was needed for the SST even to be possible, and it is interesting that he doesn't even seem to notice this. It would surely be noticed today. But regardless of where the money was coming from, did it make sense to put what would in today's terms be many of billions of dollars of R&D and production costs into a means for rich people to save a couple of hours on a transatlantic flight?

As it turns out, the economic question took care of itself. In the end, only 20 Concordes were every built and they were retired in 2003 because there weren't enough rich people willing to do that after all. The U.S. program never happened, and the Soviet program was a failure that never operated commercially.

I hope to discuss Martin's work in some detail eventually, but for now I want to notice One Big Thing. Back in the ancient world of the 1970s, there was a substantial critical movement both within and outside of science that viewed the scientific enterprise as largely a creature of corporate and elite power. This was partly based from within a broad acceptance of the philosophy of science, but attentive to the selection of scientific problems, and the way in which findings were promoted, suppressed, and interpreted to serve privileged interests. It was also partly based in more radical "post modernist" critiques which contended in essence that all interpretations of reality are at least to some degree arbitrary and which even seemed to deny the existence of objective reality. Martin mostly wants to be in the first place, but he at least sets foot in the second.

Nowadays, however, there is something wrong with this picture. Nobody can claim that science, on balance, is a tool of corporate interests, when the corporate party in the United States is an implacable enemy of a large swath of scientific understanding. Corporate power never managed to recruit more than a small minority of scientists, mostly people whose careers had failed to develop within mainstream scientific institutions, to its well-funded campaigns to deny the health effects of tobacco, or lead pollution; the environmental effects of acid rain, mercury, and fine particle pollution; or more currently, anthropogenic global climate change.

To be sure, the corporate media were seduced by these campaigns for a while, and still are by global climate change denialism, but ultimately the scientific consensus won out in the earlier cases, as it surely will in the latest. We have seen that in an important applied area of science, evaluation of new drugs and medical devices, corporations have succeeded in suppressing findings unfavorable to their products and manipulating and cherry picking data that favor them. But it turns out that there was enough countervailing pressure from university and even government experts that they are finding this more and more difficult to do. (It doesn't hurt that they keep getting successfully sued either.)

It turns out that for all that it proceeds by fits and starts, goes down blind alleys and stumbles over falsities, over time science does converge on ineluctable truths. The world really is a certain way, it really does make certain kinds of sense, and if you keep hacking away at it you will find that out. It is what it is. And if that happens to be uncongenial to the Koch brothers, all of their billions cannot change it.


roger said...

the politics within science are bad enough. eg. is the shape of our eyeballs fixed or fluid?

when the politics of profits buts in we are really in deeper doodoo. a lot of harm can be done while we sort out what's what.

C. Corax said...

I saw the tail end of a program on Nova last night, about fractals. I was skeptical about the bit I saw, but I figured that if the science was published in a peer-reviewed outlet, then sooner or later, someone would try to replicate the results. The program ended, the credits rolled...and there was a credit for David H. Koch. Suddenly I wished I had seen the whole program so I'd know what b.s. he was trying to push.

Cervantes said...

The Koch's do make some non-political contributions, which presumably helps legitimize their climate change denialism. I don't know about the Nova program on fractals, specifically.