Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Regression on the Left

David F. Noble

Sometimes the Left is its own worst enemy, particularly when it uses its enemy’s tactics to silence internal dissent. In response to recent challenges to the current crusade against global warming, this dogmatic tendency of the left, here rooted in a naive scientism, has resurfaced with a vengeance. In its resolute repudiation of corporate “deniers,” the left has allied itself wholeheartedly with the “advocates,” adopting a stridency intolerant of doubt or dissent. Those on the left who dare to disagree are instantly denounced as deluded or, worse, deniers themselves. Perhaps most importantly they are accused (by Justin Podur in his response to challenges by Denis Rancourt, David Noble, and Alexander Cockburn) of launching “an attack on science,” of adopting an “anti-science tone”, and taking “anti-science positions.” George Monbiot, admitting his own scientific incompetence, repeatedly derides Cockburn for not grounding his dissenting views upon the allegedly irrefutable foundation of "peer-reviewed scientific journals," for only then, he avers, could we be sure "that they are worth discussing." The source of this new orthodoxy is an exaggerated reverence for science, which has in fact marked socialism since its inception, when supposed scientific verities served as the antidote to religion and religion-based power. Among the earliest socialists, for example, the followers of atheist Robert Owen, turned their devotion from God to steampower: “science was heard and the savage hearts of men were melted; the scabs fell from their eyes, a new life thrilled through their veins, their apprehensions were enobled, and as science spoke, the multitude knelt in love and obedience.” The so-called “scientific socialism” of Marxism followed this furrow for over a century. But such primitive faith in science has long since been powerfully challenged on the left, by fifty years of sustained critical analysis of, and direct confrontation with, the social construction and political realities of presumedly objective scientific enterprise. It is thus indeed remarkable, and alarming, how readily the left regresses into reflexive reliance upon its formative substitute religion.

From the late nineteenth-century on, the professionalizing practice of science was increasingly monopolized by a privileged elite and harnessed to the pecuniary ends of corporate capitalism, both subverting whatever liberatory potential it might ever have had. But periodically there have emerged popular challenges to this class-bound institutionalization of science. Taking the United States as a prime example, following the First World War and throughout the 1930's there was continuing criticism of the nefarious military uses of science, the corporate command over the agenda of science, and the private monopolization of the patented fruits of science. World War Two constituted a pivotal moment for this popular challenge, with its unprecedented government-sponsored mobilization of the nation's scientific resources for the war effort. For the first time, and forever thereafter, the taxpayer became by far the major source of funds for scientific endeavor, through a new system of government contracts and grants. And, in a democracy, if the taxpayer was paying for science, the taxpayer would have to have a degree of control over the content and agenda of science. Indeed, corporate and scientific leaders had in the past eschewed public support of their activities precisely for that reason, out of fear that reliance upon the public purse would bring with it public interference and oversight. Now, however, the scale of the financial support available made it too good to refuse, or ever give up. The problem was what to do about democracy.

During the war the problem was solved through military security. Under wartime pressures, the direction of science was vested in a civilian agency but dominated by leaders of the elite academic and professional institutions with close ties with major corporations. The chairman of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), Vannevar Bush, an official of MIT and a director of Raytheon and AT&T, was the embodiment of this elite assemblage. Predictably, the lion's share of contracts and grants went to the elite private universities and the largest corporations, along with patent rights to the most lucrative inventions. But by the middle of the war, just when the privileged few had begun to plan for the postwar continuation of this largesse, those left out of the arrangement and opposed to the wholesale corporate subsidy it entailed, had begun strenuously to object, and to propose a more egalitarian and democratic peacetime scientific establishment. Led by New Deal senator Harley Kilgore they put forth a plan for a postwar National Science Foundation that emphasized lay control over science and political accountability. It was to be headed by a presidentially appointed director advised by a board whose members would include citizens representing consumers, labor, and small businesses as well as large corporations and scientists. The agency would let contracts to firms and universities on an equitable basis and would retain public ownership of all patents. Kilgore envisioned the new agency as a democratic means to socially responsive science.

This democratic proposal alarmed Bush and his elite academic and corporate colleagues who formulated a counter proposal, for National Research Foundation (later, also called the National Science Foundation). Central to this plan was an agency that guaranteed professional rather than lay control over science, was insulated from political accountability, and gave its director discretion over the awarding of patent ownership. In essence, the Bush agency was designed to guarantee public support for scientists – and, indirectly, for the corporations they served as well - without public control, a regime of science run by scientists and paid for by the taxpayer. The two proposals for a postwar agency were debated in Congress for several years after the war. Kilgore's bill was backed by President Truman. The Bush bill was passed by a Republican-controlled Congress in 1947 but was vetoed by Truman, who stated, "the proposed National Science Foundation would be divorced from control by the people to an extent that implies a distinct lack of faith in democratic processes." In 1950 a compromise version of the Bush bill was passed and signed by Truman, now once again under (cold)wartime exigencies. The new agency included a presidentially-appointed director but a board composed only of scientists committed to continuing the comfortable patterns established by the OSRD during the war. As a bulwark against democratic oversight and lay involvement in the awarding of scientific contracts and grants, the agency adopted a new mechanism of exclusion: "peer review." Only peers - fellow privileged professionals, whatever their unacknowledged ties to commercial enterprise - could be involved in deciding upon the merits and agenda of science.

Peer review was a relatively novel concept. Editors of journals had in the past, at their own discretion on an ad hoc basis, referred manuscripts to anonymous reviewers before publication to aid them in their decisions, but this would now become required and routinized into standard practice. Peer review certainly had its benefits, such as credibility (peer review as PR), convenient credentialling (no need to read it if it has been peer reviewed), and consensus-building (through mutual back-scratching). But it also had its costs, such as prior censorship (by interested parties), and, especially, the coercive encouragement of conformity. If peer review served to immunize science from democratic scrutiny and intervention, it also imposed a measure of like-mindedness upon the scientific community itself, mistakenly celebrated as consensus. Invariably, this tended to narrow the scope of respectable discourse and, hence, of the scientific imagination, inbreeding often entailing a degree of enfeeblement. A safeguard against error, it might also eliminate eccentric approaches and illuminating mistakes, often the key to significant discovery. And if intended to insure that only correct papers were permitted to be published, why then the need for the community of science at all? Peer review before publication would suffice to guarantee that only the truth prevailed. Such perils of peer review were early detected and condemned by the physicist Albert Einstein, after his arrival in America. Having submitted a co-authored paper to the journal Physical Review, he was dismayed to learn that it had bean sent by the editor to an anonymous reviewer. "We had sent our manuscript for publication and had not authorized you to show it to specialists before it is printed," an irate Einstein wrote the editor. “On the basis of this incident I prefer to publish the paper elsewhere.” Einstein never again contributed to that journal. In Germany he had published in a journal edited by Max Planck, whose editorial philosophy was “to shun much more the reproach of having suppressed strange opinions than of having been too gentle in evaluating them.”

Despite its defects, peer review became the hallmark of the exclusive scientific establishment (and, eventually - and disastrously - of all of academia), and for a short while the hegemony of the elite remained relatively secure. But it did not long remain unchallenged. By the late 1950's growing concerns about the abuse and misuse of science and its deleterious effects, both intended and unintended, focused increasing attention on the responsibility of scientists, ultimately crystallizing into something new: criticism of science itself. Campaigns against the atomic and hydrogen bombs, nuclear power, radiation, pesticides and other petrochemicals, as well as pollution and environmental degradation, thus gave rise to unprecedented scrutiny of scientists themselves and, eventually, to critical studies of the historical, social, political, and cultural context, and epistemological framework, of western science.

In 1962 Rachel Carson, mother of the modern environmental movement, published Silent Spring, her landmark expose on the dangers of pesticides. Carson's enormously influential book, serialized in the New Yorker, directly and courageously challenged the then sacrosanct petrochemical industry and the complicit scientific establishment that supported it. Carson had no Ph.D. and her work was not peer-reviewed. That same year 1962 Thomas Kuhn published his equally influential critical study of the history of western science, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Introducing the concept of scientific "paradigm" and "paradigm shift," Kuhn argued that scientific theories were not the product of some detached, disinterested community of truth-seekers, but of more familiar social and cultural forces and contexts, which tended to encourage conformity and discourage dissent and bold departures. While Carson's work heightened ecological awareness and propelled the environmental movement into popular focus, Kuhn's work, wittingly or not, opened the pandora's box on the politics of science, giving rise to troublesome questions about supposed truths and paving the way for popular challenges to the authority of the expert. The convergence of these developments was epitomized by the audacious efforts of “ordinary housewife” Lois Gibbs and her neighbors in the Love Canal community of upstate New York, who came to their own independent, and correct, conclusions about the dangers of the toxic waste dump in their midst, rejected the dismissive reports of state and federal scientists and, ultimately, after gaining national media attention and taking federal authorities hostage, succeeded in their demands for subsidized relocation.

Throughout this period, the left newly informed by ecological and feminist sensibilities, belatedly came to understand that the verities of science and technology were in fact contingent, like everything else. Scholars and activists on the left played a major role in opening up and exploring this newly revealed realm of power and ideology. Their efforts implicated science in the depredations and deformations of corporate capitalism, and, at the same time, disclosed a more expansive and emancipatory understanding of the range of scientific possibilities, of alternatives, of different kinds of science, of a "science for the people." By the late 1970's, however, with the launching of a broad corporate counter-offensive against government regulation, in the name of competitiveness and marked by a strident reaffirmation of faith in science (renamed “innovation”) and the authority of experts, this new critical comprehension of the nature of science came under sustained attack for being “anti-science.” The corporate agenda and corporate propaganda dominated the terrain and the discourse for a decade and a half, marginalizing the left and drowning out its new critical voices. Ultimately, the corporate message congealed into a single word, which hinted at a unified corporate-controlled world: "globalization."

Alas, to the delight of the dialecticians, this unity invariably elicited its opposite, the “anti-globalization” or “global justice” movement. Erupting worldwide in the wake of the Zapatista rebellion against neoliberalism, this new movement took aim against all manifestations of the corporate agenda as well as its institutional and ideological foundations. Once more the critical voices re-emerged, amplified, against the ravages of capitalism, the market, and the corporation. And here again science and technology came under critical surveillance and challenge, with a particular focus on genetic engineering and genetically-modified organisms. As Rachel Carson had confronted the petrochemical industry and its scientific penumbra so now activists confronted agribusiness and the so-called “life science” industry and their academic attendants, exposing the error of their ways and, in the process, the politics of science.

In the midst of the corporate globalization movement, the giants of the oil and gas industry, fearing a threat to their soaring profits, launched their campaign of denial against the spectre of global warming. At the height of the anti-globalization movement, other corporate players, seeing new profit-making opportunities in the same spectre, launched their opposing campaign of advocacy and alarm. (For a fuller discussion, see my article "The Corporate Climate Coup.") Meanwhile, in the face of mounting repression, a war on terror, corporate cooptation, and the need to divert energies into an anti-war movement, the global justice movement eroded. With the dissipation of that movement, its critical revolutionary voices were once again marginalized, along with its radical critique of science. In remarkably short order, debate within the left on the issue of climate change became a mere reflection of the orchestrated duel between corporate rivals, deniers and advocates, shorn of any radical substance of its own. Regressing instead, in apparent disarray and desperation, to the false securities of its former innocence, the left has all but abandoned the field on its own terms, avoiding any confrontation with power. Relying now upon the weapons of the left's erstwhile enemies to defend their own witting or unwitting complicity, its mainstream mavens, ever protective of their respectability astride the corporate wave, condemn and dismiss the remnant of critics of science as “anti-science” and disregard dissenting arguments on the grounds that they have not been subjected to “peer review.” In light of such a dismal display, it is perhaps time for the left once again to put science in perspective, and aside, and return to the revolution.

Historian David F. Noble teaches at York University in Toronto. His latest book is Beyond the Promised Land (2005). Like all of his other publications, this article has not been peer-reviewed.

DGR's suggested related links:
The Corporate Climate Coup
Global Warming: Truth or Dare?
Taking CO2 Seriously
Are Physicists Smart?


Anonymous said...

Peer-review is not the be-all and end all, rather only a tool. Other tools are the use of experiments, data and quantitative measures.

When at least some of those are brought to the table, people may listen. Until then you're just a guy blasting a ghetto blaster in a room that's already too loud. Anectodal evidence is just that, and a guy standing on a soapbox isn't walking on the walk.

DGR is a physicist and a lake sediment modeler. He's also declared himself an environmental science researcher with an interest in climate models. If he's serious, let's see a physically-based model built with the best available data that supports his climate change contentions and then we can start a discourse within the boundaries of science. The IPCC has, and met the burden behind their assertions far more competently than he has.

You're a historian. Let's see a methodology based on the 'natural experiments' approach Jared Diamond has used so effectively to meet the burden behind his assertions.

Anonymous said...

n the midst of the corporate globalization movement, the giants of the oil and gas industry, fearing a threat to their soaring profits, launched their campaign of denial against the spectre of global warming. At the height of the anti-globalization movement, other corporate players, seeing new profit-making opportunities in the same spectre, launched their opposing campaign of advocacy and alarm

As was mentioned in a previous comment this is a remarkably bad argument, even from bad scientists. Advocating bad science because 'everybody else is doing it' is reprehensible and betrays the public trust.

Anonymous said...


The orthodox left is rotten to the core. It actually functions as an ideological prop of the hyperfascist imperium. Consider the following:

The Fed Reserve is a PRIVATE bank that lends fiat currency to the USA govt which then raises taxes to pay back said loans to the fed. The Fed is the daddy of the Petrodollar.

You know that secret agreement brokered by Kissinger (after the $ fell off the gold standard in 1971) with the Saudis (as swing producer able to flood the market & destroy anyone defying their policy) that ALL oil be sold in $ in exchange for `protection'. THIS gave the USA an unlimited credit card enabling it to pass off the costs of its institutioanlised hyperinflation ($9Trillion nat debt, $60Trillion accumalated other liabilies as per Brookings Institute estimates & the $370Trillion derivatives pyramid) onto the rest of humanity just by PRINTING $$$ & fund the army that protects the Petrodollar (costing more than rest of world's combined) via the same printing press.

Now the more cynical will be thinking `awesome'! BUT.

The purpose of this is to enable the USA to export its inflation to the rest of the world (in exchange for IoU's called treasury bonds, really IFUs); eg THIS is why USA doesn't produce anything anymore, because you don't want those $$$ to return fuelling VISIBLE as opposed to INSTITUTIONALISED inflation. This is also why you are surrendering California for AZTLAN, because your elite's need to keep the oil sold in $$$ to preserve the $ global reserve status, the source of their (not Your) geo strategic political economic power & wealth. The surrender of California keeps YOUR psycho political focus divided. You find it MUCH harder to wage war on 2 fronts, against your elites AND unrestrained migration, so you appeal pathetically to said elites `WHY don't you halt immigration?'

Answer, because for these useless & crazy plutocrats it is not only a Q of cheap labor but MORE importantly preventing you tearing their throats out. It is literally a matter of life & death for them to preserve control of the geo political economic & strategic agenda by selling the USA to the devil. it is like a plate spinner that has to keep this unnatural state of affairs going to prevent the crash.

Well, the imperium WILL crash. & when it does, your all gonna have to work damned hard to convince the rest of the world its in their interests to keep you alive. because you aren't going to have any money to actually pay for the oil. So here's the deal.

Establish the Common Ownership of Information (every 3rd world peasant to have access to every book/ piece of technical info ever produced on a wind up wifi laptop from MIT) in exchange for the oil remaining on long enough to effect the transition to solar powered microgeneration (without the oil the info is lost & without the info the oil is worthless). The corresponding substantive sovereignty of the individual can thence be pooled to effect control over our energy based (I agree, gold IS inhrently deflationary, but for Christjesus sakes' no one is going to accept fiat $$$ anymore) currencies...

Meyer Rothschidl: `Give me control over a nations' currency & I care not who writes its' laws'.

...establishing a tough basic constittuional fabric able to martial locally & globally in realtime to repel the machinations of any cabal of banksters, energy barons & secureaucrats out to plunder private & public wealth.

In the interim support Ron Paul in exposing this Fed Reserve scam,
because it will help to expose what the Petrodollar wars are all about. & the rest of the world will not forgive you if you engage in nuke war to prop up the petrodollar. There will be no deals thence, only the destruction of everyone's children through the logic of MAD...

Anonymous said...

2vE35d actually, that's brilliant. Thank you. I'm going to pass that on to a couple of people.

Anonymous said...

Please write anything else!

Mr. Raven said...

The reason the left traditionally relied on science to underpin it's metaphysics is its testable unlike a metaphysics based on faith that some mysterious "energy," or god or goddess governs the universe which is the sort of apologetics those in unsupportable positions of hierarchy used to justify their claims. The loss of rationality and use of the scientific method on the left is part of our unweaving IMO. The old rationalist left won victory after victory between the turn of the 20th century and the 1950s fro worker's rights, women's rights, environmentalism, against racism, etc. And the new cognitive relativist New Age left that has no filters to distinguish between objective truth and b.s.? Not so much... :(

Levantine said...

Such perils of peer review were early detected and condemned by the physicist Albert Einstein, after his arrival in America. Having submitted a co-authored paper to the journal Physical Review, he was dismayed to learn that it had bean sent by the editor to an anonymous reviewer. "We had sent our manuscript for publication and had not authorized you to show it to specialists before it is printed," an irate Einstein wrote the editor. “On the basis of this incident I prefer to publish the paper elsewhere.” Einstein never again contributed to that journal. In Germany he had published in a journal edited by Max Planck, whose editorial philosophy was “to shun much more the reproach of having suppressed strange opinions than of having been too gentle in evaluating them.”

In the episode of Einstein with the Physical Review, the criticisms in the peer reviews of Einstein's paper have turned out to be correct:
Would its publication serve Einstein well in the long run?
This pdf article makes a case for the virtues of peer review. Of course, silver bullets should be out of question. Everyone should be watchful of the actual social practices, trends and possibilities.

Denis Rancourt said...

@Levantine: In my reading of the interesting paper that you link (Physics Today, 2005), the paper actually provides more arguments against editor-imposed anonymous peer-review rather than support for the practice. Had the paper originally been published as-is, then the original manuscript would not have disappeared and many more physicists (and more quickly) could have benefited from Einstein's "error". Physics would have been enriched by a transparent exchange, rather than covered up behind unrecorded personal exchanges. As I see it.