The Stakes and Ends of Historicising Science

By Sam Phoenix Clarke (@samjphoenix)

Science, broadly conceived, is the best instrument we have for understanding, predicting, and controlling the natural world in accordance with our needs. But science as it actually happens is messy, contingent, and fallible. The social processes by which science is done – the formulation of problems, the generation and testing of hypotheses, the review and evaluation of knowledge by peers, the publication and communication of discovery, the translation of new research into policy – are all necessarily vulnerable to human error, miscommunication, and the overturning of previously secure knowledge.

This is demonstrated by the ways some academics, politicians and journalists have spoken about science in public life over the last two years. Every aspect of science is open to misinterpretation, abuse, and unjustified or erroneous action on the part of political actors. The production of scientific knowledge, the formation of an expert consensus, and the translation of this consensus into public knowledge and policy are all processes which struggle to respond to crisis inside the smaller timescales on which politicians and the media are used to operating. Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, for example, scientists and politicians have been seen to ‘flip-flop’ on issues such as the efficacy of masks, the utility of lockdowns and the safety of vaccines. Issues of epistemic legitimacy in politics became prime: what kind of a thing is scientific knowledge? When can a politician justifiably claim to be acting backed up by this authority? What kind of public relationship to science is desirable?

A dilemma presents itself. Should science be presented, in pedagogy, public discourse, and science communication, as a set of eternal facts about the natural world, ascertained by a transhistorical, self-correcting method, and standing outside of particular social interests? Or should science be presented as ‘inside’ history – something inextricable from values and ideology; as something carried out by fallible agents acting under imperfect motivations and incentives, and always marked by the contingencies of whichever concepts we inherit to order and articulate the world? If the former: what happens when science ‘goes wrong’ – when scientists err, when policy fails, when the knowledge used to legitimate political authority and the violence there entailed turns out to have been false? If the latter: how can science be justified as better than other forms of knowledge; how can political actors legitimate claims to be acting in the best interest of the populace; and how can the independence and objectivity of scientific knowledge be asserted with sufficient credibility to tackle humanity’s greatest problems?

In the Britain of the 1930s, scientists struggled with similar problems regarding the historicity and legitimacy of scientific knowledge. Amongst left-wing scientists, there was a sense that a rational, conscious application of scientific knowledge to social need would be necessary to recover from economic and political crisis: that capitalist economies, as it stood, were unable to make the best use of science and technology to meet social welfare. On the other hand, they believed that a public disillusionment with science was breeding a superstitious, reactionary approach to knowledge, preparing the ground for science to be applied not to the satisfaction of human needs but entrenching the power of an autocratic elite.

The X-ray crystallographer and socialist theorist John Desmond Bernal, in his 1939 The Social Function of Science, argued that to teach science as a static set of results, as metaphysical doctrine, or as the isolated product of individual genius could produce disastrous results. Considering science’s very real capacity for error, and the dual threats of overproduction and unemployment, Bernal argued that blind faith in science would fuel political reaction and bolster attempts to suppress scientific research. In doing so, Bernal criticised the ideology of ‘pure science’ – the anachronistic and mythological conception of the scientist as the solitary, isolated figure, motivated purely by the pursuit of knowledge, and operating in a sphere of activity aloof from corporate, military, and political ends.

Bernal argued, against this, that science must be understood as a set of practices. Science should be situated, he argued, in relation to the practical needs and problems of its time and place. It works to understand and satisfy them, developing new agendas and identifying new problems from this work. Science, he wrote, must be understood as a ‘human activity linked to all other human activities and continuously interacting with them […] continually working over its earlier findings with greater self-consciousness and greater power of integration’. [1] The problem-sets and agendas scientists work on do not come from nowhere, but from specific social and technological needs: the resources necessary to solve them, in turn, come from those institutions – state, corporate, military – with the capital necessary to direct research towards these. The growth of knowledge will necessarily be shaped by particular agendas and interest, by virtue of not occurring as a free-floating intellectual activity, but requiring resources which must come from somewhere.

To see science as such is to recognise that the phenomena which the scientific world comes to view as problems – as worth thinking about, and as legitimating political action in order to solve – are not natural, pre-given categories, but the result of interest-bound decisions on the part of political actors. The problems we face – the coronavirus pandemic, for example, or climate change, do not allow for a straightforward framing in scientific terms, nor a perfect technological solution. Decisions as to the nature and weight of the harms or benefits involved, the measures appropriate and acceptable to tackle these, and what it would mean to ‘succeed’ in this, are not formally scientific questions, but political ones, reflecting essentially contested, value-laden judgements on the part of those with the power to direct the attention and labour of the scientific community.

To approach the problem posed earlier in this light is to recognise that, on one hand, science is a cumulative and increasingly potent body of technique for the control of and coexistence with nature. On the other hand, however, it is fallible, interest-bound, and cannot exist outside of society. To demystify science via historicising it is not to disempower it, to strip it of its claims to objectivity and actionable knowledge. Rather, it is to demonstrate simultaneously ‘how secure are the conquests of science in the control they give over natural processes’, and ‘how insecure and provisional, however necessary, are the rational interpretations, the theories and hypotheses put forward at each stage’. [2] To avoid either an unaccountable technocracy or a culture of science-denialism, a democratic politics of science must not depoliticise the world by asserting an idealised science that stands value-free, outside of history, but recognise the role of values, interests, and ideology in formulating what kind of problems are science’s to solve.


[1] J.D. Bernal (1939) – The Social Function of Science p.875. London: George Routledge and Sons.

[2] J.D. Bernal (1939) – The Social Function of Science p.246.

Image credit: Protesters on a ‘March for Science’ in Juneau, Alaska. Available via Wikimedia Commons on a CC BY-SA 4.0 licence – original available here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:March_for_Science_Earth_Day_Juneau_623.jpg

9 thoughts on “The Stakes and Ends of Historicising Science

  1. Dear Sam Phoenix Clarke,

    I would like to commend you highly on composing this excellent essay.

    Please be informed that there is a typo in the phrase “how can political actors legitimate claims to be acting in the best interest of the populace”. The adjective “legitimate” needs to be changed to an adverb “legitimately”.

    Indeed, the overall situation and trajectory of humanity seem to be rather bleak, and even science and politics can provide little comfort in reducing the severity and frequency of some of those outstanding issues, for there are two major Achilles’ heels: Viral Falsity and Paleolithic Emotions. In addition, my own multidisciplinary perspective proposes that four of the most insidious and corrosive conditions have exacerbated these issues dramatically:

    (1) The prevailing anti-intellectualism
    (2) The cult of anti-expertise sentiment
    (3) The politicization of science
    (4) The prevalent manifestation of populism

    You are welcome to find out much more about these four conditions at my extensive and analytical post entitled “Misquotation Pandemic and Disinformation Polemic: Mind Pollution by Viral Falsity“, which you can easily locate from the Home page of my blog. The post deals with untruth-oriented epistemology, social epistemology, the media landscape and information ecosystem, as well as a large series of detailed discussions and analyses (distributed over twelve sections, each of which is instantly accessible via a navigational menu) in the domains of Behavioural Science, Cognitive Science, Critical Thinking, Cultural Studies, Environmentalism, Epistemology, Ethics, Evolutionary Biology, Evolutionary Psychology, History, Human Nature, Information Science, Journalism, Logic, Media Studies, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology, Social Media and Social Science. I welcome your feedback there, as I am certainly very keen and curious about what you will make of my said post.

    Gathering all the diverse and important strands together in the grand finale of the said post, I have attempted to sum up and reflect deeply the state of affairs with hard truths, especially in the twelfth and last section named “Denouement: Democracy, Education, Legislation & Sustainability“, which even gives a very dire warning of what humanity is heading towards if there is still no concerted, meaningful and large-scale change for the better.

    Now, regarding the aforementioned Paleolithic Emotions, it pertains to one of the most important and crucial life lessons involving the awareness of and willingness in availing oneself to explore and understand as much as possible the complex issues that We have Paleolithic Emotions; Medieval Institutions; and God-like Technology, as discussed in great detail in my other expansive post available at

    http://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2021/12/31/we-have-paleolithic-emotions-medieval-institutions-and-god-like-technology/#top

    I welcome your input and feedback there. Please enjoy! I would like to inform you that when you visit my academic website, it is preferrable to use a desktop or laptop computer with a large screen to view the rich multimedia contents available for heightening your multisensory enjoyment at my blog, which could be too powerful and feature-rich for iPad, iPhone, tablet or other portable devices to handle properly or adequately.

    Once again, thank you very much for composing and publishing your thought-provoking and reflective post regarding “The Stakes and Ends of Historicising Science”. I have also perused a number of other essays over many months on this website.

    Wishing all of you writing about “Doing History in Public” a productive week doing or enjoying whatever that satisfies you the most!

    Yours sincerely,
    SoundEagle

    1. Thanks for this detailed response! I’ll be sure to let Sam know that his work has gone down well and it’s interesting to see the parallels with your own work. For the avoidance of doubt, please note that ‘legitimate’ in the above sentence is used as a verb, as in ‘to legitimate claims’, and thus should not be changed.

      – Alex, DHP Editor-in-Chief

      1. Dear Alex,

        You are welcome. Yes, “legitimate” can definitely be used as a verb. Grammatically speaking, the problem arises from the use of the infinitive form “to be acting”, which can easily lead the reader to interpret it as “how can political actors legitimately claim to be acting in the best interest of the populace”. A better approach is to change the phrase to “how can political actors legitimate claims to act in the best interest of the populace”, or “how can political actors legitimate claims for acting in the best interest of the populace”. Also, another alternative to the verb “legitimate” is “legitimize”.

        Yours sincerely,
        SoundEagle

      2. Dear Alex and Sam,

        I am very impressed and delighted by the goals and missions of your website. It is indeed a great pleasure to peruse the essays, not to mention that many of them are well-written and highly convincing. I would like to confess that I share with you a keen/acute sense of interest and curiosity in many of the domains and issues covered by such writings and thoughts. Having multiple interests requires that I approach things in a manageable, sensible, coherent yet multifaceted manner. In particular, my website has been established to address a large number of issues that have bothered me over many years. Some of these issues can be gleaned from the following two paragraphs culled from the “About” page of my blog/website:

        Apart from the accessibility of academic works as mentioned earlier, this website and its Posts and Pages have also been meticulously invested with tools and presentational details to mitigate other extant issues that remain to be addressed by scholarly publications. Academic papers published in most if not all conventional journals tend to be highly limited in scope, format and feature, mostly presented in monochrome or greyscale and rarely in colour; cannot include large or complicated illustrations, maps, charts, schematics and/or statistics; unable to incorporate audiovisual contents, videos, animations, pop-ups, hyperlinks, comments, revisions, extensions, user interfaces and other real-time, dynamic or interactive components, let alone social media integration; and ill-suited or ill-prepared to deal with highly innovative, interdisciplinary and/or multidisciplinary works, not to mention that there continue to be few or no referees and reviewers qualified or knowledgeable enough to evaluate them properly and cogently without intellectual oversight and bias.

        The longest Posts and Pages are effectively multimedia publications meant for serving users as versatile and comprehensive enchiridions or reference books. Well-formatted and in-depth discussions, analyses and conclusions aside, they contain plenty of hyperlinks, tooltips, quotations, charts, tables, illustrations, animations, infographics and bullet-point summaries as well as navigational menus. Each book-length Post or Page simultaneously exhibits the features and combines the functions of a long-form essay, investigative research, academic dissertation, scholarly monograph and dynamic web document.

        Speaking of the navigational menus, there is a large one at the start of “Misquotation Pandemic and Disinformation Polemic: Mind Pollution by Viral Falsity“, which can help you to jump to any section of the post instantly so that you can more easily resume reading at any point of the post over multiple sessions in your own time.

        If you also happened to be an audiophile and connoisseur of fine sonic art, then you would be pleased by the availability of a fair amount of music on my blog, much of which comprising my musical compositions. These constitute only a fraction of my total musical output, as I have yet to find time to showcase the rest on my blog. Moreover, those published compositions are by no means representative of my musical oeuvres, which are very diverse. Hence, you may want to turn on your finest speakers or headphones, as some posts and pages will be playing music to you automatically. More of my musical compositions can be savoured on SoundCloud, where they are more logically grouped and presented.

        Once again, all of you “Doing History in Public” deserve high praise and recognition for your respective scholarly dedications and academic contributions.

        Yours sincerely,
        SoundEagle

      3. Dear Alex,

        I would also like to add to my previous analysis as follows, by quoting the following two sentences in the order that they appear in the essay:
        “When can a politician justifiably claim to be acting backed up by this authority?”
        “how can political actors legitimate claims to be acting in the best interest of the populace;”

        In addition to all of the issues that I have already broached, it is apparent here that the first sentence has the potential or likelihood to set up in the reader’s mind how the second sentence can be or is to be interpreted. All in all, the alternating or alternative use of the words “claim” (as a verb or noun) and “legitimate” (as a verb or adjective) as well as the use of the infinitive form need to be handled with prudence (and consistency).

        Yours sincerely,
        SoundEagle

      4. Thanks again for your kind words and recommendations.

        With regard to your grammatical points, I’m happy with the article in its current form. Sam and I have discussed the use of the word ‘legitimate’ and agree that it has subtly different connotations to ‘legitimise’. In this circumstance, we feel that ‘legitimate’ better conveys that the idea that political actors seek not to make their own claims legal but to justify them in the eyes of the general public.

        As for the two sentences you point out, I notice that they are separated by a full paragraph of text. As such, I think it’s unlikely that readers will be significantly misled by the re-use of words.

      5. Dear Alex and Sam,

        Thank you for your clarification. I have discussed the matters that I raised here with my closest colleague, who also acknowledged the high risk or probability of creating misreading in its current form, which is not optimal or the best that it can be. All things considered, and regardless of whether ‘legitimate’ or ‘legitimise’ is used, the following options are available and listed in order of grammatical strength and expressive clarity:

        (1) how can political actors legitimate claims to act in the best interest of the populace

        (2) how can political actors legitimate claims for acting in the best interest of the populace

        (3) how can political actors legitimate claims to be acting in the best interest of the populace

        Yours sincerely,
        SoundEagle

      6. Dear Alex and Sam,

        I would like you to understand that I raised the aforementioned issues to you as they are and can be consequential. Besides, in reading this and other essays on this website, I have not been very strict in grammatical issues, and have not bothered to report all errors and typos that I can identify here and elsewhere. For example, I would insist in my own writings that those words indicated in square brackets be included in the following:

        “This is demonstrated by the ways [in which] some academics, politicians and journalists have spoken about science in public life over the last two years.”

        “The problem-sets and agendas [that] scientists work on do not come from nowhere…”

        Regarding punctuations, there is an error in the sentence “… and what it would mean to ‘succeed’ in this, are not formally scientific questions. but political ones…”, insofar as a comma, not a full stop, should be used after the word “questions”.

        Also, to be grammatically correct, one would have to change

        Rather, it is to demonstrate simultaneously ‘how secure are the conquests of science in the control they give over natural processes’, and ‘how insecure and provisional, however necessary, are the rational interpretations, the theories and hypotheses put forward at each stage’.

        to one of the following:

        Rather, it is to demonstrate simultaneously the following two questions: ‘how secure are the conquests of science in the control [that] they give over natural processes[?]’, and ‘how insecure and provisional, however necessary, are the rational interpretations, the theories and hypotheses put forward at each stage[?]’.

        Rather, it is to demonstrate simultaneously ‘how secure … the conquests of science in the control [that] they give over natural processes [are]’, and ‘how insecure and provisional, however necessary, … the rational interpretations, the theories and hypotheses put forward at each stage [are]’.

        Yours sincerely,
        SoundEagle

  2. Insightful essay.

    The recognition that science is necessarily driven by goals and the vested interests of powerful parties is critical for any scientist that wants to see their work- and the world- with clarity.

    When we blindly assimilate the goals of others we become blinded to a true and clear interpretation of our results. This has proven quite treacherous for myself in the past; misinterpretations of some ambiguous result are potent fuel for a mind that expects a given outcome.

    Anyway, I think we have to paradoxically acknowledge the goals of our sponsors but hold no goal personally. The clearest science comes from doing the work with no attachment to a specific result.

    Thanks for writing this lovely piece.
    -ChemicallyIncompetent

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