2010s >> 2015 >> no-1333-september-2015

Pathfinders: The Biggest Question? Don’t Ask…

Science is good at asking the big questions, the ones that make even Earth’s tumultuous politics look trivial. Science journalists are also good at asking big questions, but usually during slow news weeks and usually without any kind of decent answers attached.

New Scientist recently led with a cover article entitled ‘Ten discoveries that would transform what it means to be human’, featuring ten speculations which would supposedly revolutionise human life on Earth (8 August).

They proceeded as follows. What if we can’t know everything (worst case: we’re no worse off). What if we could talk sheep, dog or dolphin (worst case: we’d be vegetarians). What if aliens exist (if they’re smart they’d avoid us). What if we could upload our brains (a digital copy of you is not you though, is it?). We have no free will (yawn, not that again). We came from outer space (panspermia merely adds a step to the existing origins debate). We could prove God exists (yawn, again) etc etc.

These aren’t revolutions, they’re fillers dressed up as thrillers. They would not involve any sea-change in social behaviour. At most a few religions would be mildly upset or excited, until they adapted like the oily amorphous creatures they are. For socialists, this is toenail gazing. Meanwhile in the middle of the room, farting gently and wagging its trunk and big ears, a very large question stands quietly waiting to be noticed.

What if we could end conflict and deprivation on planet Earth?

If science is so good at asking the big questions, why doesn’t it ask this? Is it perhaps because it’s not a scientific question, in some sense? But change the terms to refer to cancer, or wildfires, or global warming, and it’s obvious that scientists ask questions like this all the time.

But perhaps it’s a different kind of question nonetheless, because unlike cancer, wildfires or global warming, everybody knows that conflict and deprivation are so intrinsic to our global economic system, and to all known preceding systems, that their abolition would clearly imply a set of political changes so radical and so huge that ‘revolution’ is an entirely appropriate word to use. The very idea is so potent that it makes many people nervous, not just scientists.

So the too-easy answer would be that scientists don’t care or dare to ask questions that might annoy their bosses and funding organisations, or that might make them look like loony lefties (although such concerns didn’t bother Einstein). This is slightly odd, given that statistically most are liberal or left-of-centre in their thinking, but apparently keeping very quiet about it. Another too-easy answer is that scientists suffer (as all humans do) from group-think, a compulsion to conform to orthodoxy, or fixation error, a tendency not to see the big picture, and of course good old confirmation bias, the tendency to believe what you already think (New Scientist, 15 August). But any argument that puts all the blame on them can’t be the whole story.

Why don’t scientists ask politically explosive questions? Because, from their point of view, the answers appear to lie outside the domain of science, in the realms of politics or religion, where nothing can be demonstrated with a pie-chart or a meter reading and rhetoric and moral posturing take precedence over empirical fact. In short, political viewpoints including ours are unfalsifiable, i.e. there’s no way to prove that they’re wrong.

To be falsifiable is, in the Popperian school of thought, to be scientifically valid and thus worthy of scientific attention. To attract that attention, we would have to show by what criteria, and in what circumstances, our case for non-market common ownership and democratic control could be disproven. Which is not as easy as it might sound. It’s no good suggesting some giant and unfeasibly expensive study, like running socialism for fifty years inside a sealed bubble in Argentina, and it’s no good stipulating vague ‘proofs’ without saying how they are to be found (eg. ‘prove to me socialism can’t work and I’ll abandon it’).

And what would we call ‘proof’ anyway? Suppose that scientists discovered, say, a gene for aggression. Would we accept that as proof, and abandon our ideas about peaceful coexistence, or would we create a theoretical work-around to accommodate it, as religious people commonly do, or blithely disregard it as Steven Pinker does in The Blank Slate? Suppose that a computer simulation of socialism showed that it always broke down and devolved back into capitalism. Would we accept that as proof, or would we suggest instead that the computer model wasn’t sophisticated enough, or possibly that the researchers (no doubt funded by capitalist corporations) had rigged the test? Is there a failure condition which is so comprehensive and unequivocal that, were it met, we could have no possible riposte, no get-out clause, no ‘ah, but…’?

Gravity is falsifiable. Just allow yourself to float spontaneously into the air, and the job’s done. Evolution is falsifiable. As the biologist JBS Haldane once famously retorted, just dig me up a dinosaur with a fossilised rabbit in its gut. The Periodic Table, electromagnetism, E=MC2, all falsifiable, therefore all valid theory. Could socialist theory match that? No it couldn’t.

But neither can capitalism, of course, which generates an abundance of evidence of its own failings every minute of every hour of every day, evidence which people are remarkably adept at ignoring or explaining away. So no proposed social system is falsifiable. You can’t test socialism in a lab, under randomised double-blind conditions. But does that mean it’s unscientific, and that scientists and science journalists are therefore right to avoid consideration of it?

No it doesn’t, and here’s why. Science can be said to proceed via the dislodging of unsatisfactory theories and their replacement by theories which better account for the observed phenomena and are better able to predict outcomes. In this sense socialism is a valid scientific theory. It is evidence-based, it explains events in capitalism consistently better than capitalist theoreticians can manage, and it predicts long-term outcomes better (eg predicting that Government A will not solve unemployment and Government B will not abolish booms and slumps). It’s an effective tool of analysis, but also a compelling tool of change, offering a simple and utilitarian set of knowable and predictable parameters instead of the myriad, volatile and unpredictable parameters which produce chaos, suffering and destruction in money economies. For scientists to ignore such a tool is worse than negligent, it flies in the face of the very principles of scientific enquiry.


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