MITCHEL COHEN: Big Science and the Curious Notion of “Progress”


The radical social movements of the 1960s blossomed into an emerging ecology movement. In the 1980s, the women’s liberation movement began issuing profound critiques of science. Previously, Marxists had endorsed Vladimir Lenin’s industrial-centered view that socialism equals workers’ councils (soviets) plus installation of electrical wiring—a view of social­ism, and of science, that was not very different than liberal policy-makers in industrial capitalist countries.

But in the 1970s, a number of scientists began to challenge not only the Marxian question of who owns and con­trols Science (with a capital “S,” what I call “Big Science”), but explored, questioned, and challenged the cultural and political assumptions embed­ded in the scientific method itself and its “search for objectivity,” which had been the goal of scientific inquiry since the Enlightenment and the indus­trial revolution. Radical scientists in the social movements produced maga­zines such as Science for the People, with the aim of demystifying science and re-examining science’s core notions. Richard Levins, Martha Herbert, Ivan Illich, and many others published sustained critiques of science, and created an El Niño of sorts that wound its way into the late 1980s. All during this time, anarchists, too, were issuing critique after critique of cor­porate environmentalism, which led to the school of thought known as social ecology. These incisive intellectual investigations, all occurring at the same time and feeding off of each other and the social and antiwar movements they were part of, revealed the capitalist ideological impera­tives concentrated in the very essence of science. The currents cohered into mass-movements against nuclear power, genetic engineering, global warming, the globalization of capital, the robotization of work, the mas­sive application of pesticides, and in favor of animal rights and alternatives to the pharmaceutical-industrial model of health care. And, dialectically, these movements inspired renewed interest in radical critiques of science and industrialization.

The movements took to task the idea that science and technology are some­how “neutral” and “objective,” and challenged that framework as itself part of an ideological construct and a figment of capitalist mythology. So too with what they saw as capitalism’s similarly reified invention of a universal, greedy, and unchanging human nature, which “objective” science first posits and then finds wanting. Challenge everything! Once taken for granted by leftists as devoid of politics, the factory form of production became, under this new radical understanding, dripping with ideology. Capitalism makes the factory form of production seem necessary and also inevitable; it is a means for achieving a certain kind of rationalized efficiency, and of control­ling nature, including human nature. We can’t think of any other ways to do things.

For the purposes of this book, we would do well to re-examine the things we take for granted pertaining to science, pesticides and politics, and especially those ways of thinking of which we are not aware, to bet­ter understand and to change our relationship to our natural environment. It’s tempting to not have to do any of that, to say, “The evidence speaks for itself.” But evidence rarely speaks for itself. Seemingly objective facts require interpretation. And the interpretations given by science, for the most part, are based on assumptions hidden even to honest scientists, despite their sometimes good intentions and brilliance—to say nothing of those scientists bought by Monsanto and other corporations.

A chemical pesticide may appear to be needed to kill weeds in a field of genetically engineered soy. Levins and Lewontin criticized that way of seeing as “reductionist,” because it doesn’t consider the larger view of why the farm is monocropped and set up in such a way to begin with, which enables diseases to wash right through entire fields, and which thus require pesticides to keep the crops alive and intact. This method is very common in Western sciences today, in which “lines of causality run from part to whole, from atom to molecule, from molecule to organism, from organism to col­lectivity.”5 It is a way of finding out about the world that entails cutting it up into bits and pieces (conceptually, as well as in actuality) and attempts to reconstruct the properties of the system from the “parts of the parts” so produced, as they futilely try to put Humpty Dumpty together again by piecing together the individual fragments. Levins and Lewontin explain that “those problems that yield to [this kind of] attack are pursued most vigorously, precisely because the method works there. Other problems and other phenomena are left behind, walled off from understanding. . . . The harder problems are not tackled, if for no other reason than that brilliant scientific careers are not built on persistent failure.”

Geneticist, cell biologist, and Nobel Prize recipient Barbara McClintock opined, similarly, that the scientific method cannot by itself provide real understanding.


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