Science And The State Research Paper

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1. Introduction

Since the sixteenth century, the ‘scientific revolution’ has generated a host of new, intellectual, rhetorical, and institutional strategies for undermining traditional political authorities and constructing alternative ones. Science became a vital resource in the modern attempt to discredit traditional political hierarchies and spiritual transcendental sources of authority in the context of public affairs. By providing new rationales for order compatible with the novel modern commitments to the values of individualism, voluntarism, and egalitarianism, science and technology paradoxically also provided new grounds for novel modern forms of hierarchy and authority committed to the use of knowledge in the reconstruction of society. The widely shared notion that science goes along with progress appeared to suggest that knowledge, when applied to public affairs, can in fact depoliticize public discourse and action. This faith produced wide mandates for large-scale social and political engineering and monumental state-sponsored technological projects in both authoritarian and democratic states.

While such ideals and projects were from the very beginning criticized by observers such as Edmund Burke (1729–97), throughout the twentieth century the record of the relations between science and politics turned out to be sufficiently mixed to discard earlier hopes. The controversial role of scientists in the production and military deployment of means of mass destruction, the role of scientists in the Nazi experiments on human beings and the endorsement of racism, and their involvement in the industrial pollution of the environment, diminished the public trust in science fostered by such developments as medical breakthroughs and spectacular space flights.

Since the closing decades of the twentieth century, an increasing number of social scientists and historians have been pointing out that new uncertainties in the sphere of politics have been converging with newly recognized uncertainties of science and risks of technology to form novel postmodern configurations of state, science, and society (Eisenstadt 1999, Beck 1992). It has become increasingly recognized that, in ethnically and religiously heterogeneous and multicultural societies, science and technology can no longer be attached to uncontroversial comprehensive values that privilege claims of neutrality, objectivity, and rationality; nor can the earlier belief that knowledge can depoliticize public discourse and action be sustained any longer.

2. The Authorities Of Science And The State

The belief that science can provide a secular version of the synoptic divine view of human affairs was politically most significant. Until its erosion towards the end of the twentieth century, the modernist configuration of science and the state was formed over the course of at least four centuries. The secularization of political power in the modern state has put the dilemma of arbitrary rule at the center of modern political theory and practice. Whereas legal and constitutional constraints appeared to be the most appropriate remedy to this problem, the rise of modern science and technology encouraged faith in the possibility of restraint and moderation through public enlightenment and by means of scientific and technical advice. Not surprisingly, the redemptive drive behind the integration of science and politics had its origins in premodern religious visions and values (Manuel 1974). In both its authoritarian and democratic versions, this modernist program rested on the belief that the modern state can remedy the defects of the present sociopolitical order and realize an ideal order. Science contributed to this modernist outlook the faith in the power of secular knowledge to control nature and reconstruct society. In his dedication to Lorenzo di Medici of Florence in The Prince (1513), Niccolo Machiavelli implies that the holder of the God’s-eye view of the entire state is neither the King, who looks down at the people from the top of the hierarchy, nor the people, who see the King at the top from their lower state. It is a person like himself, a man of knowledge. The King, to be sure, has knowledge of the people, and the people have knowledge of the King but, because of his intellectual perspective, ‘a man of humble and obscure condition’ like Machiavelli can claim to see both the King and his subjects and understand the nature of their interactions.

Political theory and political science thus claimed to have inherited the God’s-eye view of the whole polity and evolved a secular vision of the state as an object of knowledge. In turn, the nation-state has often found it useful to adopt the frame, if not always the content, of the inclusive scientific outlook in order to legitimate its interventions in the name of the general common good and its expressions in public goals such as security, health, and economic welfare. If, from the inclusive perspective of the state, all citizens, social groups, or institutions appeared as parts which the supreme power had the capacity to fit together or harmonize, science in its various forms often provided the technical means to rationalize, and the rhetorical strategies to depoliticize, such applications of power.

The potential of science not only as a source of knowledge but also as a politically useable authority was already recognized by Thomas Hobbes. This founder of modern political theory was in contact with Francis Bacon, admired William Harvey’s findings about the circulation of the blood, and criticized Robert Boyle’s position on the vacuum (Shapin and Schaffer 1985). In his influential works on the state, Hobbes tried to buttress his claims by appealing to the authority of scientific, especially mathematical, certainties, hoping to enlist the special force of a language, which claims to generate proofs as distinct from mere opinions (Skinner 1996). Although he was suspicious of the experimental science of Boyle, Hobbes followed Machiavelli in describing politics in the language of causes rather than motives. Thomas Sprat, the historian of the Royal Society (1667), claimed that when compared to the contentious languages of religions, the temperate discourse of science can advance consensus across diverse social groups. In both the experimental and mathematical scientific traditions, however, knowledge, whether based on inferences or observations (or on their combination), was expected to end disputes.

The association between science and consensus was regarded as deeply significant in a society which had begun to view authority and order as constructed from the bottom up rather than coming from above (Dumont 1986). Reinforced by the growing image of science as a cooperative, nonhierarchical, and international enterprise in which free individuals come to uncoerced agreements on the nature of the universe, scientific modes of reasoning and thinking appeared to suggest a model for evolving discipline and order among equals (Polanyi 1958, 1962).

Deeply compatible with the notion that legitimate power and authority are constituted by social contracts, the rise of modern scientific knowledge appeared to accompany and reinforce the rise of the modern individual and his or her ability to challenge hierarchical forms of knowledge and politics. From Hobbes and Descarte, through Kant, J. vs. Mill, and late-modern democratic thinkers such as Popper, Dewey, and Habermas, the commitment to the centrality of individual agency becomes inseparable from a growing faith in the possibility of expanding public enlightenment backed up by the demonstrated success of scientific modes of reasoning and acting.

3. Power And The Social Sciences

In succeeding centuries, one of the most persistent ambitions of Western society has been to make conclusions touching the ‘things’ of society, law, and politics appear as compelling and impervious to the fluctuations of mere opinion as conclusions touching the operation of heaven and earth. The faith that natural scientists are bound by the ‘plain’ language of numbers to speak with an authority which cannot be corrupted by fragile human judgment was gradually extended to the fields of engineering and the social sciences (Porter 1986). The notion that experts who are disciplined by respect for objective facts are a symbol of integrity and can therefore serve as guardians of public virtues against the villains of politics and business was widely interpreted to include, beyond natural scientists, other categories of experts who speak the language of numbers. Social science disciplines like economics, social statistics, sociology, political science, and psychology adopted modes of observing, inferring, and arguing which appeared to deploy in the sphere of social experience notions of objective facts and discernible laws similar to those that the natural sciences had developed in relation to physical nature. The social sciences discovered that the language of quantification is not only a powerful tool in the production of knowledge of society but also a valuable political and bureaucratic resource for depersonalizing, and thus legitimizing, the exercise of power (Porter 1995). In the context of social and political life the separation, facilitated by expert languages, between facts and values, causal chains and motives, appeared profoundly consequential. Until effectively challenged, mostly since the 1960s, such scientific and technical orientations to human affairs appeared to produce the belief that economic, social, political, and even moral ‘facts’ can be used to distinguish subjective or partisan from professional and apolitical arguments or actions. The apparent authority of science in the social and political context motivated the principal founders of modern ideologies like socialism, fascism, and liberalism to enlist science to their views of history, society, and the future.

While theoretical and mathematified scientific knowledge remained esoteric, as religious knowledge was for centuries in the premodern state, the ethos of general enlightenment and the conception of scientific knowledge as essentially public made scientific claims appear agreeable to democratic publics even when these claims remained, in fact, elusive and removed from their understanding. In fields such as physics, chemistry, and medicine, machines, instruments, and drugs could often validate in the eyes of the lay public claims of knowledge which theories alone could not substantiate. The belief that science depoliticizes the grounds of state policies and actions, and subordinates them to objective and, at least in the eyes of some, transparent, professional standards, has been highly consequential for the uses of science in the modern state.

Political leaders and public servants discovered that the appearance of transparency and objectivity can make even centralized political power seem publicly accountable (Price 1965, Ezrahi 1990). Moreover, the realization that the authority of science could in various contexts be detached from substantive scientific knowledge and deployed without the latter’s constraint often enhanced the political usefulness of both natural and social scientists independently of the value actually accorded to their professional judgments. Still, the uses of expert scientific authority in the legitimization of state politics and programs has often empowered scientists to actually exercise influence on the substance of government actions or to effectively criticize them from institutional bases outside the government (Jasanoff 1990). The actual uses of scientific expertise could often be just the consequence of a political demand for expert authority.

4. Science In Democratic And Authoritarian States

In democratic societies, the integration of scientific authority, and sometimes also of scientific knowledge and technology, into the operations of the modern state encouraged the development of a scientifically informed public criticism of the government. This process was greatly augmented by the rise of the modern mass media and the ability of scientists to call public attention to governmental failures traceable to nonuse or misuse of scientific expertise. The role of scientists in empowering public criticism of the uses of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy (Balough 1991), in grounding public criticism of the operation of such agencies as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA), and in the criticism of public and private agencies for polluting the environment, illustrates the point. In authoritarian states like the Soviet Union, such cooperation between scientists, the mass media, and the public in criticizing government policies and actually holding the government accountable was, of course, usually repressed. In the authoritarian modernist version of science and the state, science was used mostly to justify, and partly to direct, comprehensive planning and control. Here, the force of scientific knowledge and authority rarely constrained the rationalization of centralization or warranted public skepticism towards the government or criticism of its actions (Scott 1998).

Even in democratic states, however, science and technology were massively used to promote the goals of reconstruction, coordination, mass production, and uniformity. The redemptive role assumed by the political leadership in the name of equality, public welfare, and uniformity was no less effective in rationalizing state interventions than the totalistic utopianism enlisted to justify the direction and manipulation of society in authoritarian regimes. In all the variants of the modern state, bodies of expert knowledge such as statistics, demography, geography, macroeconomics, city planning, public medicine, mental health, applied physics, psychology, geology, and others were used to rationalize the creation of government organizations and semipublic regulatory bodies which had the mandate to shift at least part of the discretion held formerly by political, legal, and bureaucratic agents to experts (Price 1965, Wagner et al. 1991).

In many democratic states, the receptiveness to experts within the state bureaucracy was manifest in the introduction of merit-based, selective, personnel recruitment procedures and a widening use of examinations. The cases of the former USSR and Communist China suggest, by contrast, the ease with which experts and their expertise could be controlled by political loyalists. Even where it was facilitated, however, the welding of bureaucrats and professionals was bound to be conflict-ridden. The hierarchical authority structure of bureaucratic organizations has inevitably come to both challenge and be challenged by the more horizontal structure of professional peer controls (Wilson 1989, Larson 1977). Nevertheless, the professionalization of fields of public policy and regulation boosted the deployment of more strictly instrumental frames of public actions in large areas. The synoptic gazes of power and science could thus converge in supporting such projects as holistic social engineering, city planning, and industrial scientific agriculture (Scott 1998).

5. Science, War, And Politics

The most dramatic and consequential collaboration between science and the modern state took place during wars. Such collaboration was usually facilitated by the atmosphere of general mobilization, defining the war effort as the top goal of the nation. In a state of emergency, even democratic states have suspended, or at least limited, the competitive political process. Under such conditions, democracies have temporarily, albeit voluntarily, experienced the usual conditions of the authoritarian state: centralized command and control and a nationally coordinated effort. In the aftermath of such wars, politicians and experts often tried to persist in perpetuating the optimal conditions of their collaboration, regarding the resumption of usual political processes as disruptive of orderly rational procedures. In authoritarian nationalist or socialist states, open competitive politics was repressed as a matter of routine along with the freedom of scientific research, and the liberty of scientists to diffuse their findings and interpret them to students and the public at large (Mosse 1966). In such countries, the political elite usually faced the dilemma of how to exploit the resources of science for the war effort and for advancing its domestic goals without becoming vulnerable to the revolutionary potential of science as the expression of free reason, criticism, and what Robert K. Merton called ‘organized skepticism’ (1973). In the democratic state, the special affinities between the participatory ethos of citizens, free to judge and evaluate their government, and the values of scientific knowledge and criticism did not usually allow the coherences and the clarities of the war period to survive for long, and the relations between science and the state had to readjust to conditions of open political contests and the tensions between scientific advice to, or scientific criticism of, the state. Limitations imposed by open political contests were mitigated, however, in political cultures which encouraged citizens to evaluate and judge the government with reference to the adequacy of its performance in promoting public goals. The links between instrumental success and political legitimation preserved in such contexts the value of the interplay between expert advice to the government and to its public critics in the dynamic making of public policy and the construction of political authority. Political motives for appealing to the authority of science could of course be compatible with the readiness to ignore knowledge and adequate performance, although it did not need to contradict the willingness to actually use scientific knowledge to improve performance. Discrepancies between the uses of scientific authority and scientific knowledge became widespread, however, because of the growing gaps between the timeframes of science and politics in democratic societies. In fields such as public health, economic development, security, and general welfare, instrumentally effective policies and programs must usually be measured over a period of years, and sometimes even decades. But the politicians whose status has come to be mediated by the modern mass media need to demonstrate their achievements within the timeframe of months or even days or weeks. In contemporary politics, one month is a long time, and the life expectancy of issues on the public agenda is usually much shorter. Such a state of affairs means that political actors often lack the political incentives to invest in the costly resources that are required for instrumental success whose payoffs are likely to appear only during the incumbency of their political successors.

6. Science And The Transformation Of The Modern Democratic State

These conditions have encouraged leaders in democratic states increasingly to replace policy decisions and elaborate programs with grand political gestures (Ezrahi 1990). Where instant rewards can be obtained by well-advertised commitment to a particular goal or policy, the political motive to invest in substantive moves to change reality and improve governmental performance over the longer run may easily decline.

Besides the tendency of democratic politics to privilege the present over the future in the allocation of public resources, the position of science in substantiating long-term instrumental approach to public policy was further destabilized by the fragmentation of the normative mandates of state policies. Roughly since the 1960s, the publics of most Western democracies have become increasingly aware of the inherent constraints on the determination and ordering of values for the purpose of guiding public choices. Besides the influence of ethnic, religious, linguistic, or cultural differences on this process, such developments as the feminist movement reflect even deeper pressures to reorder basic values. Feminist spokespersons demanded, for example, that financial and scientific resources directed to control diseases be redistributed to redress gender discrimination against the treatment of specifically female diseases. In part, the feminist critique has been but one aspect of wider processes of individuation, which, towards the later part of the twentieth century, have increased the diversity of identities, tastes, lifestyles, and patterns of association in modern societies. This new pluralism implied the necessity of continually renegotiating the uses of science and technology in the social context and locally adapting it to the diverse balances of values and interests in different communities. In the course of the twentieth century, leading scientific voices like J. B. vs. Haldane, J. B. Bernal, and Jacques Monod tended to treat almost any resistance to the application of advanced scientific knowledge in human affairs as an ‘abuse of science’ resulting from irrationalism, ignorance, or prejudice. These and many other scientists failed to anticipate the changes in social and political values which complicated the relations of science and politics during the twentieth century and the constraints imposed by the inherently competitive value environment of science and policy making in all modern states.

The constant, often unpredictable, changes in the value orientations of democratic publics and other related developments have clearly undermined confidence in the earlier separation between facts and values, science and politics, technological and political structures of action. Such a central element of policy making as risk assessment, for example, which for a long time was regarded as a matter best left to scientists, was gradually understood as actually a hybrid process combining science and policy judgments (Jasanoff 1990, Beck 1992). In contemporary society, in which the respective authorities of science and the state were demystified, knowledge has come to be regarded as too complex to directly check power, and power as too diffused to direct or repress the production and diffusion of knowledge.

Historically, one of the most important latent functions of science in the sociocultural construction of the democratic political universe was to warrant the faith in an objective world of publicly certifiable facts which can function as standards for the resolution or assessment of conflicts of opinions. To the extent that scientists and technologists could be regarded as having the authority to state the valid relations between causes and effects, they were believed to be vital to the attribution of responsibility for the desirable or undesirable consequences of public actions. Policies were regarded within this model of science and politics as hypotheses, which are subject to tests of experience before a witnessing public (Ezrahi 1990). Elements of this conception have corresponded to the modern political experience. Although the public gaze has always been mediated, and to some extent manipulated, by hegemonic elites, publics could usually see when a war effort failed to achieve the stated objectives, when a major technology like a nuclear reactor failed and endangered millions of citizens, or when economic policy succeeded in producing affluence and stability. The expansion of this conception of government responsibility and accountability to regions outside the West even made it possible to redescribe fatal hunger in wide areas in India, for instance, as the consequence of policy rather than natural disaster (Sen 1981). Still, in large areas, the cultural and normative presuppositions of the neutral public realm as a shared frame for the nonpartisan or nonideological description and evaluation of reality have not survived the proliferation of the modern mass media and the spread of political and cultural pluralism. In contemporary democracies, the pervasive mediating role of largely commercialized electronic communication systems has diminished the power of the state to influence public perceptions of politics and accentuated the weight of emotional and esthetic factors relative to knowledge or information in the representation and construction of political reality. Influenced by diverse specialized and individualized electronic media, the proliferation of partly insulated micro-sociocultural universes within the larger society has generated a corresponding proliferation of incommensurable notions of reality, causality, and factuality.

7. Transformations Of The Institutional Structure And Intellectual Orientations Of Science

Changes in the political and institutional environment of science in the modern state have been accompanied by changes in the internal institutional and intellectual life of science itself. In the modern democratic state, the status of science as a distinct source of certified knowledge and authority was related to its institutional autonomy vis-a-vis the structure of the state and its independence from private economic institutions. Freedom of research and academic freedom were regarded as necessary conditions for the production and diffusion of scientific knowledge and, therefore, also for its powers to ground apolitical advice and criticism in the context of public affairs. Such institutional autonomy was, of course, never complete. The very conditions of independence and freedom had to be negotiated in each society and reflected at least a tacit balance between the needs of science and the state as perceived by the government. But the international universalistic ethos of science tended to ignore or underplay such local variations (Solingen 1994).

The institutional arrangements that secured a degree of autonomy and freedom to scientists seemed to warrant the distinction between basic and applied research, between pure research directed to the advancement of knowledge and research and development directed to advance specific industrial, medical, or other practical goals. An important function of this distinction was to balance the adaptation of science to the needs of the modern state and the preservation of the internal intellectual traditions and practices of scientific research and academic institutions. In practice, the relations between science and the state were more symbiotic than the public ethos of science would have suggested. Scientific institutions, in order to function, almost always required public and political support and often also financial assistance. On the other hand, the state could not remain indifferent to the potential uses of scientific knowledge and authority to both secure adequate responses to problems and facilitate the legitimation of its actions by reference to apolitical expert authority. Thus, while the separation between truth and power and the respect for the boundaries between pure and applied sciences, as well as between politics and administration, were considered for a long time as the appropriate way to think about the relation between science and politics (Price 1965), the relations between science and the state, as well as between scientists and politicians, turned out to be much more interactive and conflictridden. Since scientists and politicians respectively controlled assets useful for each other’s work, they were bound to be more active in trying to pressure each other to cooperate and engage in mutually useful exchanges (Gibbons et al. 1994).

Not all these exchanges were useful to either science or the state in the long run. The mobilization of scientists to the war efforts of the modern nation-state, while it boosted the status of scientists domestically in the short run, had deleterious effects on the international network of scientific cooperation, as well as on the independence of science in the long run. Especially in cases of internally controversial wars, like the American involvement in Vietnam, the mobilization of science inevitably split the scientific community and politicized the status of science. Nevertheless, the unprecedented outlays of public money made available to science in the name of national defense allowed many research institutions to acquire expansive advanced facilities and instruments that permitted the boosting of pure science in addition to militarily related research and development. But the gains in size and in potential scientific advance were obtained at the cost of eroding the glorious insulation of scientific research and exposing its delicate internal navigational mechanisms to the impact of external political values and institutions (Leslie 1993). Yielding to the pressures of the modern nation-state to make science more relevant and useful to more immediate social goals inevitably reduced the influence of internal scientific considerations and the priorities of scientific research (Guston 2000). Following such developments, the university, the laboratory, and the scientific community at large could often appear less elitist and more patriotic, but also more detached from their earlier affinities to humanistic culture and liberal values.

Like the partnership between science and the state, the partnership between science and the market often facilitated by their collaboration during the war effort and postwar privatization of projects and services has undermined the autonomy of science and the ethos of basic research in many late modern states. But, whereas the interpenetration between science and the state subjected the internal intellectual values of science to the pressures of public goals and pressing political needs, the links between science and the private sector subordinated scientific norms to the private values of profit making. The conversion of scientific expertise into capital opened the way for substantial private support for the intellectual pursuits of science. But the linkages between science, industry, and capital only reinforced the decline of science and its institutions as a bastion of enlightenment culture, progress, and universal intellectual values. Thus, while scientific and technical knowledge and skills were increasingly integrated into a wider spectrum of industrial productions and commercial services, science as a whole became more amorphous, less recognizable or representable as a set of distinct institutions, and a community with a shared ethos (Gibbons et al. 1994).

An instructive illustration of these processes is the pressure exerted by both the state and private business fessional norm of publicity. In the context of science, the transparency of methodology and the publicity of research results have for a long time been reinforced by both ethical commitment and practical needs. The methodologies and findings of any research effort are the building blocks, the raw materials, with which scientists in discrete places produce more knowledge. Transparency and publicity are necessary for the orderly flow of the research process and the operation of science as a cooperative enterprise (Merton 1973). In addition, publicity has been a necessary element of the special status of science as public knowledge. From the very beginning, pioneering scientists such as Bacon, Boyle, and Lavoisier distinguished scientific claims from the claims of magic, alchemy, cabala, and other esoteric practices by the commitment to transparency. Transparency was also what rendered claims of scientific knowledge appear publicly acceptable by democratic citizens (Tocqueville 1945). Turning scientific research into a state secret in order to gain an advantage in war or into an economic (commercial) secret in order to gain an advantage in the market was not congenial to sustaining the cooperative system of science or the early luster of science as an embodiment of noble knowledge and virtues which transcended national loyalties and sectoral interests. In the aftermath of such developments, the virtues of objectivity, distinterestedness, universality, and rationality which were associated with earlier configurations of science (Polanyi 1958, 1962, Merton 1973) appeared unsustainable. Moreover, the fact that the resources of science and technology could be enlisted not only by liberal and democratic but also by fascist, communist, and other authoritarian regimes accentuated the image of science as an instrument insufficiently constrained by internal norms and flexible enough to serve contradictory, unprogressive, and extremely controversial causes.

8. The Postmodern Condition And The Reconfiguration Of Science And The State

These developments had a profoundly paradoxical impact on the status of science in the late-modern state. Especially since the closing decades of the twentieth century, while such projects as the decoding of the human genome indicate that scientific knowledge has advanced beyond even the most optimistic predictions, the authority of science in society and in the context of public affairs has suffered a sharp decline. In order to consider this state of affairs as reversible, one needs to believe that the insular autonomy of science can be restored and that the political and economic environments of science can become more congenial for sustaining this condition. Such expectations seem unwarranted. On the other hand, an apparent decline in the distinct social and political value of scientific authority may not necessarily undermine the impact of scientific knowledge on the ways states and governments act. What appears against the past as the decline of scientific authority in the larger social and political context may even be redescribed as a reconfiguration of the authority of expertise in the postmodern state. The earlier distinctions between science, politics, law, ethics, economy, and the like may have become irrelevant in complex contemporary societies, in which the use of scientific knowledge requires finer, more intricate, and continual adjustments and readjustments between science and other expressions of truth or power.

In the absence of hegemonic ideological or national frames, the macropolitical sphere of the state divides into a multitude of—often just temporary and amorphous—subgroups, each organized around a particular order of values and interests. In each of these particular universes scientific knowledge and expertise can occupy a privileged authority as a means to advance shared goals. When these groups clash or compete in the wider political arena, their experts tend to take sides and function as advocates. The state and its regulatory institutions enlist their own experts to back up their particular perspectives. Within this new, more open-ended and dynamic system, science is more explicitly and reflexively integrated into social economic and political values. In the context of the new pluralist polity, the authority and knowledge of science may therefore be less distinctly visible and less relevant to the symbolic, ideological, or cultural aspects of politics. At the same time, it is no less present in the organization, management, and the normative constitution of social order.


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