The evolution of science now proceeds at an accelerating pace. To appreciate how science is changing, an historical perspective is ever more necessary. Otherwise, those with experience just content themselves with moans that ‘things aren’t what they used to be’, forgetting that, as the old Yorkshire song goes, they never bloody were. In my own struggles with, and writing on science, going back well over six decades, I have attempted to think historically. Roughly, that means understanding the conflicts of the present in terms of the unresolved contradictions inherited from the past. This heuristic works very well in some political cases, notably Ireland and Israel/Palestine. I have attempted to apply it to science; and I might as well apply it to my own work – the better to move forward.
My 1971 book, Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems, highlighted my initial concerns about science. The formative problem of the book was expressed in the slogan: ‘the activity of modern natural science has transformed our knowledge and control of the world around us, but in the process, it has also transformed itself; and it has created problems which natural science alone cannot solve’. I had accumulated problems and discontents with the standard account of science on very many issues, and I identified the key contradiction as the passage from Little to Big science, or from academic to industrialised science. But, as it happened, my knowledge of industrialised science was extremely limited. I had valuable experience of reflective research in scientific and arts disciplines, and I had a very precious historical understanding derived from my academic work. I could write a very insightful account of the craft work of science, including some quite original material on the obscurities at the foundations of theoretical science. But on industrialised science, I had little more than experience of a rapidly growing university and a deep political commitment, originally Marxist, then shaped by activity in the anti-nuclear campaign. Also, I already had enough experience of the corruption of good causes so I was not uncomfortable to find similar phenomena in science. However, there are two significant absences from the book. One is that I did not know of the warnings about science in President Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, written by political scientist and speech writer, Malcom Moos. That text could have defined, and justified, the critical programme of my own book. But no one in the radical science movement in Britain ever mentioned it; perhaps it was assumed on the Left that nothing that Eisenhower had said could be worth looking at. The other, unrelated but also interesting, point is that my language reflected a lack of awareness of the feminist approach, in that I referred to scientists as ‘men’. I don’t have a huge burden of guilt over this, as the book was written before the explosion of radical feminist thought; but it is worthy of remark in the cause of historical accuracy.
In the ensuing sixty years, the social problems of scientific knowledge have grown and proliferated, now perhaps more quickly than their solutions. Internally, the challenges of quality assurance, described euphemistically as a ‘reproducibility crisis’, reveal a corruption in the transmission of the tacit knowledge in the craft skills on which that knowledge depends. The management of uncertainty is crippled by the persistent faith in numbers as nuggets of truth, revealed both in the ubiquitous pseudo-precise quantities and in the unresolved disputes over the techniques of statistical inference. In the external relations of science, the core myth of the beneficence and benevolence of an infallible natural science, creating a fountain of facts for human welfare, is increasingly frayed. The enlisting of the symbol of science in policy debates leads inevitably to the politicisation of science itself, and then to the confusion and hence corruption of its norms. Simplistic policy crusades invoking Science, demonising all who withhold uncritical support, threaten the integrity of science as no overt attack ever could.