Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Science as Hustle and Bustle (3)

" accordance with the Fascist policy of intellectual freedom and free expression of opinion by those who are qualified to hold it..."

(From the announcement at the beginning of each of Ezra Pound's radio broadcasts from Rome during WWII.)

A free society requires not just freedom of speech but freedom of inquiry. Consider the enormous difficulty implicit in holding a qualified opinion on almost any subject today—whether in economics, politics, psychology, or even literature. Virtually every truth you can think of is beholden to one or another area of expertise. The opinions of private citizens working on their own to make sense of the world around them are merely quaint until they are supported by science.

Our universities are key sites in the construction of expertise. Almost all experts have been trained in a university setting, almost always through some form of graduate study. This study is what for all practical purposes qualifies them to hold the opinions they do (although their freedom to propagate their opinions in the media is rarely constrained by their particular expertise). Their qualifications, which are a combination of knowledge and authority, are then passed on to the coming generations through education.

The idea is to foster an "informed citizenry" whose opinions matter and whose judgements about who should govern and what their policies should be can be taken seriously. It is expected that citizens, both through education and media, are exposed to opinions that have been formed freely, which, as I like to say, means that they have been arrived at by people who have been intensely curious about the world in which they live and who have had ample opportunities to satisfy that curiosity. Our institutions of higher learning, our universities, our sites of research and teaching, are supposed to provide those opportunities.

Where they exist we can rest assured that truth will regularly be spoken to power. And we can have some respect for a power that is forced to hear the truth about itself, especially if it must listen to that truth in open, public forums. That's why free speech is so important. It is not enough that experts know the truth. The truth must be a public good, freely accessible and widely disseminated.

But what happens when the formation of expert opinion is itself subject to the exercise of power? That is, what happens if the conditions under which the qualifications to hold opinions (and the competences to express them convincingly) are controlled by the same powerful people who need the truth spoken to them? What happens when the very same power that needs to be counterbalanced by knowledge also has the power to determine who is qualified to speak—and even discover—the truth?

Today, as the university is integrated into the structures of an increasingly corporate society this power can be seen at work. The political apparatus conditions the scientific apparatus in myriad ways, and scientists are increasingly negotiating with private and public research foundations for the means to settle questions that are of interest not just to themselves but to "society at large". Those societal interests, of course, have to be "represented" before they can be served. And this means that, even in a democracy, the very same people who make policy also fund the science that both legitimizes those policies and makes the discoveries upon which their technical success depends.

We are approaching a situation in which "truths" (and scare quotes are, I'm afraid increasingly needed here) are assessed not according to their ability to satisfy our basic, human curiosity about how the world works, but according to their "convenience" (to turn Al Gore's evocative notion on its head) for one or another political project. (A truth that is inconvenient for one faction can, of course, be very convenient for another.)

I have to admit that I don't see how it could be otherwise. The university system is very, very costly, and someone has to make the decisions about where the resources should come from. Moreover, whether in physics or psychology, there's a sense in which a scientific discovery is always the discovery of a new source of "power". And those who fund research are not blind to opportunities this implies. But it is possible to fund an institution with an eye to maintaining certain basic conditions of free inquiry, rather than with an eye to how "useful" discoveries can most efficiently be made. Those possibilities, I'm afraid, are being lost as the university is reconstructed in the image of all the other corporations that increasingly determine what our bodies can do by turning science into technology.

Our technologies, as Norman Mailer warned, increase our power but reduce our pleasure. To truly satisfy our curiosity we must feel the pleasure of learning something new, not just something convenient. For someone.

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