Nature and Society

Essay 1: Science and Society

In The postmodern condition, Lyotard (1979; 1984) drew a clear distinction between the language games of an idealised formal science and the language games of narrative knowledge on which social relationships are based. For legitimation, Lyotard argued, formal science requires that one language game – one system of ‘denotation’ or signification – be retained and all others excluded. A scientific statement’s truth-value within the language game of science is the only criterion determining its acceptablility. The relationship between the sender, the referent, and the addressee depends on what the C19 called ‘verification’ and the C20 ‘falsification’, within the limits of the formal language game of science. The process is seen as producing a consensus, although not every consensus is ultimately regarded as a sign of truth by those not involved in the original language game (cf. GM crops).Scientific knowledge is, in this way, “set apart from the language games that combine to form the social bond”, because “it is no longer a direct and shared component of the bond” (Lyotard, 1984). But the language games of formal science do not exist in a political or philosophical vacuum. Instead, they are legitimised against the power relations in which they are embedded and through this they are able to act in contexts far from the specific locations (blackboards, computers, laboratories, and field experiments) in which they are built and developed. As such, the language games of formal science tend to comprise when Alexander, Burt and Collinson (1995) have called ‘Big Talk’ – important, male, metonymic, serious, official, correct, objective, and emphatic. By contrast, the language games of narrative knowledge have tended to be trivialized as ‘Small Talk’ – unimportant, female, metaphoric, trivial, popular, incorrect, subjective, and phatic. Ironically, however, as discourse theory, and its emphasis on the deconstruction of orthodoxies, has chipped away at the certainties of what might be termed ‘modern’ structuralist science, its reified ‘truths’ – its ‘grand narratives’ – can be seen, in some contexts, to employ the language games of myth, legend, and fable to enable legitimation.

In essence, we are moving towards what might be termed a ‘post-structural science of complexity’, that is, one which explicitly acknowledges that complex systems cannot be explained and/or modelled effectively by using reductionist or atomistic analytics, and one which must, itself, be legitimised within the social bond. We must note the crucial difference between a reductionist experimental analytics, commonly viewed as the ‘norm’ of science (and perhaps dismissed in somewhat of a knee-jerk fashion by some extreme relativist theorists) and the integrative approaches to modelling and thinking about complex systems that have, and have been, taking science in new directions for some time. The ‘post-structural science’ of the latter assimilates neural and other networks, Prigogine dissipative structures (i.e., systems characterised by openness, non-equilibrium, and non-linear interactions), historical contingency, and the influence of the last on the evolutionary trajectories of complex systems (e.g., the complex science of climate change, as against the Barthesian myth of ‘global warming’).

We live in a world where power, myth, and science interplay too often to support the strong against the weak. This state of affairs particularly defines the hybrid, ‘political ecology’, which is a concern for tracing the genealogy of narratives concerning the world and the environment, with identifying power relationships supported by such narratives, and with asserting the consequences of hegemony over, and within, these narratives for economic and social development, and, particularly, for constraining possibilities for self-determination. Critical questions in this context are: “Who decides the conditions for truth?” “Who has the power to decide for society?” and “Who is the subject whose prescriptions are norms for those they obligate?” (Questions all from Lyotard)

The hybrids of ‘global warming’ and ‘deforestation’ become especially fuzzy in the light of these issues, for they have been largely contrived by the post-industrial ‘citizen scientists’ of the North, with little input from the societies of the South. We must thus always pose five key questions. Who holds power over influential narratives? How is this narrative-power employed, and for what political purposes? What is the ‘science’ within the defined narrative? And, what are the ideas of morality infusing narratives and their supporting ‘science’? 

We should thus accept the need to challenge any discontinuities between discourses that have become accepted currency in wealthy international settings and the voices of more local, often excluded, narratives, as with ‘deforestation’ in West Africa. Likewise, we scientists must be far more willing to learn how to deconstruct ourselves, and our roles, within the social bond, that is, within the Parliament of Things.

No young scientist should now complete a science degree without attending Course 101: ‘The philosophy of science, modern and non-modern’. 

[Loosely adapted from: Philip Stott & Sian Sullivan (eds) 2000. Political ecology. Science, myth and power. London: Arnold; New York: Oxford University Press]

Essay 2: Science and the Grey Goo

“Read all about it! The Prince of Wales and the Grey Goo!” Now admit it – you didn’t immediately think of nanotechnology and teeny robots churning the world into porridge, did you? I had hoped that the noble Prince would be ready to lead the charge against filthy chewing gum on our pavements. Or, perhaps he was recalling a favourite, ancient Goon, and the ‘n’ had dropped off? But no, more dispiritingly, this was just another everyday postmodernist tale of the end of the world.

Of course, we all have 1.4 kilograms of ‘grey goo’ between our ears, not to mention the staggering nanotechnology of 100 billion neurons. Some folk’s wrinkly matter, however, is gooier than others, and the Prince’s goo seems to be particularly sticky over science. Sadly, he has become the genetically-modified symbol of a society that is frightened of its own shadow – a society nostalgic for a past that never was, in an increasingly fearful and risk-averse world. 

Alas, poor science, I knew thee well. Antibiotics, dentistry, vaccination, DVDs – how you have threatened us with constant doom. How marvellous our lives would be if you had never been invented.

But the Prince is in good company. ‘The end of the world’ is the new Islington dinner party chic (Private Eye please note), from Michael Crichton’s ultimate ‘goolag’ (sic) to the latest blockbuster by Margaret Atwood (“Beware, Oh Handmaid, the Oryx and the Crake!”). And remember the Editor of The Guardian and his dire TV drama, ‘Fields of Gold’, which even the delectable Anna Friel couldn’t redeem. We are surrounded by dystopians and millenarians. If a UFO doesn’t get us, there is surely a GMO lurking in a field somewhere nearby. And we are all deeply concerned about cruelty to Schrodinger’s cat – although we won’t know if it is mal-treated until we look in the box.

Scientists, unfortunately, have not helped their case. Whoever called the ‘seed preservation’ gene the ‘terminator’ gene should be force fed limp organic carrots at every meal. Or, more constructively, they should be made to read all those French philosophers who have been warning us that science is rowing towards troubled waters in our postmodern, or non-modern, age (take your pick).

But philosophers haven’t made things easy either. Who can understand a word they write? I adore Lyotard ‘(Leotard’ to my students) and Latour (all philosophers today must have unlikely-sounding French names), and I am certain that they are onto something, although I usually haven’t found out what, even after the umpteenth reading of ‘the text’. All I know is that science is now legitimised, not by science itself, but by something called the Lyotardian ‘social bond’ and by complex Latourian ‘hybrids’ of science, technology, nature and politics. These are the ‘grand narratives’ of our non-modern world of herbal remedies, organic dandelion tea, talking to plants, and the Earl Grey goo. As someone said, how lucky we are that SARS erupted in China where it can be cured by ancient holistic herbal healing (HHH).

Above all, of course, our multifarious dystopians are desperate for ‘global warming’ to be true (doom); with genetic modification and nanotechnology, they don’t want them to be true (more doom). Yet, the latter will help us survive in an ever-changing world, along with antibiotics, dentistry and vaccination – and Schubert played by Alfred Brendel on CD.

Thank you science.

[Loosely adapted from my ‘Thunderer’ column first published in The Timesin 2003]

Watch Your Language…..

Lyra had her daemon, Pantalaimon. What is your daemon metalanguage? Which Lacanian points de capitonrattle your cage and powerfully select your DNOC? 

Choosing between the following options may help you to deconstruct your place in the ‘Parliament of Things’. It could also predict what UK ‘broadsheet’ (most aren’t that now, of course) you are likely to read ( I can’t do the real tabloids). Select word (a) or (b) as your preferred choice for each number, and then calculate your final score, as indicated below:1. (a) Equilibrium; (b) Non-Equililbrium.2. (a) Stability; (b) Change.3. (a) Harmony; (b) Chaos.4. (a) Balance;  (b) Dynamism.

5. (a) Fragile; (b) Tough.

6. (a) Precaution; (b) Adventure.

7. (a) Predictable; (b) Unpredictable.

8. (a) Control; (b) Choice.

9. (a) Sustainability; (b) Flexibility.

10. (a) Imagined  risks; (b) Measured risks.

11. (a) Utopia; (b) Heterotopia.

12. (a) Command markets; (b) Free markets.

Result: you begin with 12 points. For each (a) option you choose, you deduct 1 point. For each (b) option you choose, you add 1 point. Now see how you fared:

(a)  Final Score 0-6: you are likely to be strongly left-wing, Green, and to read The Independent or The Guardian. ‘Global warming’ is one of your greatest fears. You demand drastic action immediately;
(b)  Final Score 7-12: you are likely to be mildly left-wing, or centrist. You may read the same newspapers as above, although you might also read The Financial Times or even The Times. You think that ‘global warming’ is a genuine issue, but one that can probably be tackled by improved energy efficiency and technological innovation;
(c)  Final Score 13-17: you are likely to be centrist or mildly right-wing. You are most likely to read The Times or The Financial Times, although The Daily Telegraph is possible. You think that the threat of ‘global warming’ is exaggerated and that technology and market mechanisms should be able to help us to adapt to change;
(d)  Final Score 18-24: you are likely to be right-wing and free-market politically, and your newspaper of choice is probably The Daily Telegraph or The Sun (funny ‘broadsheet’, Philip). You think that ‘global warming’ is largely political and a load of hot air, a scam for failed socialism to get in by the back door. “Anyway, don’t we need a bit more warmth and sun – put on those designer shades.”

And… if you think this is all rubbish – then you are most likely to read The Sun. 

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