Category: Nature & Society

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’.