ParEcon Questions & Answers

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 Science and Parecon

cWhat is the connection between science and economics and parecon?

First, before even having a chance at an answer, we have to clarify what science is. Like every label for a complex personal and social practice the word science is fuzzy at its edges making it hard to pin down what is and what isn’t science. Nonetheless, for our broad purposes, we can assert that science refers to an accumulated body of information about the components of the cosmos and to testable claims or theories about how those components interact, as well as to the processes by which we add to our information, claims, and theories, and/or the processes by which we reject them as false or determine that they are possibly or even likely true.

My personal knowledge that the grass that I can see from window is green is not science, nor is my knowledge that my back was hurting an hour ago, or that my pet parrot Zeke is on my shoulder or will likely frolic in a bath only once or at most twice a week. Experience per se is not science, nor are perceptions, even of regularities, though both can be valid and important.

It isn’t by way of science that we know what love is or that we are experiencing pain or pleasure. It isn’t science that tells a Little Leaguer how to get under a fly ball to catch it. We don’t know how to talk nor what to say in most situations due to practicing nor even benefiting from the practice of science, and this is likely true as well even for knowing how to add or multiply numbers, as compared to knowing how to calculate the size of molecules.

Most of life, in fact, including even most information discovery and communication occurs without doing science, without being ratified by science, and without denying, defying, crucifying, or deifying science.

And yet, most of knowing and thinking and especially most of predicting or explaining is much like science even if it is not science per se.

What distinguishes what we do every day from what we call science is more a difference of degree than a difference of kind.

Perceiving is perceiving. Claiming is claiming. Respecting evidence is respecting evidence. What distinguishes scientists doing these things in labs and libraries from Mr. Jones doing these things to choose the day’s outfit and stroll into town is science’s personal and collective discipline.

Science doesn’t add new claims about the properties of realities’ components or their interactions onto its piles of information and its theories, nor assert the truth or falsity of any part of that pile, without diverse people and even groups of people reproducing supporting evidence and verifying logical claims under very exacting conditions of careful collection, categorization, and calculation, nor does it do so without reasons to believe that what is added has significant implications vis a vis the pile’s overall character, history, and development.

Random noise doesn’t matter, even if verified. As Einstein writes, “a theory is more impressive the greater the simplicity of its premises, the more different kinds of things it relates, and the more extended is its applicability.” What is most happily added to science’s knowledge pile is checkable evidence or testable claims that verify or refute previously in doubt parts of the pile or that add new non-redundant terrain to the pile in turn giving hope of providing new vistas for further exploration.

If we look in the sky and say, hey, the moon circles the earth it is an observation, yes, but it is not yet science. If we detail the motions of the moon and provide strong evidence for our claims about its circling the earth that are reproducible and testable by others, we are getting close to serious science and arguably contributing data to science, supposing that the data is not already present. If we pose a theory about what is happening with the moon, as Newton did, and we then test our theory’s predictions to see if they are ever falsified or especially if they predict new real outcomes that are surprising to us, then we are very likely doing science.

Webster’s Dictionary defines science as “the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines science as “a branch of study which is concerned with a body of demonstrated truths or observed facts, systematically classified and more or less colligated by being brought under general laws, and which includes trustworthy methods for the discovery of new truths within its own domain.”

72 Noble Lauriates agreed on the following definition: “”Science is devoted to formulating and testing naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. It is a process for systematically collecting and recording data about the physical world, then categorizing and studying the collected data in an effort to infer the principles of nature that best explain the observed phenomena.”

And Richard Feynman one of the foremost physicists of the twentieth century pithily sums up the whole picture: “During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of rhinoceros horn would increase potency. Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas – which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn’t work, to eliminate it. This method became organized, of course, into science.”

ddBut that doesn’t tell us the why – what are the motives of science and the connection of science and economics…

We can say with confidence, in light of what science is, that what type of economy a society has can impact science by affecting:

  • what information is collected and what claims about it are explored
  • what are the means and procedures utilized in the collection and exploration, and
  • who is in position to participate in these processes or, for that matter, even to know about and be enlightened by science’s accomplishments.

Science has at least two individual motivations and at least two social ones.

First there is pure curiosity, the human predilection to ask questions and seek their answers.

Why is the sky blue? What happens if you run at the speed of light next to a burst of light? What is time and why does it seem to go only one way? What is the smallest piece of matter and tiniest conveyor of force? How do pieces of matter and conveyors of force operate? What is the universe, its shape, its development? What is life, a species, an organism? How do species form, persist, get replaced? Why is there sex? Where did people come from? How do people get born, learn to dance, romance, try to be a success? What is a language and how do people know them and use them? What is consciousness? When people socialize, what is an economy, how does it work, and what is a polity, culture, family, and how do they work?

Inquiring minds passionately want to know these things even if there are no material by-products to enjoy, rather like some clever feet passionately want to dance even if no one is watching or some nimble hands passionately want to draw even if no one will put the result on the wall.

As a second personal motive of science we have personal and collective self interest. Knowledge of the components of reality and their interconnections sufficient to predict outcomes and even to intervene to impact what happens can not only assuage our curiosity, it can increase the longevity of our lives and also their scope, range, and quality.

What is the cause and cure for polio or cancer? How do birds fly? How does gravity work, friction, flight? Curiosity opens the door and peeks sometimes into the unknown with gigantic desire and energy, to be sure, but we also run through and indeed drive whole huge caravans through the doors of science in part because the insights we accumulate benefit us.

A parallel social motive of science is also benefit, but now the benefit is not from the implications of the knowledge itself, but is instead from remuneration offered for our scientific labors or achievements. There are or can be material rewards for gathering information and for proposing or testing hypotheses about reality. Pursuit of these rewards is another motive for doing science.

Likewise, and also social, the benefits to be had beyond the pure satisfaction of fulfilling one’s curiosity are not confined to material payment. There is also the social bestowal of stature and fame or whatever other accolades a society causes us to value, and doing science is often at least in part driven by pursuit of the social prizes, notoriety, stature and admiration that accompany discovery.

And now we can get to science and economics.

An economy can plausibly increase, diminish, or just push people’s curiosity in one direction or another. It can impact as well the ways that scientific knowledge can directly benefit people and of course the remuneration and other material rewards bestowed on people for doing science, as well as the social non-material rewards they can garner.

We can see all of this in history, of course. Thus for a long time science as we mean it did not even exist. There was mysticism and belief, sometimes approximating truth and sometimes not, but there wasn’t an accumulation of evidence tested against experience and guided by logic.

Later, societies and economies propelled science and oriented it in various ways. At present, of course, tremendous pressures from society most broadly and from capitalist economy more specifically both propel and also limit the types of questions science pursues, the tools science utilizes, the people who ever have a chance to participate in science, and the people who benefit from or even know of science’s results.

In the capitalist U.S. science has of course become ubiquitous influentially revealing the inner secrets of materials, space, time, bodies, and even to a very limited extent, as yet, minds. But science has also become, in various degrees and respects, an agent of capital. Where Steven J. Gould writes “Science is a pluralistic enterprise with a rich panoply of methods appropriate for different kinds of problems… Direct vision isn’t the only, or even the usual, method of inference.” Distortion arises when the different methods and problems are biased by motives other than those of science itself.

One kind of problem arises, for example, from the fact (unearthed by British journalist George Monbiot) that “34% percent of the lead authors of articles in scientific journals are compromised by their sources of funding, only 16% of scientific journals have a policy on conflicts of interest, and only 0.5% of the papers published have authors who disclose such conflicts.”

In pharmaceuticals things are arguably worst in that we find that “87% of the scientists writing clinical guidelines have financial ties to drug companies.” In other words, as we all know, much science is directly and overtly biased by corporate money.

More subtly, commercial funding and ownership impact what questions are even raised, what projects are pursued and then supported, etc. If patent prospects are good, money flows. If they are bad, even though general curiosity reasons or even human welfare reasons for a field are high, money is barricaded.

At the most gross end of things citizens may wind up “guinea pigs as in the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment between 1932 and 1972, or in experiments between 1950 and 1969 in which the government tested drugs, chemical, biological, and radioactive materials on unsuspecting U.S. citizens; or the deliberate contamination of 8000 square miles around Hanford, Washington, to assess the effects of dispersed plutonium.” (from Cornwell 2003 ).

But on a larger scale, in the U.S. the Pentagon now controls about half the annual $75 billion federal research and development budget with obvious repercussions for the militarization of priorities.

I recently sat on an airplane next to an MIT biologist whose interest was comprehending human biological functions and dysfunctions. He was not at all political or ideological, but he had no confusions about this matter at all. “What we do, what we can do, even what we can think of doing is overwhelmingly biased by the need for funding which, nowadays, means the need for corporate funding or, if government, then a government that is beholden overwhelmingly, again, to corporations or to militarism. More, the corporations have a very short time horizon. If you can’t make a very strong case for short run profits, forget about it. Find something else to pursue, unless, of course, you can convince the government your efforts will increase killing capacities.” It is the deadly combination of market competition and profit seeking plus militarist governments at work, again.

What would be different about science in a parecon?

Four primary structural things, which in turn have a multitude of implications.

  • First, each parecon scientist would work at a balanced job complex rather than occupying a higher or lower position in a pecking order of power.
  • Second, each parecon scientist would be remunerated for duration, intensity, and to the extent relevant harshness of their work, not for power or output much less for property.
  • Third, the scientist, with other workers in his or her scientific institution – whether it might be a lab, a university, a research center, or whatever other venue – influences decisions in proportion as he or she is affected by them.
  • And fourth, the level of resources that scientists are allotted to engage in their pursuits is determined by the overall economic system via participatory planning, again with self management.

As a result pareconish science will no longer be a hand maiden to power and wealth on the one hand, indeed these won’t even exist to be a hand maiden too, and, on the other hand, nor will science be so exalted or so reviled as to be different in kind in respect to material well being or decision making rights than other pursuits.

A scientist who makes great discoveries within a parecon will no doubt enjoy social adulation and personal fulfillment for the achievement, but not material plenty or an accrual of greater voting rights than others. Likewise, a scientific field will not be funded on grounds of benefiting a few people as compared to advancing human insight for all.

Will there be huge expenditure on tools for advancing knowledge of the fifteenth decimal point of nuclear interaction or the fourteen billionth light year distant galaxy even before there is great expenditure on reducing the travail of mining coal or containing or reversing its ecological impacts, or providing alternative energy sources?

Will there research be undertaken on grounds of its military applications instead of on grounds of its implications for knowing our place in a complex universe?

These are questions that will arise and be answered in a new future, what parecon tells us is the broad procedure not the specific outcome people will choose, though we can certainly make intelligent guesses about the latter, too.

When the latest and greatest particle accelerator project was being debated in the U.S., a congressman asked a noted scientist who was arguing for allocating funds to the super collider what its military benefits would be. The scientist replied it would have no implications for weaponry, but it would help make our society one worth defending. The scientist’s motivations and perceptions failed to impress the Congress which voted against the project.

Do we know that in a parecon the participatory planning system would have allotted the billions required? No. We don’t know one way or the other. But we do know that the calculation would have had near nothing to do with militarism and near everything to do with making society a more desirable, wiser, and more insightful place.

So parecon in no way inhibits scientific impulses instead likely greatly enhancing them due to both having an educational system that seeks full participation and creativity from all sectors, and due to alloting to science what a free and highly informed populace agrees to. Science in the sense of creatively expanding the range and depth of our comprehension of the world depends greatly on real freedom, which is to say real control over our lives to pursue what we desire – which is what parecon provides.

Consider Albert Einstein on the topic, “It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction [not to mention financing, then far less of an issue] have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom.”


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