Re: [OPE-L] "In the words of no master"

From: Jerry Levy (Gerald_A_Levy@MSN.COM)
Date: Sun Dec 18 2005 - 09:09:25 EST

Hi Ian.

Re  Chris Talbot's article "President of the Royal Society makes outspoken
defence of science":

Although you selected excerpts re postmoderninism (which was not the
major focus of the article), I found the article interesting on another
level  -- it is a mystification and glorification of the role of science and
scientists in current human affairs.

> Lord Robert May, president of the Royal Society,  [...]
>  strongly defended the achievements of science in the modern era.
> "Basic understanding of the life sciences," he pointed out,
> "especially with respect to infectious diseases, has resulted in
> average life expectancy at birth on the planet today being 64 years,
> up from 46 years only 50 years ago; the gap in life expectancy
> between the developed and developing worlds has correspondingly
> shrunk from 26 years to a still disgraceful 12."

He makes it sound as if  "a basic understanding of the life sciences"
has resulted in increased life expectancy.   Scientists, from this
perspective, are the ones responsible for producing this result.
There is no recognition, though, of social context: e.g. that
scientists within a capitalist society are typically employed by
and for capital. (Even when scientists are employed in not-for-profit
institutions, their research agendas are often shaped by
corporations and the military, through the process of corporate
and state grants).   There is also no recognition  that non-scientific labor
is required for these results to be produced.

>  Science has enabled mankind to double food production over
> the past 35 years on only 10 percent more cultivated land.

It makes it sound as if scientists are responsible for increases
in agricultural productivity, doesn't it?  No recognition here at
all of who is actually producing food or their social relations
of production.  In other words, there is no recognition of the
_social form_ in which food production is increased within
the last 35 years in capitalist societies.

Of course, I did not expect May to present a Marxist analysis
of the role of scientific labor in capitalist society.  Yet, one
doesn't have to be a Marxist to present a _critical_  perspective
on science.

For instance, since he raised the issue of increased agricultural
productivity, he could have raised the issues associated with
the Green Revolution (which increased peasant differentiation,
empowered agro-business, and perhaps most importantly of all
for May to note, made crops more susceptible to disease because
the scientists who in their arrogance thought they had the cure for
world hunger did not grasp the environmental implications).

Hence, although Marx defends science from the right-wing,  he
also uncritically glorifies and mystifies the role of science and
scientists. What he fails to do is to recognize the role of
scientists themselves in terms of producing the damage to
the environment that he highlights.  He makes it sound as if
it's a 'scientists vs. governments' issue even though many scientists
themselves had their work used (willy-nilly) by corporations
and states to expand capital by means of environmental
degradation.  While he points out the role of science in
making longer lives possible, he doesn't recognize the role of
scientists in destroying (both human and non-human) lives.

You highlight in the subject line "In the words of no master" --
the Royal Society's motto.   While this is a worthwhile ambition,
it is _very far_ from a description of reality.  Only a select few
scientists can say that they do not have a master and that
their words are not affected by their masters (employers).
Their work,  like the labour of other wage-workers, is at the
command of capital or the state. Their motto obscures the
reality of their position within capitalist society.  While he says
that "everything we do embodies that spirit: a fact-based,
questioning, analytic approach to understanding the world and
humankind's place in it", he has failed to do that questioning.

In solidarity, Jerry

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