Socialists should not be opposed to science. We want to understand the world and science gives us tools and methodologies to do that. We want to change the world and scientific knowledge harnessed in the service of all humanity will be key to our success. It is partly because of the achievements of science that we live longer and healthier lives in greater comfort than our grandparents could have imagined. But this is also down to the years of struggle across the generations to ensure that those achievements are used for all our benefits. For the many not few as someone once remarked. It is only when those struggles are defeated that we see the downside of science in the service of capitalism.
Nuclear weapons and climate catastrophe would not exist without science. And now, with COVID-19, we can add devastating new illnesses to the charge sheet. If it is not modern techniques of food production driving the appearance of deadly new viruses, then it is probably accidental leaks from laboratories investigating those viruses that has added Pandemic Disease to Climate Catastrophe and Mass Extinction in a modern triumvirate of apocalyptic horsemen. As for the Fourth Horsemen of the Modern Apocalypse, we can only await the deliberations of an Olympian committee drawing up plans for a new Hunger Games. But there is a good chance that Calamity X will also be science based.
So it is no surprise that there is a tendency on the left to mistrust science.
Mistrust of science goes back a long way. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is at one level a parable about the consequences if the forces that science release cannot be controlled. Blake’s Jerusalem and its “dark satanic mills” leaves us in no doubt of his opinion of the industrial revolution. Capitalism is the Devil’s spawn and Science is it’s midwife. Marx wrote eloquently on how the machine age is alienating workers, not just from the fruit of their labour, but from the act of labour itself. This idea was taken up independently by Ruskin and Morris. Both harked back to an age when the artisan was master of his tools and not the slave to a machine. Real craftsmanship was being driven out by cheap mass produced goods described as “shoddy” by Morris.
Now, under the threat of climate catastrophe some are embracing a modern arts and crafts movement, visiting farmers markets, going to craft fairs and making their own sour dough bread at home. This has penetrated popular culture with TV programmes featuring crafts men and women who take family heirlooms and restore them to their former glory or upcycle one person’s junk to sell on to individuals who can afford to pay for something quirky and individual.
There is nothing wrong with individuals taking steps to reduce their own carbon footprint. I recycle, grow (some of) my own food and try to shop ethically not only because I care, but, crucially, because I can afford to. I also know that we are not going to save the planet if we limit ourselves to personal lifestyle choices, especially when so many people are in no position to choose. The danger is that the people who are able to make those choices will engage in a smug self-satisfaction reminiscent of some of the worst elements of the #FBPE crowd who looked down on Brexit voters and revelled in their distress when Brexit added to the misery of those left behind areas of the country that voted to leave.
Another danger is that because this government has consistently lied about Brexit, Covid and everything else and has dragged some politically naive scientists to the front to act as a human shield for its failings, it is all to easy to question science itself. The post truth world typified by Trump and emulated by Johnson invites people to choose their own reality and treat any counter arguments as a conspiracy of lies and misinformation – fake news. We mock the right when they indulge in this sort of magical thinking. But there is a tendency to mirror their faults on the left.
So we have people who deny that they are anti-vaxxers but admit to “vaccine hesitancy.” They wonder how a new vaccine could safely be developed so fast when it typically takes ten years. They point to the corporate misdemeanours of the Big Pharma companies manufacturing the vaccines and the lies of the governments promoting the vaccines. Probe a little further and you may unearth similar doubts about 5G phone masts or GM crops and “Frankenfood.”
It is not that socialists are anti-science. It is just that many believe that science has sold its soul to the politicians who decide on funding for major research projects and to the big corporations who profit from the results. In the process they must have bought into capitalist ideology and so cannot be trusted to pursue scientific hypotheses with scientific detachment anymore.
There is nothing wrong with healthy scepticism. In my day job as a professional involved in the education of autistic children and as the parent to an autistic individual I constantly had to challenge the assumptions behind much of the science and research pertinent to this, my particular area of expertise. But I did so, not by rejecting science or demonising the scientists, some of whom were demons as it happened, but challenging them by using science itself.
Science is morally and politically neutral. The use and abuse of science is not. Scientists who split the atom were not criminals. Scientists who took that knowledge to develop the atom bomb? I’m not so sure. But science never happens in a political vacuum. The sterile conditions of the laboratory protect against outside pollution. The scientists still live and work within a dirty world of business and politics. Galileo’s improvements to the telescope are remembered for their contribution to modern astronomy. We forget that they were only made possible by the backing of Venetian merchants who saw a financial advantage in accurately identifying the trading vessels approaching harbour ahead of their commercial rivals.
For me the saving grace for science is that when it is deliberately subverted to support a particular political or economic ideology the invariable result is that this bad science is overturned by other scientists. The problem is that this ideologically and intellectually bad science often survives in the public consciousness long after scientists have refuted it. How come? Well, good scientists see bad science, refute it and see their refutations published in peer reviewed journals and the bad science retracted. Job done. But the bad science may have made headline news in the media who may not even report on its retraction. It enters into popular culture and is really hard to shift.
At school I was rubbish at science. I wanted to be a poet or an artist. And it strikes me that mistrust of science is not matched by a similar mistrust of the arts. Despite the obvious elitism and the power of money in the arts world we are inclined to trust artists, whether visual, written or musical, to discover the truth and to share it honestly. Yet the more I read the more I find that the best creatives embrace scientific literacy and that so many good scientists are equally sensitive to the arts.
So we need scientists to engage with popular media, to become TV stars, best selling authors and broadcasters and take their arguments to the public. It is not for everybody. Being a good bench worker does not automatically make you a good communicator. But there are some very good communicators working in science. Socialists should be prepared to read and promote their work. They are not all going to be socialists. They are committed to truth, to testing their ideas to destruction, to communicating the truths that can survive such rigorous investigation. I do not trust science and scientists because I think they are always right. I trust them because they are always ready and willing to be proved wrong. And that is how we distinguish science from ideology.
In these perilous times we need to defend science against the naysayers. There can be no justification for the denial of inconvenient truths or the promotion of convenient myths in the struggle for socialism.
Life long socialist. Now retired, I have been an office junior, a bookseller, a docker and a teacher. I write a lot and read a lot more. Committed member of the Society of Authors, English PEN and the National Education Union. Uncommitted member of the Labour Party. Will they expel me before my direct debit expires?