Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Biggest Question? Don’t Ask... (2015)

The Pathfinders Column from the September 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
Science is good at asking the big questions, the ones that make even Earth's tumultuous politics look trivial. Science journalists are also good at asking big questions, but usually during slow news weeks and usually without any kind of decent answers attached.
New Scientist recently led with a cover article entitled 'Ten discoveries that would transform what it means to be human', featuring ten speculations which would supposedly revolutionise human life on Earth (8 August).
They proceeded as follows. What if we can't know everything (worst case: we're no worse off). What if we could talk sheep, dog or dolphin (worst case: we'd be vegetarians). What if aliens exist (if they're smart they'd avoid us). What if we could upload our brains (a digital copy of you is not you though, is it?). We have no free will (yawn, not that again). We came from outer space (panspermia merely adds a step to the existing origins debate). We could prove God exists (yawn, again) etc etc.
These aren't revolutions, they're fillers dressed up as thrillers. They would not involve any sea-change in social behaviour. At most a few religions would be mildly upset or excited, until they adapted like the oily amorphous creatures they are. For socialists, this is toenail gazing. Meanwhile in the middle of the room, farting gently and wagging its trunk and big ears, a very large question stands quietly waiting to be noticed.
What if we could end conflict and deprivation on planet Earth?
If science is so good at asking the big questions, why doesn't it ask this? Is it perhaps because it's not a scientific question, in some sense? But change the terms to refer to cancer, or wildfires, or global warming, and it's obvious that scientists ask questions like this all the time.
But perhaps it's a different kind of question nonetheless, because unlike cancer, wildfires or global warming, everybody knows that conflict and deprivation are so intrinsic to our global economic system, and to all known preceding systems, that their abolition would clearly imply a set of political changes so radical and so huge that 'revolution' is an entirely appropriate word to use. The very idea is so potent that it makes many people nervous, not just scientists.
So the too-easy answer would be that scientists don't care or dare to ask questions that might annoy their bosses and funding organisations, or that might make them look like loony lefties (although such concerns didn't bother Einstein). This is slightly odd, given that statistically most are liberal or left-of-centre in their thinking, but apparently keeping very quiet about it. Another too-easy answer is that scientists suffer (as all humans do) from group-think, a compulsion to conform to orthodoxy, or fixation error, a tendency not to see the big picture, and of course good old confirmation bias, the tendency to believe what you already think (New Scientist, 15 August). But any argument that puts all the blame on them can't be the whole story.
Why don't scientists ask politically explosive questions? Because, from their point of view, the answers appear to lie outside the domain of science, in the realms of politics or religion, where nothing can be demonstrated with a pie-chart or a meter reading and rhetoric and moral posturing take precedence over empirical fact. In short, political viewpoints including ours are unfalsifiable, i.e. there's no way to prove that they're wrong.
To be falsifiable is, in the Popperian school of thought, to be scientifically valid and thus worthy of scientific attention. To attract that attention, we would have to show by what criteria, and in what circumstances, our case for non-market common ownership and democratic control could be disproven. Which is not as easy as it might sound. It's no good suggesting some giant and unfeasibly expensive study, like running socialism for fifty years inside a sealed bubble in Argentina, and it's no good stipulating vague 'proofs' without saying how they are to be found (eg. 'prove to me socialism can't work and I'll abandon it').
And what would we call 'proof' anyway? Suppose that scientists discovered, say, a gene for aggression. Would we accept that as proof, and abandon our ideas about peaceful coexistence, or would we create a theoretical work-around to accommodate it, as religious people commonly do, or blithely disregard it as Steven Pinker does in The Blank Slate? Suppose that a computer simulation of socialism showed that it always broke down and devolved back into capitalism. Would we accept that as proof, or would we suggest instead that the computer model wasn't sophisticated enough, or possibly that the researchers (no doubt funded by capitalist corporations) had rigged the test? Is there a failure condition which is so comprehensive and unequivocal that, were it met, we could have no possible riposte, no get-out clause, no 'ah, but…'?
Gravity is falsifiable. Just allow yourself to float spontaneously into the air, and the job's done. Evolution is falsifiable. As the biologist JBS Haldane once famously retorted, just dig me up a dinosaur with a fossilised rabbit in its gut. The Periodic Table, electromagnetism, E=MC2, all falsifiable, therefore all valid theory. Could socialist theory match that? No it couldn't.
But neither can capitalism, of course, which generates an abundance of evidence of its own failings every minute of every hour of every day, evidence which people are remarkably adept at ignoring or explaining away. So no proposed social system is falsifiable. You can't test socialism in a lab, under randomised double-blind conditions. But does that mean it's unscientific, and that scientists and science journalists are therefore right to avoid consideration of it?
No it doesn't, and here's why. Science can be said to proceed via the dislodging of unsatisfactory theories and their replacement by theories which better account for the observed phenomena and are better able to predict outcomes. In this sense socialism is a valid scientific theory. It is evidence-based, it explains events in capitalism consistently better than capitalist theoreticians can manage, and it predicts long-term outcomes better (eg predicting that Government A will not solve unemployment and Government B will not abolish booms and slumps). It's an effective tool of analysis, but also a compelling tool of change, offering a simple and utilitarian set of knowable and predictable parameters instead of the myriad, volatile and unpredictable parameters which produce chaos, suffering and destruction in money economies. For scientists to ignore such a tool is worse than negligent, it flies in the face of the very principles of scientific enquiry.
Paddy Shannon

About Books (1953)

From the November 1953 issue of the Socialist Standard

Some old-timers in the Trade Unions together with a few in the rebel fringe of the Labour Party, even a few of the older members of the S.P.G.B. have been heard to claim that certain novels read in their younger days were the means of guiding their steps in the direction of Socialism.

Foremost amongst the books which are accorded this honour is Robert Tressall's 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists." We have been asked a number of times to draw this book to the attention of younger readers of the SOCIALIST STANDARD, although, if a person is already a reader of the SOCIALIST STANDARD he will not glean much education from Tressall's book. But he will get a world of fun and a clear insight into conditions in the building and house decorating trades during the first decade of this century.

The book was first printed in 1914 and has been continuously reprinted ever since. It is a story written round the life and work of an imaginary Frank Owen, a house painter and a Socialist (if we excuse a little confusion in his theory) and the small band of his workmates. Owen takes every opportunity in arguments with his mates to expound his Socialist ideas, doing so very simply and effectively for the reader, but hopelessly for his mates.

Certain chapters in the book are more than humorous, they are uproariously funny and there is deep tragedy, too. It is argued by some that this is the story of Robert Tressall's own life. Certainly Tressall was a house painter and, from what little we know of his life there are grounds for the claim. If you are one of the very few who have not read this book, do so. It is still in print and in plentiful supply. If you are one of the old ones who read it years ago, read it again. We have just re-read it before writing about it and we had great fun.

Another book that gets commended for similar reasons is Jack London's "Iron Heel." This is an altogether different book from Tressall's. It has been published in many editions since it first appeared nearly fifty years ago and the latest is still to be seen on bookstalls.

Jack London tells his story through the mouth of the wife of a man called Ernest Everhard who was a "Socialist" who would fit very nicely into the present day Communist Party. It is a story of the development of Capitalism in America projected into the years ahead of the time of telling. It tells of the ever increasing exploitation and subjugation of the workers by a capitalist oligarchy called "The Iron Heel," of the hardening and sharpening of the class struggle and of two bloody insurrections that result in the defeat and massacre of the workers.

Despite the quite good lectures and arguments of Ernest Everhard and some of his associates, this book would never, on its own, convert anyone to Socialism. Its main appeal is emotional and by that means it might urge a man to study class society seriously. But a worker whose approach to social problems is purely emotional is ready prey for political parties which rely on the emotional upsurge of their supporters and not on a clear understanding of working class interests.

A third book in this category is Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," also still in print after forty-seven years. This book was mentioned in these columns in May, 1953. It os a story of the American stock yards and, although it is a remarkably fine story, the same criticism applies as to Jack London's book.

Whether these books are useful to put in the hands of a non-socialist worker with the hope of leading him, by their guidance, along the path to an understanding of Socialism, once he is on that path he will enjoy reading them and we have little doubt but that most convinced Socialists have read them. If they haven't, then we can recommend them to an honourable place on the book shelf.
W. Waters