Science and Ideology

“Everything is ideology,” is a pithy sentence usually associated with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. In a Marxian sense, ideology is what is called the superstructure of society (i.e. culture, religion, art and politics); ideology consists of the ideas that sustain, and are used to justify, the ruling class’s power in particular. In our common understanding, there seem to be certain things that are outside the realm of ideology. For many in a post-Enlightenment world, science has taken this position, with a nearly dogmatic, idealised objectivity – science is something beyond the petty ideologies that occupy most of our minds and divide us in political categories. You can easily see this play out in the oft repeated slogan ‘believe the science’ with little understanding of what that really actually means. Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins, rejected the idea that science was beyond ideology and somehow beyond, and outside of, society. To them, it was pretty clear that science was a social institution. Science as the institution, the method, as well as its facts and theories, are all influenced by society, ideology and social context. Whereas scientists, particularly the more liberal minded ones, might be willing to admit to the social influence on scientific institutions and academia, they are less keen on acknowledging the social and political influence on scientific facts, theories, methodologies and interpretations.

In The Dialectical Biologist Richards Lewontin and Levins write: “but nothing evokes as much hostility among intellectuals as the suggestion that social forces influence or even dictate either the scientific method or the facts and theories of science. The Cartesian social analysis of science, like the Cartesian analysis in science, alienates science from society, making scientific fact and method “objective” and beyond social influence. Our view is different. We believe that science, in all its senses, is a social process that both causes and is caused by social organization. To do science is to be a social actor engaged, whether one likes it or not, in political activity. The denial of the interpenetration of the scientific and the social is itself a political act, giving support to social structures that hide behind scientific objectivity to perpetuate dependency, exploitation, racism, elitism, colonialism.” 

They go on to say that while “of course the speed of light is the same under socialism and capitalism…whether the cause of tuberculosis is said to be a bacillus or the capitalist exploitation of workers, whether the death rate from cancer is best reduced by studying oncogenes or by seizing control of factories — these questions can be decided objectively only within the framework of certain sociopolitical assumptions.” This challenges us to avoid divorcing science from its social context in a knee-jerk reaction, but to actively examine it, including the research into disease. On this point, Richard Lewontin, in his Massey Lectures on Biology as Ideology, suggests that we at times turn agents of disease into a fetish, foregoing a true analysis of causes which tend to be sociopolitical and based on people’s material conditions. Additionally, the fetishisation of objectivity prevents scientists from examining sociopolitical aspects, influences and implications of their research out of a kind of – perhaps unconscious – fear of being accused of peddling mere ideology when pointing them out. Moreover, it opens the door to unethical and objectively harmful uses of science (e.g. the atomic bomb). This is a tragic, albeit not unsurprising, consequence of bourgeois science.

Science ought to be engaged with not as the religion of scientism, nor should it be responded to with antiscience sentiments that both segments of the right and left fall prey to. Richard Levins talked about the ‘dual nature of science‘ with its very real and material contributions to humanity on one hand, and the reproduction of class relations and the social and political structures of our society on the other. This ought to allow us to place the progression of science in its proper historical context and within its historical trajectory.

Thus, while the response to the weaknesses of bourgeois science should not involve antiscience sentiments, it is important for scientists and the public alike to remember that however much we might buy into the cult of objectivity, science – as a social institution, done by social creatures – can never be completely divorced from the ideological structure of society and the underlying labour and class relations that colour much of our lives. A materialist analysis of science – integrating a holistic, dialectical view – might help us along.

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I think there is no better example of where the shying away of the ideological and the sociopolitical falls short than the current global pandemic response. A toxic mixture of scientific advise that by the simple nature of the institutions ought to fall within the ideologically acceptable (e.g. not paying people to stay at home but hammering on reopening even when it is not epidemiologically correct to do so), a lack of trust from the people in government and scientific institutions that often feel far away and have very obviously failed them, the commoditisation of science and pharmaceuticals and the casualisation of scientists, means that we have continually exacerbated and prolonged the global Covid-19 pandemic. Ed Yong recently wrote about how public health as an endeavour in the West, has contributed to its own downfall by losing its radical starting point: “that some people were more susceptible to disease because of social problems”. But this doesn’t mean it has to end there.

Nothing about the way the pandemic has been handled in most Global North countries was inevitable. Science and medicine can be revolutionary, which is something the tiny, proud Caribbean island of Cuba shows. In Cuba, science, medicine and education have long been pillars of its revolutionary society, with a deep belief that these endeavours can be used in service of the people. To quote Che Guevara: Today one finally has the right and even the duty to be, above all things, a revolutionary doctor, that is to say a man who utilizes the technical knowledge of his profession in the service of the revolution and the people. In a similar vein, Fidel Castro once said in a speech that “The tens of thousands of scientists and doctors in our country have been educated in the philosophy of saving lives. It would be totally contradictory to their formation to ask a scientist or a doctor to work producing substances, bacteria or viruses capable of causing the death of other human beings…Doctors and not bombs.” And so, a (medical) science that is for the people, includes involving the people. This means, concretely, a system of public health that is directly involved in the community, primary care that is a part of every community and that everybody has access to, that means open access science, that means internationalism and solidarity and not a mentality of every man for himself, it means rejecting scientific knowledge being used for ill, democratising science, reckoning with modern science’s eugenic, bourgeois origins and truly following the science – messiness and all. It is possible. It is possible to tackle the pandemic with vaccines that are not, in the words of the Cuban Finlay Institute’s Director General “a commodity to sell to the governments and make big profits; the collateral effect was that the populations were partially protected from the virus.” It is possible to ultimately create a humane system where science and medicine have a strong revolutionary potential to make us, in turn, more human again; a system where illness is taken seriously, where workers are protected, where racialised and colonised people can have faith that they are cared for and the disabled are not simply discarded with semi-scientific, and often eugenic, ideological justification.

It is possible to ultimately create a humane system where science and medicine have a strong revolutionary potential to make us, in turn, more human again; a system where illness is being taken seriously, where workers are protected, where racialised and colonised people can have faith that they are cared for, and the disabled are not simply discarded with semi-scientific, and often eugenic, ideological justification.

In Socialism and Man in Cuba, Che Guevara states that a true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love. By acklowedging science’s dual nature, the ideological underpinnings of bourgeois science and its revolutionary potential when truly in the service of the people, we can change both the individual and our communities. We can, and must, be guided by love for the people as much as we love science. It is time for a science by the people, for the people. Solidarity forever.

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