Ideology and Science
5 May 2020
It has been reported by the Sunday Times newspaper that Sir David King a former Chief Scientific Advisor to the British Government is to set up an alternative scientific advisory group to the current one. The alternative advisory group are to go online with their recommendations and conduct open access conversations with the best scientists willing to participate in democratic debate, mainly on YouTube. The former scientific adviser says his patience has finally run out with how things are being handled by the existing Government SAGE committee. He points out that the current group is not acting as others did in the recent past, it is pledged to offer independent scientific advice but how can it do that when political watchdogs like Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s principal political advisor, are participating members of the SAGE panel;
‘Dominic Cummings is a political advisor to the PM, and the chief scientific officer is an advisor to the PM, and I think this is very dangerous for only one of them really understands the science.’The worry is that the scientific advice being given to the PM concerning the coronavirus outbreak is being filtered or spun by political appointees on the SAGE committee. There are other things to worry about too, the SAGE committee is operating largely in secret, the names of the member scientists on the committee have so far not been revealed to the public, though some scientists have volunteered the information that they are on it. The most suspicious thing of all is that no minutes or records are being kept of the meetings and what advice is actually being given to the Government can only be guessed at rather than being known. The concern is that all of this State secrecy is intended to shield the PM and the government from any future criticism, for any public inquiry of how government policy was formulated and managed will end up being based entirely on memory and hearsay. Any future inquiry would sound something like; at a meeting on date Q you proposed this, I don’t remember proposing it! Well Y says you proposed it, ... well I don’t remember it! Game over, as any investigation conducted on that basis would wallow in a fog of allegations, uncertainties and a lack of hard evidence.
There is good reason to believe the British Government has been playing fast and loose with scientific advice. Just to give one example close to home, in mid-March when the Irish Government met with the Northern Executive they had to agree to disagree over the length of time an individual should self-isolate if they had the virus or thought they had it. The Irish government said isolation must be at least 14 days, the Northern Executive said it was just 7 days, which government was following the correct scientific advice? Well the Irish Government was following a recommendation from the World Health Organisation and the scientific committee of the EU. The Northern Executive was following the policy of the British Government. So British Government policy was at odds with international standards and advice recommended by the world scientific community as the safe and sound approach. There are other examples we could quote, we don’t need to do so, for the decision by the former chief scientific officer to set up an alternative panel speaks volumes.
Ideology and science
There have been numerous attempts made by philosophers and others to establish a stable demarcation line between what good science is and its opposite, it began as early as Plato who argued for a distinction to be made between knowledge and ancestral opinion. The problem was a deep one and the quarrel became more difficult with the emergence of what Plato calls the Sophists, these itinerant teachers had their own conceptions about the character of true knowledge so his quarrel now was no longer with ancestral ignorance (mythology) but with a competing claim to knowledge that was on sale to the demos. ('The people') A battle over competing theories claiming scientific proof rather than one between knowledge and mere opinion was much harder to settle. In modern times the study of competing knowledge claims fell under the jurisdiction of a division of philosophy called epistemology and today the authority of philosophy to adjudicate on the matter is disputed by science itself. The last philosopher to produce a general epistemology of demarcation between science and its 'Other', Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) no longer has any authority. Not that long ago Stephen Hawking published some thoughts on the matter of philosophy, an academic subject he had little respect for, he said that he saw no good reason for physicists to take any advice from philosophy about knowledge claims because they had no deep knowledge of physics in the first place, they did not understood the concepts and could not do the maths required to understand modern physics.
What this leaves us with is an outcome were various scientific disciplines and intellectual divisions are free to set their own criteria for warrants of sound scientific knowledge, the physicists have a community standard they adhere to, the biologists have their own criteria and the economists have their own community standard. This is a most unsatisfactory outcome, what we have ended up with is an intellectual culture without a philosophy and maybe a state of intellectual disarray akin to a version of political anarchy.
The ruling state of intellectual anarchy has allowed what Karl Marx once referred to as 'ideology' to come to the fore, configure claims to knowledge and fuse them with interests while calling it science. In the writing of Karl Marx the concept of ideology is not an epistemological one, if you refer to some pamphlets written by Engels you might get the impression that it was intended as an epistemological theory about knowledge claims, here I refer to the famous designation in ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’ the inference being that what Marx says about the future socialism is scientific, based on proofs and demonstrations and what others say about socialism has no scientific basis, being no more than ill formed opinion or speculation. This was not how Marx himself deployed the notation of the ideological.
When Karl Marx referred to ideology what he meant was intellectual fronts or masks for undisclosed material or class interest, this is not an epistemological theory about demarcating truth claims. It is not inconceivable for a science with high credibility like Darwin’s evolutionary theory to be put to some ideological use, witness the history of social Darwinism. The theories that Marx concerned himself most with in his most active intellectual period were economic theories, Marx did little to challenge the scientific warrants of the economic theories he was reckoning with, instead he showed how economic science functioned as an ideology, an intellectual front for class interest, he coined phrases like ‘bourgeois economics,’ or ‘bourgeois political economy’ not as scientific errors to be corrected by other better equipped economists but as descriptions for and justifications of class power. We agree with the proposition often made by modern economists that 'Karl Marx was not one of us'; ie. an economist.
When we start to investigate the welter of claims and counter claims currently circulating about the science of the coronavirus we must keep this concept of ideology in mind. There are more than enough scientists willing to use their science training to serve as an ideological front for class interests. The presence of the coronavirus has massively disrupted capitalist society, overthrown some of its leading trends and may yet challenge its class relationships. Because so much change has been caused by the coronavirus it not surprising to find the phenomenon become a source of both scientific and ideological dispute simultaneously.
Stanford's Ersatz reaction
I offer just one recent example as an instance of the current trend for speaking science and furthering ideology. A team of scientists based at a prestigious American University recently received glowing praise in various neo- liberal media outlets for casting doubt on the coronavirus forecasts made by the team of epidemiologists and virologists based at Imperial College London. The London based scientists led by Professor Neil Ferguson have been the subject of much ideological pressure over certain projections they made concerning the likely impact of the coronavirus on society, the Tory newspaper the Daily Telegraph exaggerated though with;
‘they have exerted a titanic influence on how governments around the world responded to the pandemic.’Beginning early, there has been a concerted effort to discredit Imperial College for ideological reasons. What the Stanford University scientists did was to produce some evidence to cast doubt on the Imperial College projections concerning the likely coronavirus death rate if nothing was done to prevent the spread by implementing a lockdown. The new evidence of the Stanford team of scientists lead by professor Ioannidis was hailed by right-wing journalists as a breakthrough requiring a change of Government policy. The campaigning journalist Frazer Nelson, a personal friend of Boris Johnson, editor of the right wing magazine The Spectator and columnist with the Telegraph was just one of many who were all over the story as soon it came out of Stanford.
However, things fell apart pretty quickly! The Stanford scientists had published their new conclusions and evidence prematurely, without putting their work up for peer review, this is serious a breach with proper scientific protocol. They had also taken to, of all places, the Wall Street Journal to publicise what they thought they had discovered before any other scientists had a chance to see the new data, an indicator of some likely ideological bias.
After it was disclosed that new scientific data had become available refuting the theses of the Imperial Team, into the intellectual fray jumped some other US based scientists who had got sight of the new data, and things took a turn for the worse for the Stanford scientific paper. A mathematician called Andrew Gelman based at Colombia University wrote an analysis of the new evidence and said the following;
‘I think the authors of this paper owe us all an apology, we wasted time and effort discussing this paper whose selling point was numbers that were essentially the product of statistical error.’What happened next was that after much criticism the Stanford paper was removed from the University website and withdrawn by the authors from circulation. An embarrassing outcome for science at Stanford University.
What was going on here was that these scientists, worried by what the lockdown was doing to the American economy rushed to publish some ersatz science with a view to making a change to the Government lockdown policy. While there is always scope for intra-science argument and controversy about the effective coronavirus, it must be pointed out that a great deal of ersatz science is being published for ideological reasons, in the above case to support a fast return to an opening of the American economy Donald Trump style.
The Austrian School
One place to find this brand of ideological abuse of science is at the Mises Institute website. They publish articles aplenty questioning the need for any economic shutdown. This is the digital voice of what is called Austrian economics. It was an Austrian born economist called Bohm-Bawerk (1851-1914) who first published a set of criticisms of the labour theory of value, associated with Karl Marx. After the third volume of Das Capital was posthumously published in 1894, he famously declared that the critique of economic science produced by Karl Marx was nothing more than a house of cards, easy to knock over. The Austrian school is not mainstream economics, it eschews most of the elaborate mathematical modelling that is so much a part of contemporary economic science, the alternative method is one presented to the world by Ludwig Von Mises (1881-1973) the intellectual guru of the Austrians, and the method is called praxeology. The term praxeology places the emphasis on what it claims are the necessary economic truths (a priori laws of economics). What this means is that the law like tendencies we observe in a capitalist economy are a set of universal certainties.
The biographer of Von Mises, Guido Hulsmann (The Last Knight of Liberalism) has recently had something to say about the economic crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic:
‘I am not an immunologist and do not presume to define the best solution from a medical point of view. As an economist, however, I know the following: it is fundamentally wrong to put the entire economy at the service of a single goal and to commit to a single solution. Human action always involves weighing up different goals and different means. Of course, maintaining health can be of paramount importance in the short run. But even then, it is never the sole goal and there are always different means. Free competition is essential, particularly when it comes to the efficient selection of ways and means..’The Austrian economists are the sort of liberals who do not compromise or mince their words. The Austrian school is way more dogmatic when it comes to opposing State intervention in or supervision of the capitalist economy than is the mainstream of current economic thought, they are a militant tendency fighting on behalf of laissez faire capitalism, and it is not unknown for business tycoons to dislike what Austrians have to say about the character of contemporary State funded capitalism. Because they are so militant they speak less guardedly about what extreme economic policies may be needed to preserve the system, and part of their constitutional brief is to sack anything that even hints of socialism.
The Austrians maintain that any inhibiting by Government of privately owned business or interference with price markets is tantamount to an invitation to State Socialism. The more mainstream viewpoint is that some State intervention with markets is sometime justified in an emergency situation like the one that now pertains, and the mainstream attitude can be loosely called liberal pragmatism. That a pragmatic liberalism is for the most part still controlling Government policy at this juncture is clear for two reasons; the economic shutdowns are intended to be short term measures aimed at restoring the previous market tendencies in order to make a big return to the pre-coronavirus capitalist normal, (they think 3 months may be sufficient to get a restoration) and second there have been no moves anywhere to socialise the privately owned means of production, even businesses making scarce medical equipment and supplies that are desperately needed by health services around the world have been left free to sell their wares to the highest bidder, there have been no major State acquisitions or takeovers of British or Irish pharma companies.
The basic issue is that the free market ideologists want to stage an argument with the findings of the medical sciences for ideological reasons, to confound the demos (the people) with more sexed up dodgy scientific dossiers. This is not a new thing, for about 15 years now the same ideologists have been arguing against the findings of physicists in the form of climate change denial, going to the extreme of saying that all climate science is invalid. With the coronavirus we have a re-run of the ideologically based climate change challenge to the best science.
Ideological dismissal of warnings
The coronavirus is a Zoonotic disease that has been transmitted from animals to humans, it is the third one in less than 15 years and this does not include the other infectious diseases like Ebola and HIV passed on to humans by monkeys. What this means is that the more free moving capital is permitted by States to exploit hitherto unfarmed animal habitats the more infectious diseases are likely to be released into the human population. Numerous biologists
have been warning about the risk of a viral pandemic for some time, even billionaire turned philanthropist Bill Gates has been pleading with Governments to make preparations.
The truth is that nearly all Governments wilfully ignored the warnings and made few if any preparations for a likely pandemic, this is mainly due to successful lobby pressure placed on Governments on behalf of the class interests of the larger corporations. The evidence that various capitalist States deliberately ignored the advice of health science in the period before the outbreak is very strong, it is not the conclusion of hindsight. If you take the US as an example, just 15 years the Centres for Disease Control drew up a 400 page pandemic plan with other experts and presented an extensive set of recommendations to Congress asking that preparations be undertaken for a likely pandemic in the near future. Here are just of the recommendations listed:
The creation of a network of regional centres throughout the United States, perhaps a dozen, each with an institute for advanced research into emergent pathogens.
The stockpiling of medical supplies such as medical masks, gloves, gowns, sterilization equipment and ventilators in particular.
The abandonment of sufficiency in regard to the number per capita of hospital beds, ICU and isolation wards, doctors, nurses, medical technicians, in favour of maintaining a surplus that in normal times might be considered uneconomical.
There were many more recommendations, however it matters no more as the pandemic plan was left to gather dust.
This is all part of the one ideological virus that is currently arguing that the health threat to workers from the corona pandemic is greatly exaggerated, that workers, especially those impoverished because of no State welfare support should just hurry themselves back to the workplace without concern for their own safety. What a surprise, the class enemies of the workers now just want to save them from what they consider to be an 'unnecessary' recession and future austerity! So the economic crisis, triggered by the pandemic, is an unnecessary and avoidable economic crisis, providing the workers are willing to die to restore profitability, while the Bank bail out and great recession of 2008 and the austerity that followed were something very necessary and unavoidable. This is what we mean by the term ideology.