The degradation of science under capitalism

Centuries of scientific research and investigation have helped to propel society forwards and improve the lives of millions. This strength of the scientific method and its ability to discover and innovate has been so great that it has created a mystical sense of infallibility surrounding science. But, as with all other areas of society, the senility and decay of capitalism is now being reflected in the question of science also, and many are starting to worry about the reliability of research.

Marxism and materialism

The Marxist view of the world is built upon a materialist philosophical outlook, in which it is understood that it is the material world that is real and primary, whilst our consciousness and ideas are a reflection of this material reality.

When applied to history and society, we arrive at the Marxist theory of historical materialism, which asserts that social being determines social consciousness. In other words, due to the social interactions that men and women are forced into in their daily lives, social traditions, culture, ideas, morals, and class consciousness develops. As Marx outlines:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” (Marx, “Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”)

It is not, however, simply the ideas in society that are shaped by the material conditions available to a given society. The materialist view of history and society explains how, in the final analysis, all the individuals, institutions, and structures we see are also ultimately limited by the social relations and productive forces within society. Neither great individuals, nor the greatness of humanity as a whole, in any field of life, can go beyond the constraints imposed by the material conditions – such as those of science, technique, and industry – available to society.

It is with this understanding that Marx and Engels criticised their socialist predecessors – the “Utopian Socialists” – for whom a socialist society was “ahistorical”, i.e. independent of historical material conditions. For the Utopians, all that was required was the individual genius to conceive of a perfect society in order for it to be so, as Engels commented:

“If pure reason and justice have not, hitherto, ruled the world, this has been the case only because men have not rightly understood them. What was wanted was the individual man of genius, who has now arisen and who understands the truth. That he has now arisen, that the truth has now been clearly understood, is not an inevitable event, following of necessity in the chains of historical development, but a mere happy accident. He might just as well have been born 500 years earlier, and might then have spared humanity 500 years of error, strife, and suffering.” (Engels, “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”)

Similarly, it was with a materialist understanding of socialism that both Trotsky – in analysing the phenomena of Stalinism and bureaucracy in the Soviet Union – and Marx before him explained how a socialist society could only be built upon material conditions of superabundance; upon a certain level of the development of the productive forces that could provide for the needs of everyone whilst still allowing the time for the mass of ordinary men and women to be involved in the democratic running and planning of society. As Marx noted:

“A development of the productive forces is the absolutely necessary practical premise [of Communism], because without it want is generalised, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and that means that all the old crap must revive.”

In this way – with this materialist method – Marxists understand how material conditions, primarily in the sense of the development of the productive forces, ultimately determine all the various forms and structures in society: from religion and morality to the law and the state; from culture and tradition to the family and relationships between the sexes; and much more besides.

This relationship between a society’s “superstructure” and the economic base of social relations and productive forces is not, however, a mechanical one. In history we see a great variety of forms and structures (and individuals) even within one common mode of production. Ultimately, however, none of these can go further than what material conditions and social relations allow.

To take one example: within capitalism there are a great variety of nation states, each with their own particular laws and state structures. Each of these has arisen in their own unique way because of the particular history and culture of that nation. Nevertheless, all of these legal systems and state apparatus ultimately have one commonality: the protection of private property – an economic, social relation.

At certain points in history, the productive forces outgrow the social relations and contradictions emerge throughout society. It becomes clear in one field after another that society is held back, not by our technical abilities, but by the very way in which society is organised. Such contradictions, as Marx explained, usher in the “era of social revolution”:

“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.” (Marx, “Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”)

Science and society

For many, the role of science in society is sacrosanct and unquestionable. Thanks to the great achievements of the scientific method since the 16th Century, through the Enlightenment and onwards, scientists have earned themselves a revered position in society of a quasi-religious character. The most learned men and women involved in science are virtually deified – presented as omniscient and omnipotent beings that live in a heavenly realm beyond that of us mere mortals.

Such individuals – and the institution of Science as a whole – are assumed to be infallible and objective, uninfluenced by the petty politics and societal pressures that the rest of us imperfect beings succumb to and worry about. In this sense, the results of modern day science are all too frequently presented as established and unquestionable facts – the Truth – free of any bias or doubt.

Of course the methods of science today are a qualitative leap forward from the superstitious and religious beliefs that held back Western society throughout the Dark Ages and Medieval times, and which still find an echo today amongst religious conservatives who preach about “intelligent design”. But to imagine that the field of science today is untouched by the various conditions, processes, and events taking place in wider society is to fall into an idealism that is not too dissimilar from the sacred and inviolable position held by the mystics and priests in earlier times.

One only has to look back at history to see how the methods and validity of science cannot be divorced from the social relations, material conditions, and surrounding processes in society. For example, it was only with the origins of class society that science – in the sense of developing a systematic understanding of natural phenomena – could first take a qualitative leap forwards. With the development of class society, for the first time in history, there could be a division of labour between mental and manual labour, freeing a small minority of the population from the immediate tasks of production, and allowing them time to study and make sense of their surroundings.

This was an enormously progressive step forward for mankind, providing an enormous boost to the development of human knowledge, which in turn paved the way for a development of the productive of forces – that is, the development of science and technique; our ability to manipulate natural forces and make them work in our favour.

This great leap forward – this division of labour to create a privileged elite of thinkers – was, however, only possible upon a prior development of the productive forces; for it is only when society first is able to produce a surplus that the possibility of maintaining such a privileged minority can be realised. Thus we see how even the very origins of science and philosophy were dependent on material conditions, and not simply on the minds of men.

Similarly, one can see how the progress and advances made by science in modern times, from the 16th Century onwards, coincided with the early development of capitalism and the emergence of a new class – that of the bourgeoisie – which was able to provide an independent base from the power of the feudal aristocracy, which was entangled with the church and all the mystical, religious, and superstitious nonsense surrounding it.

The great thinkers of the Enlightenment, with their insistence on Reason and contempt for the mysticism of old, were a product of this emerging bourgeoisie and of the revolutions that they spawned. But even these great individuals and their ideas could not go further than what social relations allowed, as Engels noted in his great work, “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”:

“The great men, who in France prepared men’s minds for the coming revolution, were themselves extreme revolutionists. They recognized no external authority of any kind whatever. Religion, natural science, society, political institutions – everything was subjected to the most unsparing criticism: everything must justify its existence before the judgment-seat of reason or give up existence. Reason became the sole measure of everything. It was the time when, as Hegel says, the world stood upon its head; first in the sense that the human head, and the principles arrived at by its thought, claimed to be the basis of all human action and association; but by and by, also, in the wider sense that the reality which was in contradiction to these principles had, in fact, to be turned upside down. Every form of society and government then existing, every old traditional notion, was flung into the lumber-room as irrational; the world had hitherto allowed itself to be led solely by prejudices; everything in the past deserved only pity and contempt. Now, for the first time, appeared the light of day, the kingdom of reason; henceforth superstition, injustice, privilege, oppression, were to be superseded by eternal truth, eternal Right, equality based on Nature and the inalienable rights of man.

“We know today that this kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie; that this eternal Right found its realization in bourgeois justice; that this equality reduced itself to bourgeois equality before the law; that bourgeois property was proclaimed as one of the essential rights of man; and that the government of reason, the Contrat Socialof Rousseau, came into being, and only could come into being, as a democratic bourgeois republic. The great thinkers of the 18th century could, no more than their predecessors, go beyond the limits imposed upon them by their epoch.” (our emphasis)

Throughout history, therefore, we see how developments in science – as with all ideas in society – have always been associated with a development of the productive forces, with qualitative leaps forward coming about on the basis of fundamental changes in the social relations.

The progress of science is not a linear march upwards, but is dialectical process of long periods of quantitative change followed by qualitative advance. Such leaps, in turn, are themselves intimately linked to the wider revolutionary changes taking place that radically transform society and, with it, all the old ideas and traditions also.

The barriers of private ownership and profit

Whilst it was the development of class society – and later on the emergence of capitalism – that gave science an enormous boost forward in the past, we can see that today these same forces that previously led to progress are now holding society back and have become an enormous barrier to the development of science – and of the productive forces in general.

In particular, the capitalism system, with its basis in private property and production for profit, has become a gigantic fetter on the development of all areas of society, including science. Under capitalism, ideas themselves have become private property – “intellectual property rights” – and this private ownership over knowledge has, in turn, stifled the possibilities of advancing research. Instead of collaboration between the best scientists, using all of the intellectual and scientific resources available to humanity to solve society’s problems, research is split up in the name of competition; the fruit of this labour – the development of new technologies and methods – is then privately appropriated for the sake of profit.

Ultimately, however, all scientific knowledge is socially produced – the historical result of generations of advances. All breakthroughs in science require the prior knowledge accumulated over centuries of hard labour, and yet, under capitalism, the “winner takes all” attitude prevails and this social knowledge becomes privately property. With the existence of intellectual property rights, therefore, we see the parasitic nature of capitalism, which privately appropriates the products of social labour.

One might assume that such competition, with its inefficiency and waste due to the duplication of efforts, would be consigned to the private sector. Surely public sector research, conducted in publically funded universities, would be free of such competition and inefficiency. Unfortunately this is not the case; instead, we see how the laws of capitalist competition are reflected even inside of public institutions.

Take, for example, the case of scientific research in British universities. Much of the funding for such research comes from public funds – i.e. taxes and student fees. Given the crisis of capitalism and the resulted austerity programme of the Tory-led Coalition, such funding is being slashed. It is increasingly common, therefore, for universities to be reliant on big business for private sources of funding, and it is all too easy to see how this directly influences research in the name of profit.

Alongside this increasingly influential role of big business in university research, one can also see the laws of capitalism expressing themselves inside publically funded research projects. Due to austerity, universities – and the academics within them – are fighting over an increasingly scare pool of funding and resources. In order to guarantee the survival of their departments and of their jobs, academics and their research teams must justifying their existence and prove their superiority by producing new, cutting edge research, and they must do this before similar research teams in rival universities get there first. This competition between universities over the ever-shrinking scientific funding results in universities and their researchers, rather than collaborating by sharing data, methods, and results, instead racing against one-another to reach the finish line first.

Similarly, it is often seen in publically-funded scientific institutions how – again, in order to justify their existence – academics will carve out a niche for themselves and will dig their heels in if anyone challenges their position. Rather than remaining open to new theories or, for example, taking a balanced view on scientific topics that clearly have a social and political element – such as the technologies necessary to avert climate change – academics all too frequently go to extremes to defend their own field of research against all others, thus defending their access to funding and ultimately their own livelihoods. One can see such an example of this in the field of cosmology, where established professors of theoretical physics, despite the obvious flaws and deficiencies in the standard models, can often quickly become hysterical at the mention of any new theories that challenge - and thus threaten - their own position.

Thus we see how capitalism, by creating conditions of scarcity through crisis, gives rise to competition even within the public sphere, thus holding back the possibilities and potential of scientific research in all fields. Once again we return to Marx’s statement that when “want is generalised...the struggle for necessities begins again, and that means that all the old crap must revive.”

The contradiction, of course, is that this scarcity under capitalism is completely artificial. The real situation is that of poverty amidst plenty. Despite the assertion of the need for austerity by the apologists for capitalism, an enormous quantity of wealth exists within society – but this sits in the hands of a tiny exploitative minority, with 85 billionaires owning more wealth than half the world’s population put together.

On top of that, the biggest businesses, who – like all capitalists – only invest for profit, sit on cash hoards of £750 billion in the UK, $2 trillion in the USA, and €2 trillion in Europe, which they do not invest, despite the clear need for jobs, schools, hospitals, houses, and infrastructure, because of the enormous “excess capacity” – i.e. overproduction – that exists on a world scale. Such wealth dwarfs the amount spent every year on research and development (estimated at between $1.0-1.4 trillion), and, if socially owned and put under a democratic plan of production, could be used to provide a massive boost to scientific research and human knowledge.

Bad science

The senile decay of capitalism expresses itself also in terms of the very quality of scientific research itself. Again, the advance of science is not a linear one. New knowledge does not fall from the sky like manna from heaven, but requires adequate material conditions. The concrete meaning of this in today’s epoch of acute capitalist crisis is demonstrated by the increasing worries about the reliability of research, as scientists cuts corners in the face of scarcity and competition. The Gods of Science are shown to be mere mortals – frail and vulnerable to the wider pressures in society. The mask has slipped and the veneer of infallibility and omniscience surrounding Science is quickly evaporating. All that is solid melts into air.

The Economist (19th October 2013) expresses these concerns about the degradation of science in a leading article entitled “How science goes wrong”:

“Modern scientists are doing too much trusting and not enough verifying – to the detriment of the whole of science, and of humanity.

“Too many of the findings that fill the academic ether are the result of shoddy experiments or poor analysis...A leading computer scientist frets that three quarters of papers in his subfield are bunk...”

“...Science still commands enormous – if sometimes bemused – respect. But its privileged status is found on the capacity to be right most of the time and to correct its mistakes when it gets things wrong...The false trails laid down by shoddy research are an unforgivable barrier to understanding.”

The article explains some of the causes behind such bad science. Most notably, The Economist cites the problem of competitiveness in science, with scarcity of academic positions and resources leading scientists to take shortcuts, which in turn leads to errors:

“The obligation to ‘publish or perish’ has come to rule over academic life. Competition for jobs is cut-throat....Every year six freshly minted PhDs vie for every academic post. Nowadays verification (the replication of other people’s results) does little to advance a researcher’s career. And without verification, dubious findings live on to mislead.

“Careerism also encourages exaggeration and the cherry-picking of results...as more research teams around the world work on a problem, the odds shorten that at least one will fall prey to honest confusion between the sweet signal of a genuine discovery and a freak of the statistical noise.”

Later on, in the main article on the same subject, The Economists comments:

“There are errors in a lot more of the scientific paper being published, written about and acted on than anyone would normally suppose, or like to think.

“Various factors contribute to the problem. Statistical mistakes are widespread. The peer reviewers who evaluate papers before journals commit to publishing them are much worse at spotting mistakes than they or other appreciate. Professional pressure, competition and ambition push scientists to publish more quickly than would be wise. A careers structure which lays great stress on publishing copious papers exacerbates all these problems.”

Elsewhere, the article notes the example of an academic at the prestigious Harvard University who tested the process of peer-review by submitting a paper on biology to 304 scientific journals that was completely filled with errors in terms of analysis and conclusions. Despite such flagrant errors, the paper was accepted for publication in 157 of the journals – a pass rate of over 50%!

In addition, The Economist cites conscious fraud – again, due to the competitive nature of academia – as being another major potential source of error in research: “Only 2% of respondents [to surveys of academics] admitted to falsifying or fabricating data, but 28% of respondents claimed to know of colleagues who engaged in questionable research practices.”

Alongside questions and concerns regarding the quality and reliability of research, The Economist article also raises the problem of competition in relation to “intellectual property”, and the way in which this – far from improving and advancing science – is actual holding back the potential for increasing our understanding of the world:

“Some code used to analyse data or run models may be the result of years of work and thus precious intellectual property that gives its possessors an edge in future research. Although most scientists agree in principle that data should be openly available, there is genuine disagreement on software.”

All of these factors, therefore, are holding science – and thus society in general – back, preventing genuine advances in discovery and human knowledge: the competition between rival academics; the fight over the scarce – and ever diminishing – amount of resources and funding; the private ownership over ideas through “intellectual property”; and the pressure on scientists in academia to produce quantity rather than quality. All of these, at root, are the product of capitalism, which, through the anarchy of the market, the private ownership over the means of production, and the logic of production for profit, creates crisis, scarcity, and competition in all areas of society.

Political implications

It is clear, therefore, that the institution and method of science are not immune from the general crisis of the capitalism system, which is reflected in all walks of life. In most cases, the mistakes resulting from such erroneous research will not individually be particularly harmful. But, as The Economist article notes in passing, sometimes flawed research can have political implications.

The Economist article highlights the case of Harvard economists Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, who hit the headlines in 2013 when it was discovered – upon the attempts by a graduate student to replicate their results – that their influential paper “Growth in a Time of Debt” contained errors as the result of flaws in their calculations. This infamous paper, originally written by Reinhart and Rogoff in 2010, looked at historical data on public debts and economic growth, concluding that high national debts led to low growth. As a result, “Growth in a Time of Debt” was frequently cited by politicians who sought an academic justification for austerity.

Were the flaws by Reinhart and Rogoff a case of careless accident or of conscious politically-motivated fraud? The world will never know. Nor does it make a difference, for the policies of bourgeois politicians are not determined by the conclusions of ivory-tower academics, but by the needs of the capitalist system. The political representatives of capital require no justification for their programme of austerity, other than the knowledge – forced upon them by the invisible hand of the market – that they have no alternative under capitalism.

It is not the minds of academics that shape the world, but the world of capitalism that shapes the consciousness of academics. As Marx and Engels explained in the German Ideology:

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.”

Scientists, for all their knowledge, are simply humans, subject to the same societal pressures as everyone else. Despite all the claims to “objectivity”, it is clear that Science is no more immune from political and economic – i.e. class – forces than any other area of life. The search for the Truth may be done with the best intentions of impartiality, but the facts do not select themselves.

Indeed, the separation of mental and manual labour in society, which often removes those in academia from the more immediate exploitation experienced by other workers, means that academics are all the more vulnerable to unconsciously absorbing the dominant ideas in society –ideas that, as Marx explained, are those of the ruling class; ideas that seek to justify the existence of the current social relations. Under capitalism, this means justifying the existence of private property and economic exploitation.

With the deep crisis of capitalism, however, even those learned individuals within the hallowed walls of academia are not protected from the impacts and effects of austerity. So it is that we see lecturers and teachers taking strike action in Britain, fighting back against attacks to their pensions, wages, and conditions. Such collective action – of unionising and withdrawing labour –demonstrates the proletarianisation taking place in society, as the crisis takes hold of wider and wider layers of the population, including those who once thought of themselves as “middle class”. As Marx and Engels prophetically stated in the Communist Manifesto:

“The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.”

It is clear that capitalism has had its day and must now exit the stage of history. The limits of private ownership and production for profit have become an enormous fetter on the development of science and society as a whole. Only with the socialist transformation of society, involving a democratic and ration plan of production, can we utilise the enormous human and material potential that currently lies idle and wasted under capitalism.

With this revolution in society will come a revolution in science also, which will pave the way for unimaginable advances in technology and understanding. From the perspective of future generations, our current societal knowledge will appear as limited and incomplete as that of the Ancient Greeks does to us today. But this is the music of the future; the task for now is to fight to change society along socialist lines, in Britain and internationally.