USA: anti-vax and the crisis of trust in science

As with all production under capitalism, scientific production is not democratically controlled by the working class. We argue that the workers can and should be the drivers of scientific advancement.

Anyone with a burning interest in science—a 'scientific spirit'—faces a profound contradiction: it’s simply not possible for any individual to understand in great depth everything about the world that is of interest. For the same reason, it isn’t possible in the foreseeable future for society—even after we begin building socialism—to eliminate the technical division of labor because we can’t each do and understand everything that there is to do and understand.

Even though capitalists pocket the profits, society depends on collective production, distribution, and exchange; when it comes to any human endeavor, the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. One consequence of this is that it is impossible for every individual to verify every other individual’s claims about our world, especially complex scientific ones, without a great deal of time, effort, and resources.

It is probably uncontroversial to say that we would all like to live in a society in which we can not only gain some expertise of our own through education—without taking on a massive financial burden—but also trust those who do scientific investigation when we cannot quickly verify their results for ourselves. Under capitalism, however, not only do we face an enormous financial barrier, as well as a more or less 'natural' epistemic barrier, but there is another, and it grows more threatening to scientific credibility as capitalism limps on: the profit motive within science itself.

Scientific production under capitalism

Science has an important place in the production of goods and services. It plays a key role in both the appearance of new commodities on the market as well as the improvement of production processes for existing commodities. The production of this science is itself labor, and it is often incredibly precarious for scientific workers, especially those at universities—adjunct researchers and teachers, post-doctoral researchers, student assistants, and even faculty.

The number of full-time faculty in degree-granting postsecondary institutions has decreased from 77 percent in 1970 to 51 percent in 2013, though the total count of full-time faculty has grown. Scientific production has been and continues to be a major factor in a society’s economic success. Naturally, every modern economy makes scientific production a priority to one degree or another.

A considerable amount of scientific research takes place in the public sector. Unlike the private sector, the public sector is responsible for the production of the majority of what is called 'basic' research. This is long-term and high risk in terms of whether or not its results can be commodified and quickly end up on the market in some form. The majority of basic research is done by the state, primarily in universities. This research is often privatized with little to no compensation to the state.

Science Image public domainThe majority of basic research is done by the state in universities; then immediately privatized / Image: public domain

Block and Keller write, “new federal programs were created in the 1980s to help finance precompetitive R&D costs for individual firms, both startup and established firms.” Further, “among U.S. innovations that were R&D 100 Award winners, there has been a dramatic shift in organizational auspices from 1971 to 2006—from private auspices to public or mixed auspices.” In 2006, 70 percent of innovation awards were awarded to public and mixed organizations, a percentage that has been growing steadily from 18 percent in 1971.

Notably, every 'core' technology in Apple’s iPhone was funded largely by the state. Apple, of course, makes it a priority to minimize its tax pay-in to such research initiatives, and it is far from being alone in doing so. In one major regard, science under capitalism is no different from all other production under capitalism—it is characterized by the socialization of risks and the privatization of rewards. If research does not lead to market success, its funding is unlikely to continue, and if profitability cannot be reliably predicted, it becomes the financial burden of the state to undertake this nonetheless necessary research. Take, for instance, ecology — a discipline in which research is neither modular nor commodifiable in any straightforward way:

“In the US, 68 percent of all nonmedical research in the life sciences is funded by the National Science Foundation, which has a total annual budget of 6.9 billion dollars. Within the NSF, funding for research in evolution and ecology is under the purview of the Department of Environmental Biology, which in 2010 made do with 142.5 million dollars (polar research has a separate, dedicated fund).

Iphone image Tinh tế PhotoMost of the technology in Apple's iPhone was created by the state, then sold for profit / Image: Tinh tế Photo

As with all production under capitalism, scientific production is not democratically controlled by the working class. What state regulation and oversight exists over the products of science, both basic and applied, exists not in the interests of the average person, but in the interests of capital. It is obvious that it is more functional—i.e., profitable—for a pharmaceutical company to produce a treatment but never a cure, and to roll out incremental 'improvements' instead of striving for technological leaps.

Reality reflects this. The imperative to produce for profit, and to innovate to produce yet more profit, regardless of whether or not this production is to humanity’s benefit, is fundamental to capitalism. It is a manifestation of capital’s inherent need to expand, at any cost and by any means to avoid recession, depression—and ultimately, revolution. Capital is unable to prioritize scientific progress when it has so much to gain from incremental advance:

“Though it is true that major innovations have a central role in determining new investment and economic growth, expansion depends on incremental innovation. The numerous minor innovations in product enhancement and process improvement that follow the introduction of any new product have an important impact on productivity increases and market growth. It has been shown that sometime after the take-off, both the number and the importance of incremental process innovations tend to overtake product changes. (Enos, 1962)."

We, therefore, have no neat and reliable formula by which to evaluate the true validity of science produced under capitalism as correct, authentic, or beneficial to society as a whole. And we know that for those few who control scientific production—state financiers, regulatory agencies, and the private industries that appropriate science and use it to produce marketable commodities—economic considerations come before our needs.

The resulting skepticism

As it becomes glaringly obvious that science under capitalism does not prioritize the needs of the many, more and more people fall into the trap of functionalism. They understand in a vague sense that the profit motive is involved and that this corrupts both the scientific apparatus and science itself, but they draw erroneous conclusions from their lack of systematic understanding and broad-based rejection of the establishment.

This is most popularly expressed by 'anti-vax' proponents, who, on the basis of discredited evidence, reject the overwhelming consensus among scientists as to the safety of vaccines. In fact, according to a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center, 37 percent of adults in the U.S., under the age of 50, believe that childhood vaccination should not be mandatory.

Vaccination Needle Image public domain37 percent of adults under 50 in the U.S believe childhood vaccination should not be mandatory / Image: public domain

The ultimate irony of this conspiratorial rejection of science is that what could be called 'anti-establishment science' also stands to profit from the tragic lack of trust that naturally arises under capitalism. The rejection of scientific consensus leads to the peddling of homeopathic cures and mysticism in place of scientific medicine.

However, this variant of functionalism omits the possibility of what we could call the 'simple coincidence' that X, Y, or Z product produced for profit is not inherently harmful to consumers. If one can conclude that vaccines, for example, are ultimately harmful to oneself or one’s children, it should, in principle, be just as easy to dismiss all commodities produced under capitalism or regulated by the government as inherently harmful on the basis of any sliver of so-called evidence that might tumble into view.

The more precise and accurate understanding is that the state imposes regulations on such things to look out for capital’s long-term, rather than its short-term interests. Capital does, after all, need a workforce that is not suffering from an epidemic of smallpox or incapacitated by tainted vaccines.

This is further complicated by how effectively or ineffectively the state can implement these regulations; how much foresight an unelected bureaucracy can really have with respect to such matters; and how strongly capital thrashes against these regulations in pursuit of the quick and easy profits to be had by pawning off toxic waste as medicine, food, and so on.

Flat earth Image Big ThinkDistrust in 'establishment' science has given credence to all manner of bizarre theories / Image: Big Think

The fact is that capital resists such regulations with all its might. This leads many to conclude that vaccines are inessential or needless risks. At the level of fact, this is mistaken, but it is somewhat different from the rejection of science altogether. It includes the admission that not knowing the reliability of the science is the basis for distrust. Beneath this paranoia lies an element of truth—a partial intuition about the role of capital in the production of goods and services and a fragmented understanding of how most people relate to the means of production, including the production of science.

The solution

There is no shortcut to a creating a world in which we can all fully justify placing our trust in science. The rotting center of distrust is the profit motive, and this cannot be reformed away, least of all through the Democratic and Republican parties. These are bound to capital as its servants and their purpose is to clear the path for its continued accumulation and domination. The irrational profit system must be eliminated and replaced with a rational system in which the trajectories of scientific progress are democratically controlled by the working class, free from the coercion and narrow interests that block meaningful scientific progress. Whether achieving socialism is easy or difficult is irrelevant to its necessity and urgency.

In a world in which there is no incentive in science but the desire to discover, in the interests of humankind, and to further knowledge of reality, conspiracy theories and distrust of the sort we see today in the anti-vaccine movement and elsewhere will have no basis and no cause. The disgusting and infuriating reality of today’s world is that billions suffer needlessly from treatable ailments; our planet and its people suffer from the corporations’ and states’ refusal to implement renewable forms of energy; and that the majority has no say in any of it.

Millions are searching for a world in which we can both trust the experts and become experts ourselves, and in which science is a force for the well-being of the whole of humanity and nature. This is why we are Marxists and why we fight for socialism!