Friday, April 18, 2008

Control Over Experiments - Getting the Whole Picture

In previous blogs I discussed how physicists choose a role or social contract in which they are cast as specialists and professors, not as power brokers or politicians. The last blog argued that this casting choice is a way of cementing and deepening power, both because it gives scientists a special status and realm of control like that of priests in the temples of progress, and because it frees them from the obligations that would come from being responsible for the social and moral ramifications of their own work. Now I'll discuss two other ingredients in the power equation.

We have seen that physics strives for the power to make nature do something over and over again on demand according to our whims, and even to take nature apart; nature becomes our slave rather than our partner. Similar levels of control and power can not be obtained over even the most docile people. Consider the power given by a system of pipes and taps providing running water. Such a contrast with the power that would be offered by keeping servants or dedicated workers - they would talk to you as they brought the water, change their pattern slightly or greatly each day, not respond with the same alacrity as a water tap, and sometimes be unavailable, maybe even leave permanently or die. Clearly nature offers far greater opportunities for control and power than people do. A physicist who chooses to focus her energy on nature rather than people is making, from this perspective, a power-maximizing choice. A simple calculation is enough to see that the greatest success in obtaining control via politics and power games will still leave you at sea struggling against new waves; if science-based control is the only kind available, why not cling to this rock? Scientific knowledge can seem like the only certainty, the only lighthouse in an uncertain world; what does a scientist lose by abdicating her role and responsibility for society as a whole? In other words, if the overriding goal is power and control; if this goal is used as the measure of truth as exemplified by physics' emphasis on experimental reproducibility and analysis, then a policy of specialization, technical roles, and abdication of responsibility for society is the only reasonable choice.

Going further, it is fair to say that for many individual physicists (and scientists) science is the way of maximizing their own personal power and security. Whatever Einstein's actual character was, the popular caricature of Einstein as a man who was socially incompetent contains a grain of truth about physicists as group - many of us don't do as well with people as with experiments and equations; it is striking how many of us have poor emotional awareness, empathy, communication, leadership, and group skills. And even more deeply, there can be a lack of trust for people, a sense of alienation, a need for refuge and security. People like this can be found in all walks of life; however if they discover at a young age that they do well with math or machinery, and that not only nature but society rewards their scientific efforts, then science can easily become a holy grail. This powerful incentive results in the physics community having more socially challenged people than is normal in most other professions. What I am saying is that the professor/expert role maximizes power not only for physicists as a group, but also for many individual physicists who are much more comfortable with subservient nature up close and threatening society at arm's reach.

In summary, not only is the scientific method focused on obtaining total control over nature via experiments, but also physicists themselves seek out control and power, both by choosing physics in the first place and by insisting on a particular role in society which is carefully chosen to promote their own status, security, and freedom from social responsibility. One of the hallmarks of natural philosophy is its focus on experimental control. From a certain perspective that has been widely popularized, this looks noble and clear-sighted; one talks "laws of nature," the search for a "theory of everything," etc. But the unspoken truth is that down to its very heart science and the scientific community are alloyed, joined, infected with the search for power and security. The popularized story about science is a true but small part of the picture; from a more human perspective one sees a much larger tapestry, with the scientific community taking its place in the larger human community, and with many threads including responsibility and its absence, respect and disrespect, social contracts, personal talents and weaknesses, etc. As with all human stories, a lot of wisdom (wisdom! not only knowledge!) and love is needed to understand, care for, guide, regulate, and prune the scientific community and its work.

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