Monday, May 15, 2006

On Science and Politics

ReadySteadyBook has a fascinating interview with Chris Knight, professor of anthropology at The University of East London. First, on Chomsky, the "genius" who "should be overthrown":
The problem is that Chomsky's separation of science and politics is a myth. His own science - his linguistics - is political through and through. Chomsky defines language as not social. He defines it as an object inside the individual head. He says it doesn't have any special communicative function - mostly, we use language just for privately thinking to ourselves. He says that the meanings of words are not socially negotiated but wired into the brain in advance as features of the human genome. In my view, to say all this is pure nonsense - stark, raving nonsense. But it is not politically neutral nonsense. To argue for such far-fetched positions is is to adopt an ideological stance - that of the liberal bourgeoisie. Chomsky is the most virulent imaginable opponent of social science in general and of Marxism in particular. Since the late 1950s, bourgeois hostility towards Marxism in western intellectual life has found its most extreme and articulate champion in Noam Chomsky.

Conversely, it is a myth to say that Chomsky's political activism is unconnected with is science. The connection is intimate. Today's most imaginative and effective political activists are constantly engaged with the findings of environmental scientists, earth scientists, economists, anthropologists, historians and others. Could we even imagine today's environmentalist movement without the brilliant environmental science which lies behind it? Against this background, it is positively uncanny to find how little science appears in Chomsky's writings as a political critic. We find no economic analyses, no sociological analyses, no application of theories or findings from any part of the social sciences or humanities. All we find are quotes from newspapers or reports of various kinds, telling a journalistic story. I personally tend to find Chomsky's stories accurate - more accurate than most. I admire his political integrity and courage. But I am suspicious about Chomsky's overall role. My view is that the ruling class are perfectly happy to have Chomsky writing this kind of thing. It doesn't frighten them in the least because it doesn't threaten them - Chomsky goes out of his way to construct and represent himself as a lone voice. In particular, when wearing his activist hat, he ostentatiously removes his scientific one. What would upset the ruling class would be the reverse strategy. What would upset them would be for the world community of scientists to become active while the activists became scientific. Our two communities might then hope to converge on a shared language of self-emancipation and revolutionary change. Chomsky has devoted his life to obstructing any such development. This is why I think he should be overthrown.
And then on Richard Dawkins:
Among other things, the [selfish gene] theory explains conflict: conflict between the sexes, between parents and offspring and so on. It shows how conflicting strategies arise, and how conflicting interests drive evolutionary change. For Marxists, these should be familiar themes. Most of the middle class 'left' refused to read further than the title of Dawkins' book. Failing to grasp the author's entire point, they imagined him to be justifying capitalism, racism and so forth. Nothing could have been further from the truth. It was precisely selfish gene theory which exploded the earlier idea that natural selection pitted 'race' against 'race'. The left's response to this scientific revolution was embarrassingly ignorant and self-destructive. In fact, it was a disgrace.


As an atheist and communist, I love Dawkins' hostility to religion. But as a Marxist, I think it is our job not just to condemn but to understand. [...] My problem with Dawkins is that he steers well clear of all theories which investigate the sexual, social and foraging strategies of evolving humans. Instead, he comes up with the idea that religion is a virus, like a computer virus. [...]

To explain religion, we need to go deeper. We need a theory which explains the evolutionary emergence of symbolic culture as a whole. Anyone who explores this topic in any depth is likely to come to discover intriguing details, such as the extraordinarily prominent ochre record. The first substance ever mined was red ochre. The first form of art was body-painting using this ochre. This behaviour has to be explained. The evolutionary anthropologist Camilla Power has come up with an explanation: the pigments were used in female initiation rites. The archaeologist Ian Watts (one of the world's leading specialists on the ochre record) has endorsed this explanation. One way or another, anyone who tries to explain the facts is likely to arrive at similar conclusions. The human revolution happened. Its outcome was an egalitarian society. I suspect that Richard Dawkins knows about these ideas, feels unsure about their political implications - and has decided not to investigate too deeply.
Chomsky and Dawkins are both sort of, well, not sacred cows certainly, but formative intellectual heroes of mine. With Chomsky, I still hold his political writings in the highest esteem. However, though I have always been generally interested in linguistics (and read with great interest popular books on language by Bill Bryson and Anthony Burgess), I've not read much of it, and Chomsky's writing on the topic I've found extremely hard to follow--even if, on the surface, what little I did understand seemed to make sense, as far as it went (especially as explicated in Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, a book I loved when I read it five or six years ago). Frankly, I basically took it for granted that his linguistic theories were valid. Certainly I was aware that not everyone agreed with his ideas, but I didn't spend much time looking into it. I noticed fierce oppostion to his linguistic theory online, at places like Language Hat, but I didn't know enough to judge for myself (still don't, really, though the criticisms have struck me as compelling). I have occasionally read articles about the disagreements he's had with philosophers such as Daniel Dennett, who tend to see all human traits as specifically selected for. Without getting into it too much here, I have found some of Chomsky's pronouncements on evolution and biology bizarre (like those noted here and here), but I have been sympathetic to the notion that not all traits would necessarily have been selected for, and that language could well have been one of them. Then, I read this article at ReadySteadyBook, which I only now notice is by the same Chris Knight, who argues convincingly that Chomsky's theories are incomprehensible and that what he does is effectively not science. That he's more Pope than Galileo.

Richard Dawkins was someone I was reading quite a bit of several years ago; I found The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker especially valuable. In recent years (especially since 9/11) most of what I've read by him has been article after article explaining yet again why religion is destructive and viral. I, too, am sympathetic to this attitude, but I find it unproductive. About the selfish gene theory, it seemed to me that people didn't want to deal with it. Most non-scientific references to it that I saw protrayed the theory as deterministic, which too often meant that the left dismissed it as reactionary, without looking beyond the title, as Knight has it. Yet when I read The Selfish Gene, I saw no reason to read the theory this way. I gather that it's commonly enough held that collectivization is "unnatural" or "against human nature". But I felt the book, in many ways, showed the opposite. Indeed, Dawkins all but said so at the end of his chapter on memes:
It is possible that yet another unique quality of man is a capacity for genuine, disinterested, true altruism. [...] ...even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight--our capacity to simulate the future in imagination--could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators.
So I think it's interesting that, in the interview, Knight, aside from chastizing the left here for not engaging with the theory, and with science in general, criticizes Dawkins for "steer[ing] well clear of all theories which investigate the sexual, social and foraging strategies of evolving humans"--for, effectively, also keeping politics and science separate. Coincidentally, earlier this year there was this excellent article in the Monthly Review, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Stephen Jay Gould's classic book, The Mismeasure of Man--"Debunking as Positive Science"--which concluded thus:
One of the most important lessons we can learn from Gould is that we should neither reject the ideal of seeking objective knowledge of the world nor assume that scientists operate in an objective manner, conveying the truths of nature unsullied by social preconceptions. [...] Since the scientific establishment remains dominated by those sympathetic to the concerns of the economic elite, debunking flawed research should be a central part of the left’s intellectual agenda. Radicals should not slip into the anti-intellectualism that Sokal exposed—intellectual dishonesty and fashionable nonsense in service of a just cause are dishonest and nonsense nonetheless. The rejection of reason will only serve to undermine the ability of the left to speak truth to power. We will be best served by sticking to the intellectual roots established by Marx, where socialism stands for a commitment to reason and fights the vapid dogma and pernicious ideology endlessly pedaled by the right. Gould’s work serves as an example of how the light of reason can lay bare the false claims of those who wish to perpetuate injustice and inequality and can lead us to a better understanding of the material world in which we live and struggle.
In light of this, encountering Chris Knight's work is, to me, revelatory. I look forward to finding and reading his books. ReadySteadyBlog also points us to this other, longer interview with him. Go read it. It's just as interesting as the one cited above, if not more so, and is, dare I say it, inspiring.


Anonymous said...

I don't know if I buy the analysis that Chomsky's lack of science in his politics is due to any particular refusal to combine the two. I mean, the science that he does has little political import. Thus, he would be in no position to speak as a 'scientist' on anything political! In other words, he would be no different from any other lay person bringing science into political discussion. Which is, of course, not necessarily a problem, but it's different a from a refusal, as such.

As for Chomsky and linguistics: obviously, he's been enormously influential on the field. I think not too many people buy everything he says anymore... My experience (as an undergraduate studying linguistics) has been that all of my professors have had big problems with some aspect of his work, whether it be his theory of grammar (now called Minimalism), or some of his underlying claims about what it means to study language. It wouldn't really be an exaggeration, however, to say that much of his work has defined certain areas in the field for some time afterward...

If you're interested in linguistics, Pinker's work (that you've already read) is certainly a good place to start. His book Words and Rules is also very clear, with the added advantage that it's a little more right :). I wouldn't recommend delving into Chomsky's more recent writings because they're pretty f–ing hard to read. However, to get a flavour of why he was so influential, you might take a look at Syntactic Structures from 1957, which was instrumental in his overturning of the field. He doesn't really subscribe to the theory that's presented there anymore (although that's understandable), but it is probably a lot more lucidly written than much of his later work.

(nice blog, btw!)

Richard said...

Hi, shudder, thanks for reading and for the compliments.

I would say that, certainly, Chomsky sees his science as not relevant to his political work. And when he takes off his scientist hat, so to speak, he is specifically claiming that his status as a scientist does NOT give him special insight into politics.