Tuesday, December 6, 2016


John Vandermeer
Science for the People
Ann Arbor, Michigan

The scientific community was rightly disturbed by the election of Donald Trump. One of his first acts was to suggest appointing a climate change denier to the EPA, and his general enthusiasm for the latest fantasy that might support his personal gain suggests that the material world that science seeks to comprehend is largely irrelevant to his mode of understanding. During the first few days of the post election period, amid legitimate cries of grief from those who will clearly be damaged by his election, two general narratives seem to have gained ground.  First, many people who supported Trump actually did so out of legitimate concerns (lost their jobs in the rust belt states, for example), and second, Trump is akin to Hitler and will bring potentially apocalyptic harm to racial, cultural and religious minorities, to women and the LGBTQ community, and to the planet itself.  The conclusion, fairly evident I suggest, is that we should reach out and try to understand people in the first category, while we join the fight of the second, against the trending actions of a true fascism, by any means necessary.
Nevertheless, we also need to process this event at a deeper level. It is not an isolated event, to be sure. Fair comparisons have been made to Brexit, the rejection of the Colombian peace plan, and the recent coup in Brazil. Although not on everyone’s radar screen, the upcoming election of Le Pen in France (hopefully not, but let’s be realistic), the upcoming canceling of democracy in Venezuela (hopefully not, but let’s be realistic), and a host of other radical right wing transformations in the world, should also be viewed as part of the same world-wide movement. Political analysts have tried to understand such a dramatic turn, with some success.  Yet the effect more generally, even the threat to the very principles of the European Enlightenment, has not really been fully explored.  In this context it is fair to ask, what will be the fallout with respect to science?
To answer that question, we need to be clear on the framework within which it is posed.  Noted historians (especially Jonathan Israel of Princeton and Margaret Jacobs of UCLA) provide us with a broad historical lens that seems to me relevant. Distinguishing the “Radical Enlightenment” from the standard historical narrative of the Enlightenment, they both note that stemming from the deep ethical and political principles outlined a century earlier by Spinoza, a true egalitarian sensibility underlay much of environmental thought, but was basically subverted by those who, perhaps subconsciously, worried that Thomas Hobbes may have been right.  Amidst all the crowing about democracy and the rights of citizens, in the end there would be a need for authority! A need for a strong figure to replace the authority of the king or queen. We all know how that worked out. Napoleon perhaps understood basic dialectics when he saw the contradiction between the underlying need for a strong authoritarian figure and the rhetoric of the Revolution that emphasized liberty, equality, and fraternity. Yet, as we know, rather than a philosophical synthesis, he focused on the authority, and the resultant “long nineteenth century” ended with the “war to end all wars.”  The carnage of WWI led many if not most people to assume that we would never do that again.  Subsequent history became even darker, as we approached another “war to end all wars,” and eventually the post war mantra that repeats itself regularly, that “history has come to an end”.
Throughout this time we have seen, in addition to revolution and war, and war and revolution, a slow change in attitudes. Most historians regard that long nineteenth century (the time bracketed by the Napoleonic wars and WWI) as something of a consolidation of Enlightenment principles. To be sure the idea that people have the right to select their mode of governance, that individual citizens have agency in their own social organization, even the very idea of the “nation” have become embedded in our thought processes during those years.  Yet it seems to me there is another set of principles that have slowly penetrated our subconscious, to some extent replacing those basic Enlightenment principles.  As noted by Doreen Massey, we have now been programmed to think of ourselves not as independent thinkers and movers encouraged by Enlightenment thought, but rather as consumers, customers and spectators who conscientiously ascribe to the philosophy that self-interest is all that matters.  Like the proverbial toad that sits in the pot as the water slowly warms until it reaches a lethal temperature, we all presume not only that this is the way it is, but even that this is the way it should be.  We are free to choose between being a consumer or spectator, a customer or provider, investing in our 401K or buying a new gizmo, never even considering the true potential of our human agency.  Trump enters into a world where we spectators gladly purchase his snake oil, looking the other way as the world burns, species go extinct, our brothers and sisters belittled, incarcerated, and worse. His “supporters” cheer, his “detractors” laugh at one of the most absurd personages to ever enter the public stage.  All spectators, customers and consumers. All, at their most fundamental level, narcissistic.
Massey’s point is about the capitalist system.  In this broader context Trump’s election takes on even graver meaning in what may be read from Hardt and Negri’s important work “Empire.”   The empires of old were powerful, totalizing structures, on which the “sun never sets.”  Today we are living in a world dominated by a different sort of empire.  As former CEO of ExxonMobil Lee Raymond famously said “I’m not a U.S. company, and I don’t make decisions based on what’s good for the U.S.”, the global reach of capitalism, perhaps already inherent in capitalism’s first imperial project, the Dutch East India company, has now reached a new level. Nations no longer matter.  The moral victory of the French Revolution has been cancelled.  The liberated citizens with their agency for betterment gave rise to the consumer, customer, and spectator, all under the watchful eye of international corporations whose articulation with the antiquated idea of the nation is there for the sole purpose of maintaining order -- a wizard behind the curtain.
With this point of view, the election of Trump only means a continuation of what was already there.  Perhaps exaggerated to the point of absurdity, but nevertheless nothing more than a symptom of the deeper crisis.  And given the real physical problems we face, it is regarded by most people in the world as a true crisis.  Science policy, and maybe even the great project of Science (with a capital S, the principles of rationality itself), is under attack.  Citizens are no longer expected to use science and scientific opinions and facts in judging policy (to the extent their opinion matters in the first place), but rather, they are expected to be spectators in this new great sport. They are only to be cheerleaders and consume whatever snake oil has the best advertising.  Such a prospect is horrifying in a world where climate change is already changing everything so that international energy companies can continue attracting long-term investors, where species are already going extinct because their habitats are destroyed by rapacious developers, where industrial agriculture is already turning vast swaths of land into unproductive deserts to serve international agrochemical corporations, where fishers are driving fish species to extinction so they can pay the interest on their bank loans, where bacteria are rapidly becoming resistant to antibiotics in service to the pharmaceutical industry. Such issues and a host of others require real science to inform worldwide policy. Must we hoe the new land that must be hoed with our hands tied behind our backs, because the Monarchy (excuse me, the “jobs providers”) might get upset with our analysis?

I propose we view Trump’s election as a moment of clarification, or at least as a catalyst for reflection.  The insane wealth of the billionaire class, the extreme poisoning of our environment, the degradation of the discardable folks (in Chomsky’s terms), are these unavoidable realities of the “best of all possible systems?”  Are the apparent facts that most of us (considering the world’s population) will never have a permanent job, and those of us who do will hate the work itself, new facts of the “real world?” Must we sacrifice one third of our lives (our “job” if we have one) to the newly defined deities of international commerce, much as our ancestors sacrificed goats?  It is not that such questions are new, they have been with us since the birth of capitalism. But they have intensified as Reagan and Thatcher made neoliberalism the law of the land.  Might it be the case that the unthinkable, the election of a proto fascist to the presidency of the United States of America, should make us take stock of what we have been taught is inevitable?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Good science, bad science, pseudoscience, sad science: junk science and the inadvertent corporate shills

Part I:  Historical background

In a provocative essay Harvard historian Steven Shapin noted that science has long been touted as having changed the way the world works, since Alfred North Whitehead pronounced it so in 1925.  But Shapin provides a provocative challenge to this common perception.  Citing evidence from historical polling, he notes that, for example,

“84% [of the US population in 2003] believe in the survival of an immaterial soul after death; and 51% in the reality of ghosts.”
Steven Shapin
Steven Shapin, Harvard Historian
He goes on to note that,

“The triumph of science over religion trumpeted in the late 19th century crucially centered on the question of whether or not supernatural spiritual agencies could intervene in the course of nature, that is to say, whether such things as miracles existed.  By that criterion, 84% of American adults are unmarked by the triumph of science over religion which supposedly happened over a century ago. ”
We add that Europeans do not fare much better, and that such ideas span the physical through the natural sciences. 

However, Shapin also notes that science has been accorded a place of inordinate importance in the modern world, by several measures.  In part through a failure to understand the difference between science and technology, science is regarded as the key to the success of our serious endeavors to control the world around us, whether in the form of producing a drug to cure the latest emergent disease or creating the chip that ushers in the new generation of consumables.  Social support of the scientific endeavor, virtually unknown in the 19th century, has become an accepted norm, especially notable in the US university system where the natural sciences are accorded a comparatively overwhelming proportion of available resources.  Although Whitehead’s anticipated revolution in thought was not to be, there was, nevertheless, a concrete revolution in acceptance of science as a somewhat mysterious activity producing results that were evident, regardless of its seemingly hostile rejection of traditional, and apparently satisfying, ways of knowing – an acceptance of the results of science, but not science as a way of knowing.
Shapin also notes that the methodology commonly assumed to underlay the success of the endeavor, is largely as mythological as the dragons seen in the sky by ancient Chinese scientists.  Methods in science are as diverse as in most other intellectual activities and philosophers have long debated about what the “scientific method” is.  The textbook version of “observation, theory, prediction, experiment,” is really nothing more than a recipe for careful thought, and most scientists in their day-to-day operations do not follow such a recipe anyway.  Despite the enormous amount of text devoted to the so-called scientific method, probably the most trenchant and still best summary is Huxley’s view that the method of science is “nothing but trained and organized common sense.”  Yet “ . . . 84% of American adults are unmarked by the triumph of science over religion.”

Despite this overwhelming rejectionism, there is a feeling that something happened over the past few centuries that did change the way we look at the world, and certainly the way we come to understand and modify that world.  Attempts to fly in the past took Icarus too close to the sun.  Attempts to fly today make a trip from Amsterdam to Mumbai routine, and no one worries about getting too close to the sun and melting our wax wings.  No matter how much a resident from Kansas may reject evolution, he or she willingly makes reservations to fly in airplanes, not on magic carpets. And claims to “understand” something are routinely met with demands for evidence.  In this way Whitehead’s social revolution has been realized. Yet the confusion implied by the disconnect between science as method and science as a way of knowing, pinpoint what may be a faulty interpretation of that scientific revolution to start with.
vaccines science for the people
Smallpox Vaccine

Probably the most evident example is in the rejection of climate science (anti-evolutionism and the autism/vaccine relationship are perhaps equally evident, but their sociopolitical connections are somewhat more difficult to fully understand – and will be left to a later blog).  As Naomi Klein, among others, has popularized, the climate problem created by the industrial system is not likely to be resolved unless the underlying assumptions of that industrial system are challenged and the system itself either dramatically changed or completely overthrown. Of course such a conclusion is inconvenient for those whose lives are made comfortable by that system. Especially uncomfortable is the small percentage of the population who accumulate an enormous fraction of accumulated world wealth and assume as unassailable truth that they are commanded by God and nature to continue that accumulation. Consequently the world faces today a competition for hegemony between the friends of the Koch brothers, and the rest of us.

Occupy Wall Street Science for the People UMsftP
Occupy Wall Street Participants, 99% together

The fun of all this is that an enormous amount of buffoonery is generated. People who were elevated to power based on their willingness to support entrenched political power, rather than their willingness to engage that power positively, say profoundly foolish (and funny) things on CSPAN, and late night comedians have a ball.  Yet their rejection of science has consequences, as necessary for the maintenance of current power structures (no pun intended) as it is devastating for the rest of us. Most of the world actually realizes this at the present time, yet actions remain imprisoned by the immense political power of the “power elite” and their shills and stooges.  The big three they shill for are climate change, evolution, and vaccinations, misunderstanding of which have immediate (reduction in herd immunity in the case of vaccination denial), long term (climate change denial), and structural (evolution denial) consequences.

There is a fourth, that is completely misunderstood, both by the promoters and deniers. That misunderstanding is effectively the science-denial part of the problem.  We refer to the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In part II of this blog we detail the misunderstandings and elaborate why we feel opposition to GMOs, at least at the present time, is justified.

-Written Collaboratively By: Science For The People, UM Chapter

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Scientists as Citizens: Education as a weapon of intellectual self-defense

"Before I could read, my grandfather read to me from Bad Bishop Brown’s Science and History for Girls and Boys. My grandfather believed that at a minimum every socialist worker should be familiar with cosmology, evolution, and history. I never separated history, in which we are active participants, from science, the finding out how things are. My family had broken with organized religion five generations back, but my father sat me down for Bible study every Friday evening because it was an important part of the surrounding culture and important to many people, a fascinating account of how ideas develop in changing conditions, and because every atheist should know it as well as believers do." ~ Richard Levins


In this first blog issue of Science for the People, we provide a brief historical overview on the role of radical scientific workers in the early part of the 20th century. By placing the role of scientists in a historical context, we seek to understand how scientists within the political left have in the past engaged with ordinary people through popular education activities. Understanding this history is of crucial importance to the present day since we are facing some of the most pressing societal issues, most notably climate change and the rapid loss of biodiversity.

Popular science writers have traditionally focused their attention on communicating scientific ideas to the public in the hopes of galvanizing support for science. While these efforts should be applauded, they fall short in some important ways. They generally seek to promote changes within the established social order, either by influencing governmental agencies or individuals through self-education literature, but fail to addres how scientific knowledge is built from the ground-up so that individuals can attain the self-confidence required to change the existing social order. Contrary to the mainstream of Popular Science writers, Science for the People aims to provide ordinary people with scientific ways of thinking in order to create alternative forms of self-managed societies.

Science for the People Magazine Covers, 1974, 1970.

British Science Writers

Lancelot Hogben
Since the Victorian era, popular education played a key role in the dissemination of scientific knowledge to the public. Scientists engaged deeply with the public by displaying their most recent scientific discoveries in front of sold-out audiences. The status of the scientific worker was both as a celebrity and specialist. It was the advent of the mass printing press in the 19th century that soon expanded the dissemination of information into the public sphere. In the decades that followed, science emerged as a professional discipline with the growth of universities, government research institutions, and private industry. As there was greater emphasis on specialization within the sciences, popular science declined in the years that followed. However, a small fringe of scientific workers continued to engage with the public, albeit for different reasons. We can identify three main strands of popular science writers that dominated much of the 20th century.

From the beginning, popular science writers had primarily been concerned with the establishment of science as a professional discipline that served the purposes of government and industry. In the early years, science had not been recognized as a discipline and thus well-known scientists urged government and industry to acknowledge their work through research funding and the establishment of academic displines. But it was the links between applied science and imperialism that enabled scientists to gain government funding for research. While scientists disagreed on the best way of promoting science to the public, Britisch science writer Herbert Wells believed in the ability of science to transform society. In particular, Wells was interested in promoting a rationalist worldview that pushed forward the idea of Darwinism. In his classic work “Outline of History”, Wells offered a broad overview of Darwinian evolution and legitimized the science of biology by discounting the neo-vitalist movement, the notion that the living body could surpass its own physical laws, that had preceded much of popular science writing.

Attempts to reconcile science and religion spurred another important movement in popular science writing. Major discoveries in physics and cosmology led some prominent scientists to assess the impact of their scientific findings on religion. One such scientist was the well-known cosmologist Arthur Eddington who was the first scientist to experimentally verify Albert Einstein’s predictions. As a Quaker, Arthur Eddington challenged materialism which dominated much of physics in the 19th century. In his popular book “The Nature of the Physical World”, Eddington discussed the philosophical and religious implications of the new physics. Eddington suggested that in addition to materialism, consciousness and the mind were integral parts of our reality. This view of reconciling science and religion was generally favored by an older generation of scientists in the beginning part of the 20th century.
John S. Haldane, 1910 via Wikimedia Commons

Yet, by the 1930’s there was increasing awareness about the moral compass of a scientifically managed society. While previous generations of science writers wanted changes within the existing social structures, principally government and industry, a small group of politically Leftist scientists wanted a scientifically based society managed by ordinary people. These scientists represented a younger generation within the British political left movements. Some of these prominent scientists included the physicist John Bernal, the mathematician Hyman Levy, and the biologists John Haldane and Lancelot Hogben. While these younger scientists critiqued the previous generation of science writers for linking religious values into popular science writing, their primary aim was to make science accessible to ordinary people but also to use it as a weapon of intellectual self-defense so as to organize society based on scientific principles. Most notable defenders of these ideas were the biologists Haldane and Hogben. Besides being a well-known evolutionary biologist, Haldane had written popular science articles for the Communist Daily Workers, where he frequently wrote critical articles on the misuse of science in the case of poison gas during WWI and eugenics.

Although overshadowed by Haldane, it was the biologist Lancelot Hogben whom became one of the most prolific science writers of his generation. Hogben was a towering intellectual figure whose work spanned the scientific and political domains. As a biologist, Hogben’s work included mathematical contributions to human and medical genetics. He was actively engaged in the Nature-Nurture debate with geneticist RA Fisher. Hogben’s work challenged the eugenists, most notably Fisher, by stressing the importance of non-linear interactions between heredity and the environment. As a compartive physiologist, Hogben’s research on the endocrinology of Xenopus laevis (the African clawed toad) showed that when female frogs are injected with urine from pregnant women in their hindlegs they ovulate. This served as an indicator that the urine of the woman containing the hormone chorionic gonadotropin caused the frogs to ovulate. Hogben’s laboratory developed protocols for the standard pregnancy test, commonly referred to as the Hogben pregnancy test. In the latter part of his professional career, Hogben’s work focused on the foundations of statistical theory, in particular on statistical inference methods in human genetics.
African clawed toad pair, by TimVickers, via Wikimedia Commons

In the political sphere, Hogben belonged to the radical left-wing tradition of British scientific intellectuals. While commonly associated with Marxists, Hogben did not subscribe to the rigidity of the Communist Party. Rather, Hogben called for socialism in his early years and promoted scientific humanist later in his life. Hogben grew up as the son of fundamentalist Methodists parents in whose household books were banned and daily activities included spreading of the Gospel to save souls from going to Hell. However, it was scarlet fever at the age of 14 that forced Hogben to stay at home. This proved to be a pivotal moment in his life since books left by his cousin and books from the public library allowed him to self-educate himself in natural history and zoology. While in Tottenham County School, Hogben developed his interest in biology and showed exceptional academic abillities. Meanwhile, his friendships with working-class kids from the neighborhood shaped his left-wing political consciousness.

At the age of 17, Hogben won a prestigious scholarship to study at Cambridge University (Trinity). Hogben remembers this time, 
“As an education institution, Trinity was ideally fitted to foster my intellectual development. Perhaps because of an overdose of family prayers, I had acquired a lifelong reistance to information transmitted by the spoken word”. 
At Cambridge, Hogben became intellectually influenced by a small number of important physiologists including Walter Fletcher, A.V. Hill, and Keith Lucas.  However, it was the logician and philospher Bertrand Russell whose lectures on the philosophy of science and political activism inspired Hogben intellectually. In 1914, Hogben began to serve for the Quaker’s War Victim’s Continent during WWI as a non-combatant building homes for homeless French families and as a medical aid for the Friends Ambulance Unit. Reflecting back on this period, Hogben writes, 
“I already knew of the Quakers taking an active part in the emancipation of the slaves, that they regarded military service as contrary to the profession of a Christian and that they proclaimed no dogma to which a modernist could not subscribe.” 
However by 1916, Hogben made the political choice not to use his work for exemption from military service when conscription was introduced. Just like Russell, Hogben became a conscientious objector and served time in jail for his political actions.

While at Cambridge, Hogben met Enid Charles and they would get married by 1917. Charles was an accomplished mathematician and committed feminist. Exceptionally gifted, Charles won the “math tripos’ examinations at Cambridge, exceeding her male counterparts. Despite this accomplishment she was barred from receiving a university degree from Cambridge and spent a year in a Liverpool settlement gaining a diploma in the social sciences. While she could have acquired a well-paying civil service job, she opted for taking a low paying job as an organizer for the women’s unit of the trade union movement. After obtaining her doctorate in physiology, she shifted her interest to demography. In collaboration with R. R. Kucyznski, she would develop new statistical techniques in the study of differential fertility. In 1934, Charles garnered international attention for her book “The Twilight of Parenthood”, in which she projected that fertility rates in the UK would continue to drop thereby challenging eugenics.

As a popularizer of science, Hogben became well known for several books most notably “Mathematics for the Million”. In his 650-page classic book, Hogen traverses the reader from Euclidian geometry all the way through calculus, including differentiation and integration. The book became a bestseller and was intended to boost the self-confidence of ordinary people in their abillity to understand mathematical concepts. Hogben’s genius was to explain mathematical ideas in plain language such that the reader was able to logically follow principles against the historical background at which they emerged.

In discussing mathematical pedagogy, Hogben writes, 
“The customary way of writing a book about mathematics is to show how each step follows logically from the one before without telling you what use there will be in taking it. This book is written to show you how each step follows historically from the step before and what use it will be to you or someone else if it is taken. The first method repels many people who are intelligent and socially alive, because intelligent people are suspicious of mere logic, and people who are socially alive regard the human brain as an instrument for social activity”.
Unlike many writers of his day, Hogben’s educational strategy was to build the scientific knowledge of ordinary people from the ground up so that they wouldn’t need to take anything for granted by the elite, intellectual establishment. This strategy was so radical in its purpose that it not only served ordinary people with scientific understanding but also enabled them to use this knowledge to manage their own affairs.

Science for the People: United States 

The anti-war movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s sparked a new period in which left-wing scientists began to engage in important societal issues. Left-wing intellectuals increasingly questioned the role that universities played in society. This led to the formation of Science for the People in 1967, a national organization that started with a research strike in MIT protesting the military research presence on campus. As part of the antiwar activities, several members of Science for the People collective went to Vietnam to investigate war crimes committed against Vietnamese peasant communities, many of whom sufferred birth defects due the application of the chemical herbicide Agent Orange. Furthermore, Science for the People was actively engaged in debate surrounding the Green Revolution and genetic engineering. One prominent scientist that emerged from this era was Harvard biologist Ruth Hubbard. The events of the Vietnam War and the Women’s Liberation Movement forced her to reconsider her role as a scientist in society. As a consequence, she spent the following decades challenging the ideological roots of sociobiology and also took on the issue of gender inequality in the workplace, particularly the subservient role that women were given by their male colleagues in the university.

By the 1980’s, NWAEG (New World Agriculture and Ecology Group) emerged as the sister organization of Science for People mainly working in Nicaragua. As part of NWAEG, scientific workers went to Nicaragua to assist the Sandanista’s at the National Autonomous University in Managua. NWAEG members conducted research and taught various courses in agricultural ecology. This proved to be an important period in US history, when citizens of the oppressor country voluntarily travelled to Nicaragua to show solidarity with the victims of US terrorism.

Vision for the future: Science for People

We have provided a brief historical overview of radical scientific workers in both Britain and the United States that were actively engaged in popular educational activities. It’s important that we take note of this history in order to address some of the most pressing environmental and social issues of our time. The slogan “Educate and Organize” remains as poignent today as it was more than a century ago.

-Written Collaboratively By: Science For The People, UM Chapter

Literature Cited

Bowler, P. (2009). Science for All: The Popularization of Science in the Early Twentieth-Century Britain. University of Chicago Press.
Hogben, Anne: Hogben, Lancelot Thomas: Hogben, Adrian (1998), Lancelot Hogben: scientific humanist: and unauthorized autobiography. London: Merlin
Hogben, L. (1936). Mathematics for the Million: A Popular Self-Educator. Allen & Unwin, London.Hogben, L. (1939). Dangerous Thoughts. Allen & Unwin, London.
Levins, R. (2008). Living the 11th Thesis. Monthly Review. Volume 59, Issue 08. Retrieved from http://monthlyreview.org/2008/01/01/living-the-11th-thesis/
Mumford, D. (1997). Calculus Reform---- For The Millions. Notices of the American Mathematical Society. Volume 44, Issue 5. Retreived from http://www.ams.org/notices/199705/comm-mumford.pdf
Perutz, M. (1998). Friendly way to science. Times Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/books/friendly-way-to-science/162693.article
Sahotra, S. (1996). Lancelot Hogben, 1895-1975. Genetics. Volume 142: 655-660. Retrieved from http://www.genetics.org/content/142/3
Levins, R. (2008). Living the 11th Thesis. Monthly Review. Volume 59, Issue 08. Retrieved from http://monthlyreview.org/2008/01/01/living-the-11th-thesis/
Werskey, G. (1978). The Visible College: The Collective Biography of British Scientific Socialists of the 1930’s. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York.

Saturday, January 24, 2015