Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Making Sense of Science Under the Conditions of Neoliberal Capitalism: A Syllabus of Twenty-Five Titles

Well-ordered science is an ideal. It may seem a utopian fancy, the sort of thing that may figure in philosophical discussions but that has little place in a realistic account of the sciences. There is an important distinction between specifying an ideal, something at which our practices should aim, and identifying procedures for attaining or approximating the ideal. To proceed to the latter task requires a large amount of empirical information, information no one yet has. Nonetheless, meaningful ideals are those for which we can envisage a path that might lead toward them, and a philosopher who proposes an ideal should be able to point to the initial steps we might take (as Dewey insisted, it is also important to appreciate that, as we move toward an ideal, our conception of it may be refined). — Philip Kitcher


In constructing a list of this sort, the number of titles is unavoidably arbitrary and its composition indelibly idiosyncratic. By way of mitigating these properties, I wanted a list that could be reasonably considered “manageable” by anyone with a well-motivated interest in the topic, even if it is, strictly speaking, outside one’s professional field of expertise, or contains material about which one might have some strong intuitions or inchoate thoughts and thus prone to being persuaded to search in earnest for confirming or disconfirming evidence. If the length of this compilation does not satisfy your hunger but merely whets your appetite, you’re invited to browse through the list of bibliographies appended below from which this list was culled. 


The conservative and right-wing assault on science as seen, for example, in (religiously charged) skepticism or outright denial of evolutionary theory, the dismissal of climate science about global warming, and the refusal to face the social, economic, and political imperatives implied by acquaintance with the ecological and environmental sciences, should not lead us to be naïve or uncritical about the nature and function of science in societies around the globe. Nor should it cause us to ignore the literature penned by philosophers (of science) as well as those examining the epistemics and praxis of science “in society” that has sketched the contours of scientism and “science as ideology.” In other words, within the considerably less than ideal conditions of science often sullied by all-too-human intentions and motives contrary to our normative if not idealized conceptions of its role in a would-be democratic society sensitive to our deepest and broadest ethical sensibilities and concerns, science can and often does fall far short of what it should be, that is, what the late John Ziman called “real science” or what Philip Kitcher terms “well-ordered science.” In short, we should not hesitate to study where, when, how, and (especially) why the practice of science has gone (or is in danger of going) awry, egregiously failing to modestly conform to or at least sufficiently approach our ideal or best conceptions or models of what constitutes science as a form of knowledge inquiry and praxis. I share Ziman’s belief that “[i]n less than a generation we have witnessed a radical, irreversible, worldwide transformation in the way that science is organized, managed and performed:” 

“Post-academic science is organized on market principles. One of the consequences of this is that the post-academic research project is subordinate to the sphere of influence of bodies with the corresponding material interests. Thus, for example, basic research findings in molecular genetics have potential applications in plant breeding. Agrochemical firms and farmers are therefore deemed to have a legitimate right to influence the course of this research, from the formulation of projects to the interpretation of outcomes.

In general … post-academic natural scientists can usually be trusted to tell ‘nothing but the truth,’ on matters about which they are knowledgeable. But unlike academic scientists, they are not bound to tell ‘the whole truth.’ They are often prevented, in the interests of their employers, clients or patrons, from revealing discoveries or expressing doubts that would put a very different complexion on their testimony. The meaning of what is said is secretly undermined by what is not said. This proprietorial attitude to the results of research has become so familiar that we have forgotten how damaging it is to the credibility of scientists and their institutions. This is one result of the fact that ‘the context of application’ is largely defined by the material interests of bodies outside science.”

In short, writes Ziman, we have “increasing subordination to corporate and political interests that do not put a high value on the production of knowledge for the benefit of society at large.”

Finally, I should note that I do not believe there should be strict boundaries (hence there is some overlap) between what we understand as “science” and what is characterized or defined as “folk knowledge” and “Indigenous Knowledge Systems” (e.g., ‘ethnobotany’ or ‘traditional medicine’). Much of what is found in the latter resembles some forms of science, even if more “collective” or communal, or largely oral, or on the order of “amateur” science.

  1. Aoki, Keith. Seed Wars: Controversies and Cases on Plant Genetic Resources and Intellectual Property. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2008.
  2. Bennett, M.R. and P.M.S. Hacker. Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.
  3. Buller, David J. Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.
  4. Dupré, John. Human Nature and the Limits of Science. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  5. Elster, Jon. Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  6. Greenberg, Gary. The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry. New York: Blue Rider Press/Penguin, 2013.
  7. Healy, David. The Creation of Psychopharmacology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.
  8. Horst, Steven. Beyond Reduction: Philosophy of Mind and Post-Reductionist Philosophy of Science. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  9. Keller, Evelyn Fox. Making Sense of Life: Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors, and Machines. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.
  10. Kenny, Martin. Bio-technology: The University-Industrial Complex. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.
  11. Kitcher, Philip. Science, Truth, and Democracy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  12. Kitcher, Philip. Science in a Democratic Society. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2011.
  13. Kloppenburg, Jack Ralph. First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2nd ed., 2004.
  14. Lakoff, Andrew. Pharmaceutical Reason: Knowledge and Value in Global Psychiatry. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  15. Lewontin, Richard and Richard Levins. Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2007.
  16. McCloskey, Donald N. Knowledge and Persuasion in Economics. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  17. McCloskey, Deirdre. The Secret Sins of Economics. Chicago, IL: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2002.
  18. Mgbeoji, Ikechi. Global Biopiracy: Patents, Plants, and Indigenous Knowledge. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.
  19. Midgley, Mary. Science and Poetry. New York: Routledge, 2001.
  20. Mirowski, Philip. Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.
  21. Patterson, Dennis and Michael S. Pardo, eds. Philosophical Foundations of Law and Neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  22. Rose, Hilary and Steven Rose. Genes, Cells and Brains: Bioscience’s Promethean Promises. London: Verso, 2012.
  23. Shrader-Frechette, K.S. Risk and Rationality: Philosophical Foundations for Populist Reforms. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991.
  24. Tallis, Raymond. Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity. Durham, UK: Acumen, 2011.
  25. Ziman, John. Real Science: What It Is, and What It Means. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
The following bibliographies, available at my Academia page, contain quite a number of titles germane to the endeavor to understand the nature and function of contemporary science (i.e., under the conditions of neoliberal capitalism) in formal and informal fields of systematic knowledge inquiry in which theory and praxis is distinguishable but inseparable.
  • Animal Ethics, Rights, and Law
  • Beyond Capitalist Agribusiness: Toward Agroecology & Food Justice
  • Bioethics
  • Biological Psychiatry, Sullied Psychology and Pharmaceutical Reason
  • Ecological & Environmental Politics, Philosophies, and Worldviews
  • Ethical Perspectives on Science & Technology
  • Health: Law, Ethics & Social Justice
  • Nuclear Weapons
  • Philosophy, Psychology, & Methodology for the Social Sciences
  • Science and Religion
  • Science and Technology
  • Sullied (Natural & Social) Sciences


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