“Is Science Neurotic ?” by Nick Maxwell

(Friends of Wisdom) (Buy at Amazon)

A review by Ian Glendinning, 13 July 2007

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Living in denial is bad for our health. A time for action, science.

So, is science neurotic ? This is no cliff-hanging mystery story, we are reading; it’s a disaster movie.

Like much human endeavour, we may already suspect a large part of science probably is neurotic, a point that doesn’t escape Nick’s argument; that almost all social enquiry and policy suffers the same rationalistic neurosis that he pins on science itself. As well as persuasive rhetoric, Nick provides technical arguments and clear recommendations. Surely science of all things should be sufficiently open to investigating the charge and seeking treatment.

Nick has spent over 30 years of his professional life, since “What’s Wrong with Science” in 1976, communicating his warning that science is missing its main aim, the pursuit of understanding, explanation and knowledge of the world; A fundamental flaw that also lets the rest of world down in a big way. Not simply in the everyday practical technologies that rely on scientific progress, but as the rational basis of most aspects of enquiry and justification for decisions of maximum import; global health, energy, environment, sustainable economic activity - you name it – misguided “science” could seriously damage our health.

Previously Nick’s message – from knowledge to wisdom – has been to point out that the core scientific pursuit of knowledge overlooks the value of wisdom, the wisdom to realize what is of value. Of course that’s something which on first encounter might seem too subjective and intangible for scientific considerations of basic empiricism – which is Nick’s point – there is something wrong with a science that has no place for wisdom and values.

In “Is Science Neurotic ?” Nick nails the problem as a neurosis. Science is in denial.

Nick’s work has moved from academic discourse and debate concerning the evolution from knowledge to wisdom, to active campaigning. The publication of “Is Science Neurotic ?” coincided with Nick’s creation of the “Friends of Wisdom” as a vehicle to promote action particularly, but not exclusively, within academe.

Simply put, the neurosis is that; the officially stated aim of science to pursue knowledge using “standard empiricism” – entirely objectively, with no assumptions immune from empirical considerations of observability and testability – is patently (and indeed fortunately) not the reality of scientific progress. Maintaining that official theory in the face of reality is however a hypocrisy, a neurosis. Nick’s message is as much a plea for intellectual honesty as anything else, but it is something much more than that. It’s fortunate that in practice much good science does not actually operate according to the theory it espouses. Clinging to the neurotic belief, is not just a drag, a source of inefficiency and missed opportunity, undervaluing what science can bring to the world, but it can and does drive scientific activity in counterproductive and damaging directions.

In “Is Science Neurotic ?”, Nick defines the problem and proceeds to elaborate its consequences for science and for wider social enquiry before providing his remedial recommendations.

Perhaps one of the key imperatives of Nick’s thesis is in the message he takes from Thomas Kuhn. His “paradigm shift” terminology has made its way into consciousness in many domains beyond that of the scientific revolutions he was originally describing. Defending and clinging onto a false theory, whilst much underlying activity taking place conflicts with it, such that evidence of the conflict needs to be suppressed in order to maintain the rationalizing argument, is a recipe for revolution and chaos – a catastrophic cusp at the tipping point between the suppressed and suppressing forces.

At a time when so many issues rationalized by science seem to be affecting the world on a truly global scale, could we survive a “revolution” of that magnitude ? Better a process of adjustment and evolution of the offending parts.

Nick’s recommendations to save us from this disaster are essentially three-fold

The extension of basic empiricism to Aim-Oriented Empiricism (AOE) in science and Aim-Oriented Rationality (AOR) generally in wider areas of social enquiry; seven self-regulating, evolving levels of enquiry, including consideration of the methodologies and bases of assumptions of coherence and knowabilityie fundamental philosophical issues including metaphysics and epistemology, and

The inclusion of VALUE in all levels of the AOE / AOR other than the basic empiricism, so that the aims, directions, and purposes of AOE / AOR are constantly under review  and

The adoption of cooperative problem solving, over and above refutation and competitive criticism, whether considering questions of science specifically or wider social enquiry.

You can imagine the vehement knee-jerk reaction to those suggestions from a scientific community – a vehemence which Nick suggests belies the neurosis itself.

For science, yes empirical testing of hypothesis and conjecture, but also evaluation of metaphysical and epistemological assumptions, methodological assumptions, and meta-methodologies for improving methodologies, not to mention extension into practices for scientific research policy and value.

Some of the simplest and easiest to implement recommendations arising from this scheme are to include philosophy subjects more generally and earlier in education, in parallel with basic science curricula, rather than suggesting any radical change to science teaching itself. After all as Nick reminds us, neurotic as it may be, science has been an immensely successful enterprise; good sense does tend to prevail despite the neurosis; so no reason to force a fix on what ain’t necessarily broke. Encouraging change within education and academia is a primary focus of the Friends of Wisdom campaign.

There is of course an important place for empiricism. The proof of the pudding may always be in the eating, the distinguishing aspect of science fact may always be the empirical test, a test that must include the possibility of failure (after Bacon and Popper), but the imagined downside of a “social experiment” may be better not put to the real test. But even in science, progress towards improved knowledge, understanding and explanation depends on a lot more than this basic empiricism. The extension of refutation by experiment beyond science is the refutation by criticism in an “open” society (also after Popper). But just as progress in society requires more than criticism, so does science live by more than empirical test alone.

The problem is that those things more than empirical testing and criticism, are much harder to define and codify in quantifiable and objective ways, than the simple binary concepts of survival or failure under test or criticism. They are as Nick says “problematic”. It is however, not only intellectually dishonest, but pragmatically risky, even disastrous, to ignore relevant considerations simply because they are problematic.

Nick has undoubtedly identified a real problem, one that is at root psychological, a denial, a neurosis, and one that with understanding and commitment can be treated. One reason there can be little doubt, is that the same neurosis has been in identified other fields of enquiry.

Closer to this reviewer’s own agenda, organizational behaviour is part of management study of how groups of individuals interact in both cooperative and competitive ways to achieve their aims as groups and as individuals - typically in business organizations but in any organized institutions for that matter. It’s effectively anthropology, or at least a subset of it according to the constituency of the organized group in question.

Chris Argyris initially and later together with Donald Schon created a management subject knows as “Action Science” (oh, the irony) – the core of which is that people generally hold “espoused theories” (explicit, official, even politically-correct theories), yet clearly act according to quite different “theories in use”. The point being that the way such people act is better understood in terms of what is pragmatically achieved and how. Nevertheless such people would still tend to rationalize (even post-rationalize) their actions, and attribute success or failure to achieve their aims, according to the official “espoused” theory.

Nils Brunsson developed similar ideas under the name “Management Hypocrisy” after previously analyzing for many years what appeared simply to be paradox expressed in management thought and action.

In the same way as Nick’s prescription for science is to recognize the multi-leveled process by which progress is really achieved, and the processes themselves evolve, so has Argyris emphasized “double-loop learning” where one stands back from a process to re-evaluate its basis and “deutero-learning”, the meta-processes by which that learning processes is itself progressed.

Part of Nick’s prescription is to emphasise the cooperative nature of progress in problem solving, as of course did Popper; it’s not all simply a matter of trial by negating test and criticism, So, also in the field of management, Mary Parker-Follett, the giant on whose shoulders stood so many management gurus of the late 20th century, including Peter Drucker, emphasized the necessity of collaborative as well as competitive strategies in making progress - “Just so far as people think that the basis of working together is compromise or concession, just so far do they not understand the first principles.”

Nick points out that the neurosis of denial has evolved some “intricate defense” mechanisms, Again, at the risk of labouring the point, so in management circles are there recognized the skilled incompetencies, the fancy footwork of budgetary games, games of all kinds in fact. Read my lips; do as I do, not as I say. Rules are for the guidance or wise men and the enslavement of fools. It’s all in the game. The reality is that science relies on wise men breaking the rules.

Possibly the weakest aspects of Nick’s case are not to explicitly address game theory at all, and not to recognize the American pragmatist contribution to processes and action in the face of inconclusive problematic arguments. But then the book is a brief and succinct summary of much of his previous work – less than a hundred pages if one subtracts the footnotes and the technical appendices.

That said it is probably not an overstatement to agree that Nick has identified “the problem” underlying all others of global significance, and probably little doubt that it is effectively a psychological problem, a neurosis. Like any such mental illness, effective treatment almost certainly depends on the patient facing up to the problem – acting on true intellectual honesty is perhaps our only hope.

From primary education right through academe and scientific research and all forms of social enquiry and levels of political decision-making; it’s about realising what is of value to life, humanity and the cosmos in general where - as Popper had said before - all life is effectively a matter of problem solving. The ultimate outcome for Nick is a unified world government based on these liberal values. Nick, wearing that heart on his sleeve throughout, can expect a knee-jerk (or ignorant denial) from political idealogues of the opposite persuasion.

But the basic message about what is wrong with “scientific” enquiry, once learned, should ensure that the outcome which evolves naturally, is whatever is valued as “best”. Any presumptions about the goals, other than that they are contingent and evolvable, are positively avoided. Above all this latest work from Nick is a campaigning call to action and, who knows, perhaps the recognition in other topical areas of the need for global cooperation to address global issues means that Nick’s plea will fall on fertile ground.

So, have you stopped beating your wife yet, are you ready to stop being dishonest ? Join Nick Maxwell at Friends of Wisdom at …

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