Science as Force, science as activity

Few things pain more than observing someone asking the right question and then excusing themselves from answering due to their preconceptions.

Andrew Critch writes, talking about EAs/Rationalists:  “This is, of course, an exaggerated description of a problem, but nonetheless, I think a problem exists here to some real degree. At least a good 20 or 30 people I could list view “biases” and “placebo effects” like magical sources of wrongness that can’t be modeled, accounted for, or guarded against, except by somehow by some authoritative group called “experts”. Why is that?”

(I don’t recommend the rest of the essay unless you have a fetish for insipid computation metaphors.)

He then proceeds to ignore the question and attempts to medicate the symptom. I think this is what neoreactionaries feel about Scott Alexander. He asks the right question, but shies from the crucial steps. Let us then be the responsible doctors and let us diagnose the disease instead of medicating the symptoms.

Why? Why in fact are these people thinking this way? To understand that we need to understand the psychodynamics of the mind of a LW rationalist / EA. Or more precisely, we need to understand their ideology.

All protestations to the contrary it is painfully obvious that LW rationalists are fully bought in into a mangled futuristic Bayesian modern Aufklarung ideology. Like fish in water, they don’t see themselves as being bought into an ideology. “It is the way the world is”, they claim. EAs have dropped the futuristic bit – in part – but have kept the modern Aufklarung and added Humanism.

From the wikipedia article on EA we can read: “It is this broad, scientific approach that distinguishes effective altruism from traditional altruism or charity.”

Humanism is in the altruism part. The Aufklarung is in the effectiveness via science.

Two mistakes can be made when attempting to understand science. One is to not distinguish it into two concepts: science – the scientific activity – and Science – the societal force. The second mistake is to not recognise how the latter Science guides the former science.

There is a tendency to equate scientific activity with the scientific method. There is this belief that a single methodology yields scientific progress. Such a thing could only come from the minds of philosophers of science. Philosophers of science are not scientists and due to their professionalisation – their lack of seriousness really -have not inspected their metaphysical or historical commitments. Because of this they act as if they were Essentialist Whig historians.

Once you deny both of these assumptions it becomes clear that the attempt to demarcate science from non-science cannot be separated from a historical analysis of science.

The foremost historical analysis of science is Feyerabend’s Against Method. It is an excellent book and you should go and read it. The conclusion is that, historically, to reach scientific progress “anything goes”. “Anything goes” is “the terrified reaction of a rationalist who takes a closer look at history”.

This much is clear to anyone that has actually tried to do science. Few in the LW or EA community has.

Very well then. So there is no scientific method that is guaranteed to create scientific progress. What then? How does that help explain the problem?

I mentioned above Science qua institution. Science qua institution is a force. It protects itself like a force (Feyerabend was all but expelled from the community of philosophers of science, Scientific American ran an article entitling him “The Worst Enemy of Science”, and so on.), it denies responsibility like a force (Physics has continued business as usual after Hiroshima and Nagasaki), it has professionalised and institutionalised itself like a force, it has taken hold of society like a force (In having a system for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of its statements; and in having a violent reaction to Feyerabend’s suggestion of separation of science and the state), it can assign status and credibility like a force.

Every force requires sacrifices. Costly signals of the commitment of the subjects, of the ritualistically reinforcing the subject-ruler power dynamic.

Science is no different. It denies everything that might take its power away from it. All other forms of knowing are improper, wrong, mystical, archaic, backwards or primitive. The scientific way of knowing and of conceptualising is the only way. An example: in science the body is no more than a collection of parts – the body-object. In science as force the body is nothing more than a target of power – it matters insofar as it can be manipulated for whatever ends are sought. The body itself, the body-subject, the body-as-sensed could never be a source of scientific knowledge for this would detract from the ability of science as force to legislate over every one – that is, every body. (No wonder Gendlin’s splendid philosophy of the body could never get any traction. The incentives are such that any philosophy which makes oneself as an ultimate authority is an enemy since it detracts from the power of the institution)

This merely illustrates the wider pattern. Science as force denies everything that might take its power away from it. Especially “unscientific” knowledge, that is knowledge not generated via the “scientific method” – even if there is no one “scientific method”. All that is required is for the subjects to imagine that there is and the domination can carry own.

Our answer materialises. Science qua force promotes a vision of science as the guardian of truth. This vision is endemic, so much so that even EA people – the intelligentsia as far as I’m concerned – do not really understand what science (as activity) is, and have been coopted into this ideology.

It is notable that these people do not – as is made clear in this essay – really understand what science is (in any of its versions) or how it works.

That is why they equate being scientific with deferring to experts. That is why the idea of generating scientific progress themselves is unthinkable, for they do not have access to the scientific method.

science is much closer to myth than a scientific philosophy is prepared to admit. It is one of the many forms of thought that have been developed by man, and not necessarily the best. It is conspicuous, noisy, and impudent, but it is inherently superior only for those who have already decided in favour of a certain ideology, or who have accepted it without ever having examined its advantages and its limits (AM, p. 295).


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