C O U R S E L E C T U R E
The Relationship between Science, European Imperialism and Capitalism
Notes taken on December 16, 2013 by Edward Tanguay
over the last 500 years we have developed a belief that scientists just need to be left alone doing their research and development, and they will create for us the ability to live better and better lives
it's a common thought but also a simplistic one to think that science is simply working for the benefit of humankind
many scientists have been motivated by the wish to help humankind and enjoy the thrill of discovering new laws about the natural world and gaining power over it
but what broadly governs the history of science are political, economic and ideological interests
science is governed by politics and economics for the simple reason that most of science is a very expensive affair
if you are a doctor who is trying to understand cancer, you need labroatories, test tubes, microscopes, lab assistants, plumbers, cleaners, secretaries
if you are an economist and you are trying to find out what is going on in your economy, you need to collect a lot of data, so you need computers, you need programmers to develop sophoisticated programs
if you are an archeologist, you need to travel to distant lands, get access to sites, store your findings
without proper funding, the intentions of scientists do not get very far
modern science has managed to achieve wonders thanks to the willingness of governments, business, foundations and private donors to scientific research
without this funding, Galileo, Newton and Darwin not have reached very far
why did so many people to give money to science?
funding is rarely neutral, most funding is that is given to scientific organizations has economic, political, or ideological goals
16th century: kings and merchants channeled enormous resources to finance global geographical expeditions yet they gave no money to research, say, child psychology
invested in this because they felt it would enable them to conquer new lands and set up new trade empires, whereas they couldn't see any profit in understanding child psychology better
in the middle of the 20th century, the USA snd the Soviet Union invested enormous resources in the study of nuclear physics, but very little money in underwater archeology
scientists, themselves are not always aware of the political or economic interests that control and support the environments in which they are allowed to work
even if we wanted to fund pure science, it would be impossible to do so, since the resources of humankind are limited
funding science makes us ask the question: what is better and what is more important, and questions regarding what is better and more important are not scientific questions, they are ethical questions.
by definition, science has no ability to answer ethical questions, it has no pretensions to knowing what should be in the future
only religions and ideologies give answers to the questions what is good, what is important, and what should be done
dilemma: two scientists from the same department with equal skills who apply for a $1 million grant
professor A wants to study a disease in the udders of dairy cows which causes a 10% reduction in milk production
professor B wants to study if dairy cows suffer mentally when they are separated by their calves by the dairy industry
assume that money is not unlimited and you can't fund both projects, which project are you going to fund? There is no scientific answer to this question, this question only has answers that are based in religion, ideology, economics, politics, or personal opinion
there is no mathematical equation to tell you where the money should go
in today's world, professor A has a much better chance than professor B at getting the money, not because udder diseases in cows are scientifically more interesting or important than the mentality of cows, but because the dairy industry which stands to benefit from this research has more political and economic power than, say, the animal rights lobby, which may like to finance the second project
one of the only ways in our current society that professor B can win the funding for the project is that if she can show that can have economic beneifts
e.g. if it can be shown the when cows are depresssed, they give less milk, and so if their mood can be improved, they will give a certain amount more milk per year, and that there is market for psychological medication for dairy cows
thus science has a hard time setting its own priority since the priorities are always set by the political and economic system for political and economic reasons
not only does science have difficulty determining its own agenda, but also what to do with its discoveries
for example, it is unclear what to do with our increasting knowledge of genetics
should we use it to allow parents to select individual characteristics of their children, and enable humans who can live 150, 200, 250 years?
should we use it to create cows with super-sized udders?
various kinds of governments and institutions would use these findings for completely different purposes
since science alone has no morality of its own, there is no scientific reason to say one purpose is better than the other, this is the task of humans to decide which mix of ideologies will be applied
scientific research can flourish only when it has some alliance with a particular ideology
the ideology justifies the cost of the research, influences the scientific agenda, and determines what to do with the discoveries
it's not the job of the scientist to do this, the job of the scientist is to as accurately as possible discover the laws of the natural world in order to give us new powers
hence in order to understand the course of the scientific revolution, it's not enough to study the famous achievements of scientists like Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein
in order to understand the development of science in the last few centuries, we have to take into account the ideological, economic, and political forces that not only shaped the agenda of physics, chemisty and biology, but also decided which discoveries to mass produce in order to achieve their ideological, economic, and political aims.
to understand modern science, you have to take account of two important forces:
1. European imperialism
the feedback loop of science, empires, and capitalism has been the has been the chief motor of history for the past 500 years
Funding science makes us ask the question: what is better and what is more important, and questions regarding what is better and more important are not scientific questions, they are ethical questions.
Scientific research can flourish only when it has some alliance with a particular ideology.
The feedback loop of science, empires, and capitalism has been the has been the chief motor of history for the past 500 years.