| Home - Human Nature Review | What's new | Search | Feedback |

A PLACE FOR CRITIQUE IN THE MASS MEDIA

by Robert M. Young

I thought it would be easy to begin with dictionary definitions of ‘critique’, but it is not. The term does not appear in any of the philosophical dictionaries I have. The OED tells us that it is a gradual alteration from the French, first noted in English in the 1720s. All of the definitions refer to criticism, as in literary criticism or a review. This is much narrower than what I have in mind, which stems from Kant, Hegel and the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. A critique is more than criticism. It operates at a different level. It is philosophical. It subjects the phenomenon in question to a searching evaluation of its framework of ideas, its assumptions, its terms of reference and especially its ideology or system of values. It does so in a way which is quite overt in juxtaposing its object with a set of values held by the person mounting the critique. The more covert the values of the tradition or text under scrutiny, the more searching the critique, the aim of which is to make them as perspuous as possible and to hold them accountable to the world view and value system according to which the critique is being conducted. I suppose that the term criticism could bear this wider and deeper meaning, but that is not the norm.

The question I want to ask is whether or not the mass media can offer a place for this way of thinking. On the whole, of course, they do not, but can they be brought to do so? Not easily, in my experience. I’ll say very briefly what my experience is. I have been on the editorial boards of about a dozen learned journals at one time or another and an editor or the editor of half of them and have founded about that number. I have been on the radio dozens of times, on television fairly often. I have written for many weeklies and some posh newspapers and a number of fairly popular periodicals, e.g., New Scientist and History Today, Time Out and City Limits. More relevant to today’s topic, I have had several radio series and one television series of a dozen documentaries dedicated to my ideas and have edited two book series and founded two publishing ventures. I suppose I have, all in all, made half a hundred appearances on radio and television, written a hundred reviews, edited more than a hundred issues of various periodicals and been responsible for the publication of about three hundred volumes, many of which I conceived, nurtured and edited. In addition to my chat show, editorial and entrepreneurial activities I have authored seventy or so essays and learned articles and three books, with six more books and about forty articles in the pipeline, i.e., written but not published.

You could say, then, that I have had my innings and that it could be thought churlish if I moan about whether or not I have been able to sing my song. As they say in America, ‘Some guys won’t take yes for an answer’. Bear in mind, however, that periodicals have editors (other than one’s own); so do publishers. Radio and television programmes have producers, and television programmes have directors, editors and (in the case of discussion programmes) moderators. They are structured. Beyond that, they are often severely edited after the event, a process I’ll say more about later.

There are obvious constraints. Less obvious ones involve the framework or defining context of the slot, whether it be a review in The New York Times or New York Review of Books, television’s Voices or The Late Show or a documentary series on radio or television. There are constraints on debate, for example, the tyranny of the infamous sound byte. Can you imagine Kant or Hegel or Marx or Marcuse or Herbert Spencer speaking in sound bytes? As it happens, both Marx and Spencer did a lot of journalism, as did A. J. P. Taylor. Even so, when you are in a radio or television discussion, with a moderator whose task includes keeping the pace and the peace and whose attention is divided between the terms of reference decided beforehand, what is being said at the moment and the likely fact that the producer will be uttering instructions into her or his earpiece, it is not easy, to put it mildly, to examine assumptions and terms of reference. It amazes me, even so, that some people have the gift of challenging the terms of reference of an interlocutor, for example, Tony Benn and (at his peak) Enoch Powell, as well as (in their good old days) Ken Livingston and Arthur Scargill.

I’ll sketch some other problems. You are in a discussion about drug treatment or genetic screening or genetic engineering in the Sunday God slot on television or perhaps a late evening chat show. There are five or six panellists. You are the token radical or critic. They always start with the most famous scientist and work their way through the less famous ones, the science journalist, the token woman and the moralist. By the time they get to you there is a collection of points to answer and a need to be witty and arresting so as to hold the audience’s attention, and it is practically impossible to draw breath and say, ‘I wouldn’t start from here.’ All the weight of the situation says, ‘And what do you say to that, you impossible idealist and potential wrecker? Are you really against progress? Or curing people? Or breeding square tomatoes?’ I have never taken part in a programme where the critic was allowed to set the terms of the discussion or speak first or early n the sequence.

If he or she could, the discussion might begin by considering whether or not thinking in terms of drugs or commodities is the most appropriate approach, as contrasted with public health measures, or, in the case of gene therapy or genetic engineering, whether the forces at work in our culture are likely to promote or allow an appropriate research agenda or sufficiantly cautious deployment of these technologies. It is very hard indeed to address such questions briefly — in sound bytes — or to pursue them in a reflective way to their multivariant ends. You could say that the open-ended programme After Dark meets these criteria, but I have to confess that I can’t stay awake for it and that when I tape it, I rarely watch the tapes.

This takes us back to an embarrassing conflict between what we advocate as promoters of critique and what we get round to while watching, listening to and reading as consumers. I have to say that in spite of my own behaviour as a consumer, I believe that it is a problem which can be solved. The New Yorker has proved this. They have published articles on very technical and esoteric issues, such as asbestosis, the world’s seeds, pesticides and so on. Rachel Carsons’ Silent Spring started life there and alerted the world to the huge effects on birds of the pesticide DDT. In Science as Culture, the journal which I co-edit with Les Levidow, we have tried, with limited but real success, to emulate the New Yorker’s non-technical style and story-telling approach. It is very hard, indeed, to get contributors to write in this or otherwise accessible ways. We also pay a price for not developing a specialist language and academic niche like, say, Social Studies of Science, which I consider a paradigm case of a journal which converts urgent moral, social and political issues into a safe and career-enhancing niche in the academic division of labour. Science as Culture is not the periodical of a particular university speciality with its own esoteric terminology, so it has no guaranteed readership. It contributes to no career building, enhances no curriculum vitae, elicits no grants, kow-tows to no experts.

I have now sidled up, by an odd path which is as good as any, to my central point. It is this. The culture in which we live is, at bottom, a culture of expertises. In the culture of expertise the role of values is very problematic. I am not saying that there is no place for them, but their place is very carefully defined. There are basically two places where it is appropriate for them to operate. The first is that the values of expertise itself should be honoured. That is, scientists should be value-neutral, should keep politics out of science, should not cheat or seek private gain (this one is waning fast in the burgeoning world of information and genetic technologies). When you see a programme on Horizon or Tomorrow’s World or Equinox which is critical, you will usually find that it is about breaches of one or more of these rules. For example, the admirable series Pandora’s Box, which is in my opinion the best science series ever, was all about the abuse of science, in the Rand Corporation, in the building of a dam in Ghana, in planning in the Soviet Union. It was a hugely successful series, but it was really criticising scientism, the extrapolation of the methods and assumptions of science into domains where its writ does not appropriately run. Other successful programmes have been about cheating in science, e.g., ‘The Midwife Toad’ or a priority dispute over the identification of the AIDS virus.

I think the problem about critique reflects something very basic, indeed, about the heritage of the triple revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We hear a lot about the scientific revolution. We do not often see it linked to the capitalist and Protestant revolutions as part of a general change to the modern era, one which embraced humanity’s place in nature, the place of the individual in the productive sphere and the relationship between the individual and transcendent values. There is much more to say about all this than I can encompass in a single lecture, and I have nowhere seen the argument I am sketching spelled out. The net result of these three interrelated revolutions was to place the individual, his or her labour power and nature on one side and transcendent values, private needs and passions and the purposive element in explanation on the other side of a huge divide which runs through our culture and created a set of dichotomies which predetermines what can get said in the media.

Here is my list of the dichotomies, one which could be extended:

arts — sciences

ideology — science

culture — nature

subject— object

value — fact

mind — body

secondary — primary qualities

purpose — mechanism

inner — outer

human — animal

free — determined

responsible — not responsible

These dichotomies are bound up with two others in ways I won’t try to go into here: Cartesian mind-body dualism and the subject-object distinction of empiricist philosophy. I want to dwell instead on the problematic place of values in all this. To put it briefly, values were integral to the Aristotelian framework of explanation which antedated the scientific revolution. As a consequence of that and the related revolutions of humanity’s relations with God an the individual’s relations with the productive process, values became extrinsic to scientific explanation and were banished from production as well. They were left to dwell in the private, individual domain of subjectivity and the family and its worship. Culture — not science, not technology, not the productive sphere — became the place where values are husbanded and debated. One can talk about science and values or medicine and values or technology and values or any expertise and values. However, it is a no-no to talk about science, etc. as values, i.e., to seek to make explicit the values embedded in any set of scientific or other expert ideas. Now you know why the title of our journal is subversive. To dwell on science as culture is to challenge this whole framework, the framework on which the modern world view and its mode of production, ownership and exchange are based. That basis, to put it starkly, is one which alienates is from ought, science from values, commodities and profit from people and their deepest cares.

There are two fundamental philosophical positions here. One — that of positivism — tries to have it both ways. The positivists from Auguste Comte’s nineteenth century version down to the positivist philosophers of today seek on the one hand to separate facts from values and then, on the other hand, they claim that the value-neutral, objective findings and theories of science somehow bring forth an untainted set of values which magically emerges from the progress of reason itself. Science = objectivity = progress = good. That’s why scientists in the media start out in a one-up position. They appear to be above the battle, rational, benefactors of mankind, good. People who challenge their projects are against progress, not objective, indulging in special pleading, polluters, following an ideology, zealots, untrustworthy, bad.

The other philosophical position about which I want to invoke challenges this neat dichotomy, but to understand it we have to go back in time before the scientific and related revolutions to exhume the Aristotelian concept of explanation, one which integrated facts and values. I am not doing this to be esoteric but to challenge something fundamental about the scientific world view. Aristotle’s way of explaining causality dominated science from Greek times until the end of the Renaissance, until the quite specific goals of what Francis Bacon called the novum organum replaced it. As A. N. Whitehead and E. A. Burtt have shown, the natural philosophers of the scientific revolution had quite specific explanatory goals connected with the heavens and the earth. They have made a searching critique of the philosophical aspect of the scientific revolution, especially as it affected mind, values and humankind. Whitehead and Burtt had nothing to say about the economic and ideological motives. These have been given less attention, but there are a few important studies, foremost among them papers by Boris Hessen and Nikolai Bukharin in 1930. In fact, problems of navigation — trade — dominated the astronomical research into celestial mechanics, while problems of ballistics — warfare — dominated the terrestrial physics. These led to the fundamental reductionist programme of modern science: from the phenomena of matter and motion to explain the other phenomena. Matter, motion and number became the deepest and most reliable level of explanation.

In Aristotelian explanation, by contrast, there were always four causes, comings to be, aitia. Three were carried over into modern science, the fourth was split off. Aristotle’s material cause — that out of which — became our idea of matter. His efficient cause — that which imparts motion — was carried over into our concept of energy. His idea of the formal cause — the kind, shape, form — reappears as the formal or plan or morphology. But the crucial cause which was in his scheme and not ours was the final cause, the telos, goal, purpose, value, use. Modern thought puts this on the other side of the Cartesian divide between matter and mind, mechanism and purpose.

That’s the official story, at least, but it is lies, for two reasons. The first is that lots of science is about uses and proposes, but the reductionists are embarrassed about it. That’s why molecular biology is favoured over old-fashioned field biology. Nineteenth-century physiologists used to say that teleology is a woman without whom no biologist can live, but he does not care to be seen with her in public. Biologists have ways of tucking purposive explanation into apparently respectable terms, beginning with irritability and sensibility in physiology and going on to inherent rhythmicity (a property of the heart’s pacemaker). Biology’s basic concepts of structure and function reek of purposiveness, which is why they were so handy when taken up by psychologists and social scientists of the functionalist tradition, the one the Rockefeller charities funded.

In fact, if you look closely at biological explanation, you will find anthropomorphic and teleological reasoning everywhere. I have made a special study of this and written a book and some articles about it. Darwin’s basic mechanism, natural selection, was a metaphor about nature selecting, and he was neither inclined nor able to purge his basic mechanism from these features, ones which are anathema to the official paradigm of reductionist explanation: matter, motion, number. How do you fit selection into that?

Natural selection is one of science’s most fundamental concepts, it accounts of the historicity of the link between life and the world, between humanity and the rest of nature. Yet it is more redolent of Aristotle’s purposive explanations than Descartes’ mechanistic ones. If you begin to look at concepts we take for granted in science, many turn out to be equally maverick, equally naughty. I have sent some time looking at the psychiatric and psychotherapeutic concept of ‘psychopathology’, a term which lies at the heart of the scientific claims of the caring professions. It does not bear much scrutiny. Once you begin to make a critique of it, it becomes clear that t relies on a sharp distinction between normal and pathological, assumes that the concept of organ pathology appropriate to livers and hearts applies to the mind, indeed, that medical models are the appropriate ones to apply to the mind and then that the disease/syndrome model is also appropriate. Come to that, it is based on an idea that we are normally rational, abnormally irrational, yet I can assure that I’m not. I am both all the time, sometimes alarmingly paranoid, manic, despondent, and so on, and sometimes changing from dotty to sensible moment by moment.

I have offered this historical sketch and the examples of natural selection and psychopathology as tasters — brief examples, based on a substantial body of research, to give a hint of what critique can do. My point in going into the philosophical issue about Aristotle is to make my second point about why the official story about scientific explanation is all lies. It is my position that final causes, values, goals and uses did not go away. They were sequestered. They are still there but hidden, especially hidden from challenge or contestation. I say this of science, of capitalism and of the possessive individualism fostered by the Protestant revolution. I will give examples anon to support my position. This apparently esoteric philosophical point about the break between Aristotelian and modern scientific explanation is, I submit, at the bottom of the issue raised by my title. It brings me to the central plea of my argument: it is the task, the mission, the point, the planet-saving and life-saving purpose of critique to make those values explicit and bring them before the court of cultural and democratic debate. I believe that the future — the very existence — of humankind depends on the success of this project. Moreover, I believe that people studying the ‘Science, Society and the Media’ course at this university and (I hope, in the future) others like them are the key people entrusted with this (I think it’s not too much hyperbole to say) holy task. Think what you will of my rhetoric, a rhetoric which exemplifies what it proposes, we are faced with developments marching under the banner of science, expertise and progress which embody values which threaten life itself. We have to do something about this and fast.

The reason critique is so hard to mount is that the assumptions of the media are based on the assumptions of the triple revolution, and they split off values and put debates about them in a realm which is safely off stage from scientific research, production and the concept of the individual which serves this order of things. Television itself is a technology. As I have said elsewhere, it is a dense medium. The documentary form rests on an ideology of objectivity and does so spuriously, I can tell you, having made a dozen of them and taken part in many others. The same is true of the news and of popularisation of science. The whole object of the ‘Public Understanding of Science’ movement is to be a handmaiden (to put it no more earthily) to the false self-consciousness of science, to keep us in the realm of ‘understanding and misunderstanding’ and away from the realm of debating fundamental values, something which the Boy Scouts of PUS consider, to the scientists’ relief, to be ‘dragging politics into science’.

The truth is, as I see it, that all facts are theory-laden, all theories are value-laden and all values exist only within an ideology or world view. The official version of value-neutrality and objectivity which justifies the protected place of scientists, technologists, medics and other experts puts them above the battle of values and ideologies. But, as I have already said, this is a confidence trick, an elaborate public relations exercise. The science, technology and medical research that actually gets done is the only research there is. What gets funded is decided by priorities which are set by funding bodies. Those bodies have members who represent interests. These days the make-up of those bodies is increasingly people in or connected with commercial firms. Until recently one of the biggest setters of agendas was the military. I had a friend in research in the physics of optics at Imperial College who said it was almost impossible to do work separate from military priorities and funding. He eventually left the field. At present a huge player in the funding of medical research is the Wellcome Trust. It privileges work leading to products — drugs. Before that the leading setter of research agendas in the biomedical and human sciences and the creators of the model of much of the organisation of the funding of research world-wide was the Rockefeller charities. They gave us sociobiology, functionalist social science and molecular biology. They gave their patronage according to a quite explicit set of ideas They were funding the application of physics to biological questions. Jim Watson was on a Rockefeller grant when he met Crick. The reach of the Rockefeller charities covered the globe and was central to the creation and funding of the Yale Institute of Human Relations, the Tavistock Clinic and Institute, the Harvard Social Relations programme, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (exporting metropolitan models of health and disease to the Third World). Yale in China, the Trilateral Commission (to promote moderate liberalism). Other paradigm-setting charities were the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the Josia Macy Jr. Foundation, which pioneered cybernetics, information theory and gave us (with a huge boost from the ‘communication, command and control’ models fostered by the military) the information society. The Ford Foundation which funded much liberal social science research. People have begun to write histories of these charitable foundations and to lay bare their agendas, world views, the theories which they privileged and promoted and the research they funded. They were patrons in the sense the Renaissance merchant princes were. They wanted certain things, and they paid for them and not others. That is what George Soros is now doing in Eastern Europe, and — as a recent New Yorker expose makes perfectly clear, he is paying the piper and calling the tune.

Research is in no way free from values. It is funded by patrons who have agendas, assumptions, world views. They promote ways of looking into things. The Rockefeller charities promoted functionalist and reductionist ways of looking at things. As a direct result of the success of their patronage, psychiatry departments hire molecular biologists rather than people interested in getting the mentally ill out from under park benches, i.e., academics concerned with patient care and social welfare. Academic psychiatry is increasingly a lab science at the expense off psychological and social approaches. Medical research seeks magic bullets in preference to public health measures. Sickle cell anaemia research privileged biochemical investigations of the sickling process over screening and counselling, i.e., the ‘interesting’ pure science research problem rather than the immediate needs of the black people who had inherited the sickle cell anaemia trait and were in danger of passing it on to their children. It is all very obvious once you look into where research ideas come from and which ones get funded. When you get a good degree and want to do research, you get taken on to do something your teacher wants to have followed up. His agenda is largely set by what grants are available. It is like any other patronage, but it has a lovely fig leaf of disinterestedness and objectivity covering its private property parts and agenda.

As I said, scholars and activists (isn’t is amazing how that word has become an epithet?) are beginning to research these problems again, just as they did during the Vietnam War. There are a number of excellent studies of the world view and activities of the Rockefeller charities, for example. There were a number of radical science and technology periodicals in the 1970s, but they have waned with the times. Sadly, the people who look into social causation these days, the so-called ‘social constructivists’, are, on the whole rather, short on political and economic and ideological curiosity. They are on a relativist epistemological pilgrimage, one which I find rather safe and tame. It is my impression that Science as Culture is, relatively speaking, on its own in fostering sustained work in this area, and its economic base (by which I mean its paying subscription base) is far from secure.

However much I am pointing to a saving remnant, I am glad to tell you that we do have our very own Joan of Arc, a person whose prodigious researches of the kind I am advocating have brought her a National Book Award and richly-deserved world wide fame. Donna Haraway’s Primate Visions is critique at its best. It is an historical, cultural and critical analysis of the origins and development, the assumptions and patrons, as well as the world view of the scientific discipline closest to ourselves — the field which seeks to trace the biological and behavioural pedigree of our humanity. You may not, of course, be interested in primatology. Never mind, readers of the founding document of modern reductionist science, Descartes’ Discourse on Method (1637) may not have been interested in William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood, but Descartes offered it as what we would now call a paradigm case, showing us the way we should think, as he put it, of ‘all the rest’. Donna Haraway’s study of apes, chimps and so on is that important. It fully justifies its subtitle: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science. It is that important, because she shows us the historicity of the assumptions, the patrons, the publicity, the granting agencies, the pedigrees of supervisors and students, the institutions, the ambience, the ideological, political and cultural context — the whole schmere.

I had the privilege of working with her on a documentary about the history of ideas of nature (which I would be glad for you to see) and am more proud than I can say that she claims that my work has influenced hers. What is so impressive in her narrative is the density and interweaving of the determinations. It is easy to feel lost at times, but a clear picture emerges. I commend it to you with all the rhetorical force at my command. Scientists hate it, by the way. It ‘outs’ their secrets — all the ways they scheme and plot and seek to have jobs and grants and posts in their gift, just like any other boss, manager, impresario. It’s about all the things which are never mentioned at prize-givings: playing the academic game: how to hustle.

In the spirit of her work I want to turn now to a topic which it is quite normal and routine to investigate when one is talking about other human activities but is considered in the worst taste to approach where science is concerned. I mean power and the organisation of things. Read the business pages of your Sunday or daily paper or the daily Financial Times. Boardroom battles, rows over priorities, skulduggery, who’s in and out are the stuff of these worlds. Not so scientific research institutions, universities, granting agencies, technological institutions, medical research labs, hospitals. Why not? The myth of neutrality. I have seen a number of power structures in my time: medical school, college (where I was a senior apparatchik, an admissions tutor and member of the College Council) university (where I headed a sub-department), cultural politics (where people behaved in remarkably similar ways), television, publishing and the world of psychotherapy organisations. In each setting I could not believe that I had once again fallen among scoundrels. I have refrained from writing at least four books about such settings, and I am still unsure about a last one. Before you tell me how inconsistent and cowardly I have been, ask any old timer about what I have written. But it is hard. It feels like betrayal. People gossip about such things but rarely speak frankly in the public domain. When you do people are shocked and suspect your motives.

I’ll give you an example. Karl Popper was eulogised as the champion of liberal democracy, the ‘open society’ the inspiration for the largesse of the great benefactor of Eastern Europe, George Soros. When I was Assistant Editor of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science it became time to choose a new editor. I and my fellow assistant editor were too junior to be candidates. The committee made its choice, a decent, reliable scholar of no particular doctrinal persuasion. He received a phonecall from a minion of Karl Popper saying that if he did not stand down Popper would cease to use his influence to get this man’s elderly mother a visa to emigrate to Britain from a country with a particularly nasty regime. The man stood down, and a Popperian became editor. I was asked to appear on a documentary after Popper’s death. I told this and a similar story to show that he was no liberal paragon. It ended up on the cutting room floor, along with other serious criticisms of Sir Karl. That was not what the producer wanted to convey.. So much for balance and the objectivity of documentaries. I learned the hard way that the editing process is like writing any other kind of story: it depends on what the author, in this case usually the producer or producer-director, have in mind. I have see a skilful editor re-edit footage so that it neatly conveyed the opposite of what it had at first. All facts are theory laden; all theories are value laden. Popper was a liberal; drop the dead donkey. QED.

Another example: I am a member of a professional organisation which has recently had a series of crucial votes about rejoining the parliament of our profession, from which we had been removed without consulting the membership. We voted three times by clear majorities to rejoin. The Professional Committee refused to accede to these votes, and on the third occasion allowed no discussion of this matter at an annual general meeting. Because of a legal fluke that meeting had to be re-held, so a resolution was put that those votes should be acceded to and that we should rejoin without further delay. Because it was a re-staging of a meeting, not everyone thought it important to attend. I have it on good authority that an educational officer— someone who takes part in the decision about whether or not someone should be professionally qualified and therefore get a living from the work — rang the students and asked for, and in most cases obtained, their proxies. The vote to rejoin was soundly defeated. The economic and power interests of the teaching officers were thereby retained. I call that corruption. Making it public makes one liable to being removed from the society for bringing its name into disrepute — being drummed out of the regiment, as it were.

The last two examples I have given are obviously good gossip about scandalous behaviour in academic and professional worlds, but they are also critiques in a special sense. The critical element lies in undercutting the ideology of professional neutrality which the academic and scientific and professional worlds have borrowed from the putative objectivity, disinterestedness, public-spiritedness and neutrality of scientific experts. They are nothing of the kind. They put their knickers on one leg at a time. When they have power and patronage they hold onto them until someone takes them away.

There is something else to be said about research. I heard it from a famous scientific whistle-blower, the person who led the way in the Baltimore case of scientific fraud. Research isn’t fun anymore. The pact which says you don’t get paid much but you do good things in a congenial atmosphere is simply no longer on offer. You have quotas of papers to write, and you feel just like people in industry. I think this story needs telling, not least because I want to narrow the gap between how we think about science, industry and the rest of life. I want to stress the hedonic satisfactions or lack of them in such work. I want to reintegrate science, work and life. Science is work and life. It is not split off.

When I look at the media, I wonder. I have sketched some of the reasons why the sorts of things I have mentioned do not get looked into. It might require new spaces, but I suspect that the philosophical and ideological reasons I have tried to indicate provide the main bar to critique. If we think about financial journalism with respect to banking and take-over scandals, if we think about religious programming with respect to different theological traditions, if we think about spy stories such as ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy’ or about complex unfolding sagas such as Watergate or the O. J. Simpson trial — we see that the public is up to dealing with labyrinthine stories, complex and multi-layered plots and has as long an attention span as is necessary to take in anything in which they are sufficiently interested. The same can be said of the programmes which have stemmed from the ‘mission to explain’ tradition started by Peter Jay in the 1970s and is currently represented by Mary Goldring.

Notice that all my examples are on the non-scientific side of the Cartesian divide. So let’s see if we can tell our multi-levelled stories in interesting enough ways. I fear that the multi-levelled causation and the complex determinations of what needs to be critiqued in the realm of expertise may be even more demanding than any of the plots I mentioned a moment ago. Even so, I believe the task is important; it could not be more so. Among the things which are at stake is what it means to be a human and whether or not there will be any. This task of critique, I put it to you again, is the deepest hope and promise entrusted to the programme in Science, Society and the Media at the University of the West of England.

I now want to reiterate some of the philosophical points I touched upon with respect to the merits of the Aristotelian tradition. The philosophical task I believe involves the reintegration of purpose into scientific explanation. Here are some provocative slogans which I believe to follow from what I am advocating. Science is the embodiment of values in theories, therapies and things, in facts and artefacts, in procedures and programs. Nature is a manifold. What we choose to investigate and alter in it is open to many readings with many forms of networked compatibility.

People chose the damnedest projects. In the 1940s a huge hydroelectric complex was built at Mussel Shoals in America for the sole purpose of separating isotopes of uranium which differed by only three tiny particles: U335 from U238. They did this otherwise loony exercise in order to make the atomic bomb. Cost and use of economic and human resources were no object. The same was true at Los Alamos, where the bomb was designed and built. It was true for a time in the space race, in particular, the Apollo Program to land an American man on the moon. It was true again until recently in making linear accelerators and circular ones, for example, at CERN. It was true, again thankfully briefly, in the Star Ward Initiative. It’s a pity that it has not been true in looking for a male contraceptive or in eradicating certain diseases, smoking, other drug abuse, malnutrition, poverty, homelessness. Once we see that research priorities embody values and that satisfactory explanations are the place where curiosity rests, i.e., that these are social matters, perhaps we will create a wider and more accountable debate about the role of expertise in our culture.

I want to turn in my concluding remarks to a topic which may seem to undermine my title — which drew attention to the mass media. The sorts of problems I outlined placed heavy emphasis on the gatekeepers in the print, sound and visual media. It looks as though the present trend toward concentration of ownership will continue, making my sort of thing harder to achieve. Mr Murdoch is not very interested in critique. But there is a powerful trend in the other direction. I refer here to several things. The technologies required to make books, periodicals, audio and video tapes are becoming ever cheaper and more accessible. You can buy a desktop publishing program for a few hundred pounds, a professional tape recorder for 250 and a good copying deck for not much more; every ghetto-blaster has one of sorts. A decent video camera is now available for less than 500, and a VCR with frame by frame editing is less than a grand. There is no reason except our own deference why we should not have extensive networks of desk top published books and periodicals, audio tapes and video tapes. No reason at all. Why are we not empowering ourselves? It is a mystery to me. In this sphere I have certainly tried to do my bit with the printed word, and I have both the volumes and the debts to show it.

But, as we are forever being told, there is an even more remarkable development occurring at this moment: the internet. I am not here to make more hype about it. I do suggest, however, that the principled anarchy of the internet means that there are already myriad spaces available for critique, spaces likely to be open to all in the very near future. The day cannot be far off when every household where there are children in education or a phone will have net access.

I have been on the net for nearly a year, but I confess that it took me several months to get my gear up and running (that’s progress; it took me several years to overcome a truly pathetic computer phobia), and I have really only been into it properly for just three months. However, I am now involved in more than a dozen email lists and am in process of creating a number of WWW sites, two new email lists, an http site for my own publications and pre-prints and sites for out-of-print issues of the journals I edit. The level of discussion is not always high (but where is it uniformly high? I spent five years at Yale and fifteen at Cambridge, and it was often boring, I can tell you), yet it is marvellously accessible. People write to me who would never write a snailmail letter to me. They engage me in debate, ask for off-prints and reading lists, are marvellously disrespectful and are otherwise generally relentlessly democratic.

When I or my children want to know anything at all, we can probably find it by typing a few words into a Netscape browser and say whether we want 25 or 250 resources. We also have to have lots of patience and perseverance, but that, too, can be fascinating. I could go on, but I promised not to hype. What is relevant in this context is that anyone can look into anything from their home for the price of a local phonecall, once they have laid out about a thousand pounds for the hardware; most of the software is available free — downloaded from the net by making a simple ftp request.

I think the fully relational database which html — Hypertext Mark-up Language — makes commonplace on the net (I’ll explain that if anyone wants me to) means that pluralism and easy feeding of curiosity will grow and grow. I think of lonely teenage Eric Clapton playing his guitar and zillions of other boys feeling at a loose end and playing their skin flutes. The net provides literally endless visual and textual food for those activities, along with the alternative of healthy sublimation. Anyone can post anything, even critique. I have downloaded the list of all lists which use the LISTSERV software. It is a telephone book in thickness. I am going through it, finding all lists which might interest the likes of me. There’s lots of chaff from my point of view: ‘People interested in Sheep’, ‘Kylie Minogue’, Kung Fu; Skodas, Heidegger, Lacan, even journalism. But there are also lists on democracy and science; science and literature; history, philosophy and social studies of science; critical theory; dozens of pages of philosophy lists; a number on my other preoccupation, psychotherapy. On Monday I downloaded several pages of lists of sites concerned with mental health resources. Here is a description of a list which I have just found and which might interest people here: ‘Pol-sci-tech is dedicated to promoting a more socially responsive and democratically informed politics of science and technology.’

Let’s not pretend, however, that this is a mass medium in the sense that we are likely to reach millions of viewers, readers or listeners. It is not even narrowcasting. It is a mosaic where people are interested, but there may be as few as thirty, typically a few hundred, sometimes thousands. That’s an advance on most learned journals, however, and there is — as things stand — no chance of going broke.

There is an irony in this. The internet is so rich and there is so little separation of signal from noise — of my passionate concerns from your dross and vice versa — that we find ourselves coming back to the question of quality, to the need for gatekeepers, arbiters of quality. Indeed, some email lists are already moderated so that the items which appear have been vetted by someone ominously called the ‘listowner’. If we look at out present mass media and the role that such people have come to play (for example, pulling the plug on the ‘Crucible’ series, then ‘Voices’ and now ‘The Late Show’), I hope we will remember that great Who song of the 1970s: ‘We Won’t Get Fooled Again’.

This is the text of a paper presented to the programme in Science, Society and the Media at the University of the West of England, 31 May 1995

7245 words

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Rd., London N7 9RQ

robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk

The Author


The Human Nature Review
Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

US -
 Search:
Keywords:  

Amazon.com logo

UK -
 Search:
Keywords:  

Amazon.co.uk logo

 | Human Nature | Books and Reviews | The Human Nature Daily Review | Search |