January 12, 2012

Science in the 20th Century: An abbreviated tour


This week for a class we read several chapters from the book, Science in the Twentieth Century, edited by John Krige and Dominique Pestre. The 20th Century is, of course, my favorite century because of the developments in technology and agriculture. World War I and II are significant milestones for innovation in the 20th Century, as many of the authors noted. And much of the science policy that we operate by today is driven by our conceptions of innovation from the post-war era, and the famous science policy manifesto, Science, the Endless Frontier by Vannevar Bush.

Chapter 6 by Theordore Porter, “The Management of Society by Numbers,” dealt with the emergence of accounting and managerial science. Porter asserts that concepts such as statistics and cost-benefit analysis didn’t just emerge as a tool of capitalism, but rather the tools themselves co-evolved with ways to shape political order. Writing about nation-based economic planning, accounting, and growth, Porter writes, “Clearly such statistics have to do with regulating social and economic life, not merely with describing it” (p. 101). Turning often-nebulous concepts such as “cause of death,” race, and cost-benefit analyses into concrete numbers and statistics is a classic project of the Enlightenment, but Ported shows how exactly these tools had an impact on society. The extreme case of imposing technological order on society is demonstrated by eugenics, which Daniel Kevles explores in Chapter 16. Eugenics was the promotion of “good breeding” and sometimes coerced sterilization, but was eventually shunned after its central role in Nazi science. But IQ tests, initially developed to test soldiers in WWI for their leadership capacity, clearly played and continue to play a role in how we categorize and govern out citizens, and especially how we educate them.

What I found most profound about Porter’s chapter was how the rationalization of government projects and citizens is at once technocratic, but also transparent. Anyone with a bit of training can challenge scientific or economic results, imposing their own values on the intepretation. Porter writes, “such tools are not unambiguously friendly to elite experts. Expertise means not simply the ability to apply difficult technical methods, but also, or mainly, the capacity to exercise judgment with wisdom and discrimination” (106). To me, this is where the system breaks down. There is an expectation that scientists should be politically uninvolved and devoid of values. From the scientists’ perspective this is the “loading dock” model: you do your research, then drop it off at the dock and just hope someone picks it up and uses it. The problem, as we see with climate change, is that anyone can contest the results. We shouldn’t ask scientists to be advocates, but there should be more “Honest Brokering” of science and how we can use it as a tool for democracy, rather than stalemating policy.

I also enjoyed Chapter 12 by W. Bernard Calson, titled “Innovation and the Modern Corporation.” Carlson traces some of the major inventors and innovators back into the 1800s, showing the differences between the lone-inventor of Thomas Edison to today’s research laboratory style of corporate innovation. The most interesting thing was the co-evolution of technologies and organizational structure in major firms like GE and Bell Laboratories. There is a delicate balance between letting inventors and scientists have enough creative mobility, but also channeling their work into a commercial product. This is one of the key tensions of science policy, and the supposed divide between “basic” and “applied” research. In Deborah Fitzgerald’s chapter on the history of agricultural science, she reveals similar themes. During the 20th Century, agricultural science went from not being a science at all (farmers didn’t use scientific management or breeding), to an informal network of public and private scientists in the 1920s, to now the highly technological system of agriculture and the dominance of private corporations. The organizational structure of agricultural science, as in most technological industries, is both dependent on and determining of the type of technologies that emerge from these enterprises.

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