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International Socialism, December 1997


John Baxter

The Return of Political Science


From International Socialism 2:77, December 1997.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Politics of Western Science, 1640–1990
edited by Margaret C. Jacob
Humanities Press 1994, £12.99

Hidden Histories of Science
edited by Robert B Silvers
Granta Books 1997, £7.99

There is a widespread popular suspicion that science has got out of hand. This suspicion is reinforced by the traditional idea that science is neutral and exists above society. Many scientists see their work as ‘free of moral or ethical values – it is just knowledge about the way the world is’. [1] John Carey, whilst not a scientist, speaks for many when he compares politics to science:

Whereas science is a sphere of knowledge, politics is a sphere of opinion. Politics is constructed out of preferences, which it strives to elevate, by the mere multiplication of words, to the status of truths. Politics depends on personalities and rhetoric: social class, race and nationality are elemental to it. All of these are irrelevant to science. [2]

The molecular biologist Max Perutz claims that ‘science is just knowledge and has no political context’. [3]

However narrowly ‘politics’ is defined, it is hard to sustain the idea that science has no political context in the face of the available evidence from its history. A growing number of academics have begun to study this history and in doing so have challenged science’s claim to neutrality. The two books reviewed here reflect, in different ways, this continuing interest in the history of science and the relation of scientific ideas to society.

The Politics of Western Science contains a series of articles which attempt to give an accessible picture of current academic thinking. Its editor characterises the 1970s as a time of war between the ‘internalists’ and the ‘externalists’. The internalists could be described as those who see science as a self-contained body of knowledge about the world. That knowledge is independent of the personalities, social circumstances or the politics of the scientists. The ‘externalists’ are those who see science as shaped by the society from which it emerges. The book’s editor considers that the war has been largely won by the externalists, and the book is an attempt to:

… reveal the extent of the cognitive revolution which has occurred since the 1960s. We have come to see science as a human artefact capable of being deeply implicated in our political as well as social interests. [4]

Several articles in the book present the sort of historical detail which completely demolishes the ‘internalist’ case. The most glaring examples come from the use of science in totalitarian societies, specifically Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. For the ‘internalists’ these are aberrations, where good scientific practice has been distorted by political interference. But this is only partially true, and a close examination of the history, especially in comparison with science in the Western democracies, does not lead to such reassuring conclusions.

Science under Stalin

Paul Josephson traces the history of science in the Soviet Union from the immediate aftermath of the 1917 revolution to the rise of Gorbachev. Immediately after the revolution science was not given a high priority. The country was struggling to come to terms with civil war and famine. Minds were concentrated on solving the immediate problem of trying to construct a socialist society in the most unfavourable of circumstances. There were, however, heated arguments in the Communist Party about what role specialists, including scientists, could play in the construction of a socialist society. [5] Scientists were able to set up their own independent research institutes, something which was not permitted under Tsarism or Stalin. [6]

It was only with the Stalinist counter-revolution of the late 1920s that science began to be fully incorporated into the state. [7] The Stalinist bureaucracy planned massive forced industrialisation to catch up with the West. In Stalin’s words, ‘We are 50 or a 100 years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this advance in ten years. Either we do it, or we shall go under.’ [8] Science had a major part to play in this.

The administration of science was centralised under the Commissariat for Heavy Industry. Funding for research was only approved if it could be shown to have direct technological benefits for the economy. Independent professional organisations for scientists were banned in the early 1930s. They were replaced with Communist Party run associations representing areas of science directly applicable to industry such as ‘higher educational institutions, factory laboratories, industrial administrations, design bureaus, and fundamental research institutes’. [9] Scientists were not allowed to publish in foreign journals or to travel abroad as they had done in the early 1920s and this isolation was intensified in the late 1940s with the onset of the Cold War.

The increasing centralisation of control over science was accompanied by what Josephson describes as an ‘ideologisation’ of science. [10] The Stalinists argued that science was inherently political, and whole fields were rejected as bourgeois pseudo-science. All ‘pure’ science was rejected as capitalist. Instead the government championed a new practical, proletarian science. This was part of the complex changes occurring in Soviet society at this time. Running parallel to the forced industrialisation was ‘systematic coercion’ designed to suppress any source of opposition to the new regime. In the 1930s this potential opposition not only consisted of the old professional classes of which the scientists formed a part but, significantly, virtually the entire generation of Bolsheviks who had taken part in the revolution. [11]

The most famous result of Soviet style science was Lysenkoism. T.D. Lysenko was an agronomist who rejected genetics and believed in a version of Lamarckism. [12] He reported experiments that seemed to show that treatment of crop seeds with unusually high or low temperatures produced high yielding plants. These plants in turn were claimed to produce seeds which would also give high yields. This fitted exactly with the atmosphere in Russian science. Not only did Lysenko’s claims reject the current Western science of genetics as practised by the older generation of established scientists, but they seemed to offer immediate short term increases in agricultural yields. Lysenko and his supporters drove the geneticists out of Russian science. The leading Russian geneticist Vavilov was sentenced to death and died in 1943 in prison. [13] It was not only biology which suffered. Quantum mechanics and relativity were also denounced as idealist. However, the philosophical complexity of the issues involved made it more difficult for the Stalinist ideologues to intervene. More importantly, when it became apparent that these theories were vital in order to develop atomic weapons, the attacks stopped. [14]

The link between science and politics in the USSR is clear. The priorities of research were set by a state determined to industrialise at all costs. The philosophy of those undertaking the research came under sustained scrutiny from the ruling group. Scientists who did not follow the party line were systematically driven out of science. Many died in the gulags.

A similar tale can be told about science in Nazi Germany. Jewish scientists were dismissed from their posts and sent to the extermination camps. Relativity and quantum mechanics were dismissed as ‘Jewish science’. Nobel prize winning scientists like Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark called for the development of racially pure ‘Aryan’ or ‘deutsche’ physics. [15] As in Russia there was an overwhelming need to develop the economy, and practical ‘Aryan’ science was counterposed to the theoretical excesses of the ‘Jewish’ science of Einstein.

It might be tempting to see the history of science under Hitler and Stalin as morality tales designed to warn us of the horrible excesses which can occur when politicians interfere in science. Indeed, the case of Lysenko is often used to support of this idea. But Lysenkoism was not imposed from outside science. It grew and flourished within science, in the political atmosphere of Soviet society. It reflected both the economic and ideological needs of the developing Stalinist ruling class. Similarly, with German science in the 1930s, it was not the case that Hitler had to recruit a new generation of scientists. Of course, a generation of Jewish scientists were driven out of the country or were slaughtered in the labour camps. Of the German scientists that remained, only a minority, like Lenard and Stark, became enthusiastic Nazis. A minority of scientists were amongst those who actively resisted Hitler. [16] But the majority carried on their work, seeing their science as nothing to do with the political changes in wider society. Their vision of a ‘value free’ science meant that they saw their main responsibility as carrying on their work, until the storm blew over. One scientist who followed this course was the prominent physicist Werner Heisenberg, whose story is briefly told in an excellent article by David Cassidy. [17] Heisenberg kept quiet his personal doubts about the Nazis in order to continue his work. He ended up as a key figure in the attempt to produce a German atomic bomb.

The history of science under Stalin and Hitler is often contrasted with that in the ‘democratic’ West, where science is supposedly allowed to progress unhindered by the ideological baggage of a totalitarian society. [18] But an essay by Stuart Leslie, reviewing the literature in the field, shows that post-war American science has been just as intensely intertwined with the politics of the period.

Science in Cold War America

In the years between the two world wars, American scientific research was funded largely by big business, both in corporate laboratories and in the universities where academics received the bulk of their funding from ‘great private philanthropies’ like the Rockefeller Foundation. [19] But the Second World War saw a huge growth in military spending on science. Billions were poured into the universities, which were mobilised for military research. At its peak, military spending on research reached 50 times its pre-war level. [20] According to Leslie, the military was ‘shaken out of its traditional scientific conservatism by the wonder weapons of war – radar, the proximity fuse, solid fuel rockets, and the atomic bomb – and by the power of the contract to deliver them’. [21] The Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic weapons, was only one of a huge number of grand scientific projects funded by the military.

In the period immediately after the war there was a fall in military spending on research but, in parallel with the USSR, as the Cold War intensified, spending rose again. When Cold War rhetoric turned into actual war in Korea, spending ‘doubled virtually overnight’. When the Russians launched Sputnik in October 1957, shock waves ran through the American government. Federal money was poured into the space programme. But even with this increase in what was classified as civilian spending, the Department of Defense was responsible for 80 percent of government spending on research. This proportion did fall in the 1960s and 1970s as spending on space and health research increased, but went on to soar in the 1980s with Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative, more commonly known as Star Wars. [22]

Military funding and priorities have shaped post-war American science and technology in a multitude of different ways. Leslie reviews the literature in four areas: technological artefacts, scientific disciplines, laboratories and industrial geographies. The development of sophisticated self-guiding missiles required computer systems, lasers and new materials. Fast computation was vital to carry out the calculations necessary for the development of the hydrogen bomb. The micro-electronics revolution was directly a result of military priorities. [23] Investigations into the nature of the upper atmosphere, previously not an area of vital concern, became crucially important if missiles were to be safely guided through it. Whole scientific disciplines were transformed by military priorities. In biology this led to the idea of the Human Genome Project, a multi-billion dollar project conceived when universities suffered a lull in military spending. [24] The aim of the project is to sequence the three billion bases contained in the DNA molecules of human genes, a project of extremely dubious value unless you are chasing funding. However, at times Leslie overstates the importance of military technology in shaping the economy. [25]

The influence of military, politically shaped, priorities is only one of many on science, but it is one which it impossible to ignore. If science is measured by the technologies it produces, it is hard to sustain the idea that science is unaffected by politics; microwave ovens, pocket calculators, compact disc players, and laser surgery, have all resulted from military science. Of course, some might argue that all increases in knowledge are necessarily a good thing, but in any sane society science would be funded and planned in such a way as to maximise the benefits for human beings, rather than to produce the means to kill them.

Hidden Histories of Science

Hidden Histories of Science is the result of a series of lectures organised by The New York Review. Science writers were asked to discuss the way science is influenced by culture. The five authors: Oliver Sacks, Jonathan Miller, Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel Kevles and R.C. Lewontin have established themselves as leading figures in the current boom in popular science literature. The articles all present science as a historical subject, shaped by the politics and structures of wider society. What emerges is a far more rounded picture of science and its history than is presented in The Politics of Western Science, and it has the added advantage that it is much easier to read.

The two articles by R.C. Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould both summarise arguments they have outlined in more detail elsewhere. [26] The essays together live up to the high standard of witty and thoughtful writing that these scientists have established. Gould’s essay criticises the images which are used as metaphors to explain evolution. The images are ones with which we are all familiar: the ladder of life, a series of figures from ‘a stooped ape to an upright man’ to represent human evolution, and the tree of life to represent the evolution of all species. These images involve conscious or unconscious choices which reflect social bias. The ladder usually concludes with a white male, often in a business suit, as if this were the conclusion of the evolutionary process, while the tree involves choices about the relative importance of different species, for example giving prominence to mammalian species rather than insects which are far more numerous.

R.C. Lewontin summarises his arguments against genetic reductionism, the idea that the biology or behaviour of an organism can simply be reduced to its genes. He argues for a dialectical approach which stresses the interpenetration of the organism and its environment. [27] While both are excellent articles which deserve to be read, they are less relevant to the present discussion than the remaining three essays.

Kevles, Miller and Sacks discuss in their articles how scientific ‘discoveries and insights could emerge with what seemed great promise, and yet be pushed aside, discarded, and forgotten – only to re-emerge once again, sometimes many years later, and become, in their new formulation, accepted as important’. [28]

Daniel Kevles is most famous as a historian of the eugenics movement [29], but in the article here he gives a fascinating account of the history of our understanding of cancer. More specifically he follows the fortunes of the idea that some cancers might be caused by viruses. Until very recently this was an idea which simply did not fit into the accepted scheme of things, and over the last 100 years:

… almost every one of the key pioneers encountered pointed resistance from his community of peers. Unlike earlier episodes in the history of science, the resistance originated in neither religious nor ideological prejudice. It derived from the scepticism of a professional community of biomedical scientists whose beliefs were grounded in available laboratory evidence. [30]

Eventually, it was demonstrated that a small number of human cancers are caused by viruses.

In the process of proving this, there have been huge advances in our understanding of how cells grow and multiply. Our limited understanding of retroviruses like HIV began with this work. From the evidence presented in Kevles’ essay it is hard to argue that overt ideological factors were responsible for the resistance, but I would say that ‘the scepticism of a professional community’ is itself ideological. Clearly scientists have to judge their theories against the available evidence but by itself this cannot explain their conservatism. The structures of capitalist society shape the way that science is carried out and the individuals that do the science. Research is carried out by groups dominated by the leading scientist in a managerial position. They compete against one another to be the first to make discoveries, as ‘the need for continued funding and prestige make it important to be first and important to be right rather than to be self-critical and open’. [31] In this instance the scientists who performed the research were largely outside of the mainstream of science and their ideas tended to be dismissed. [32]

Jonathan Miller looks at developments in ideas about the unconscious mind in the 19th century. In 1841 James Braid, a surgeon, investigated the sideshow hypnotism which had been popular since Mesmer had introduced it in the 1790s. He refused to believe the mystical pronouncements of the hypnotists, who claimed that the process involved the transfer of ‘animal magnetism’ from the hypnotist by the passing of hands or magnets over the subject’s body. He demonstrated that a hypnotic trance could be induced without any showmanship, simply by getting the subject to stare at a bottle top. He insisted that the effects of hypnotism could all be ‘explained by the neurological consequences of “a fixed stare, absolute repose of the body, fixed attention, and a suppressed respiration concomitant with that fixity of attention”.’ [33] But Braid got carried away with his success and claimed that whilst in a hypnotic trance he could prove the ideas of phrenology. Phrenology was a theory that any pattern of behaviour from religious fervour to mathematical ability could be traced to specific regions of the brain and that these could be examined by looking at the shape of the skull. [34] For example, Braid claimed he could initiate religious fervour in a hypnotised person by applying pressure to the relevant part of the skull. Two scientists, Carpenter and Laycock, did manage to extract something worthwhile from Braid’s work. They argued that some of the less bizarre responses shown by Braid’s clients were reflex actions centred on the brain rather than the spine. They argued that under hypnotism the conscious mind is suppressed and the unconscious can be examined. Carpenter in particular felt that a great deal of our activities are controlled by the unconscious brain. He had an active model of the unconscious, seeing it as important in many of our physical activities such as walking or talking. His ideas contradicted the established view that the brain was a higher organ, the site of the mind and the soul. Pious Christian neurologists cold not accept Carpenter’s and Laycock’s views, which they saw as denying man’s divinely given free will. Their ideas became unpopular and were largely forgotten.

In the early 20th century Freud developed a view of the unconscious which was much more passive. He saw the role of the unconscious to be one of repression ‘of thoughts which might, if consciously experienced, compromise wholehearted co-operation in social life’. However, outside psychoanalysis, science was developing a very different way of understanding human action: behaviourism. This grew to dominate American psychology between the 1930s and 1960s. It rejected any notion of trying to understand anything so abstract and unmeasurable as the mind. Instead it concentrated on ‘the study of the relationship between measurable stimuli and quantifiable responses’. [35] It has only been in the last 30 years that the idea of an active unconscious has once again begun to gain ground for example in Noam Chomsky’s theory of language, which sees speech as controlled by an active unconscious, programmed with a universal grammar. [36] Miller does not attempt to explain why Carpenter and Laycock’s model of the unconscious was largely forgotten, or why it gave way in the early part of this century to the behaviourist model.

Oliver Sacks, however, does attempt to explain why certain scientific ideas have been thrown up, only to disappear again. Rather than look at a single area, as Kevles and Miller do, he looks at a range of issues from the chemistry of oxygen to the visions of migraine sufferers. He examines why science does not progress simply or smoothly, why it ‘is very far from a majestic unfolding, and very far from being a continuum in any sense’. [37] He draws a parallel with Stephen Jay Gould’s model of evolution as punctuated equilibrium, periods of accumulated slow changes followed by rapid revolutionary progress. Sachs attempts to explain why change occurs when it does and why potentially revolutionary ideas do not take hold. Most importantly, he argues that ideas or observations can be premature, in that they do not fit into an accepted scheme of theories.

Sacks discusses how the revolutions in science can happen. They do not happen due to flashes of genius in individuals, although this does play a role. They happen only when the necessary tools, both intellectual and technological, are present. So the revolution in physics made possible by Einstein’s theories, was only possible when the technology was available to confirm it, for instance in measuring the orbit of Mercury around the sun. It was only possible when the mathematical tool of non-Euclidean geometry had been developed. Chance too plays a role – again using the example of Einstein, it was ‘the solar eclipse of 1917, which, by a rare chance, allowed the theory to be confirmed by accurate observation of the effect of the sun’s gravity on light’. [38] Sacks quotes Einstein to emphasise that revolutions in scientific understanding do not involve simply discarding the old ideas, but give us a new and deeper understanding of our previous theories:

To use a comparison, we could say that creating a new theory is not like destroying an old barn and erecting a skyscraper in its place. It is rather like climbing a mountain, gaining new and wider views, discovering new and wider connections between our starting point and its rich environment. But the point from which we started out still exists and can be seen, although it appears smaller and forms a tiny part of our broad view gained by the mastery of the obstacles on our adventurous way up. [39]

Sacks’ view of the progress and development of science comes very close to those of the mainstream academic philosophers and historians of science, Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos. [40] In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn emphasised that science should be seen as a developing and changing set of ideas. He felt that these ideas exist within paradigms, an internally consistent set of scientific beliefs and practices. Working within a paradigm, scientists accumulate facts and elaborate their original theories. However, at certain points discrepancies within a paradigm, facts which do not fit the theory, accumulate, and a crisis develops. This is the point at which scientific revolutions occur, and a new set of ideas replace the old. Kuhn argued that these changes in ideas can only be understood in terms of the psychology and sociology of the groups of scientists. In emphasising the changing nature of scientific ideas he drifts into relativism, detaching scientific ideas from any relation to material reality.

A similar but non-relativist theory was developed by Imre Lakatos. [41] Lakatos uses a different terminology, describing scientific ideas and practices as existing within research programmes which can be described as progressing if they succeed in predicting new phenomena or degenerating if they fail to do so. Science progresses through the competition of different research programmes. [42]

Neutrality or objectivity?

Margaret Jacob, in her introduction to The Politics of Western Science, states a problem which surfaces throughout the collection: ‘Our perspective is simultaneously deeply sceptical of any claim that science could be “value free” and yet still uncertain about where the boundaries lie – if indeed there are distinct boundaries – between the language and power of science and its involvement in the goals and interests of the modern state’. [43]

Sandra Harding attempts to take on this argument in her essay. She explains that science is practised by communities of scientists who share assumptions and values. These communities reflect the social inequalities in wider society, disenfranchising marginal groups like women, ethnic minorities and gays. She quotes Robert Proctor’s study of science under the Nazis, where the neutrality idea was used to depoliticise deeply political issues:

The Nazis ‘depoliticised’ problems of vital human interest by reducing these to scientific or medical problems, conceived in the narrow, reductionist sense of these terms. The Nazis depoliticised questions of crime, poverty, and sexual or political deviance by casting them in surgical or otherwise medical (and seemingly apolitical) terms ... Politics pursued in the name of science or health provided a powerful weapon in the Nazi ideological arsenal. [44]

She could have easily quoted any one of a number of modern sociobiological studies which claim to show that men are naturally aggressive, women naturally passive, or that justify racial stereotypes by claiming there are scientific differences between so-called races. [45]

She argues that rather than pretending to be able to put aside all prejudice to give an undistorted picture of the real world, scientists must recognise that they too are shaped by their position in society. In order to get an objective picture of what science does and the theories it generates, Harding argues that it is important to start from ‘marginal lives’, using ‘standpoint epistemologies’ specifically using ‘feminist writing ... policy claims of postcolonials, people of third world descent in the first world, lesbians and gays, criticisms of the class system etc.’ [46] She argues that we have to reject ideas about ‘objectivity’, which has been equated with neutrality, in favour of a ‘strong objectivity’, ‘by adapting those methods for detecting systematically distorting assumptions that have proved most powerful in the projects of marginalised groups’. [47]

Harding is right to reject the idea that science is neutral – like all other creations of human labour it is shaped by the society from which it emerges. But that does not mean that science tells us nothing about the real world. Science does not simply produce ‘truth’ but there is a real material world outside of ourselves and our scientific theories do tell us something about that real world. Theories have to be judged by how well they match up to our observations of that real world.

There is a glimmer of something useful in Harding’s ‘standpoint epistemologies’. In order to make judgements about history, science, or anything else for that matter, we have to be aware that we are shaped by the society we live in. However, her argument that all so-called marginal groups can give equally valid insights breaks from any attempt to have a scientific understanding of the social world. Harding looks at society and sees that there are many groups of people who are treated unfairly and that science is used to legitimate this unfairness. At the same time she does not want to reject the very real progress and understanding of the world that science has given us. She ends up with a moral view that those who are most oppressed by the system have the clearest view. Harding bases her ideas on ‘matrix theory’, an idea developed by black feminists, that all oppressions, of ‘class, gender and race construct and maintain each other’ and that no one form of oppression is more important than another. [48] On the contrary, I would argue that there is one standpoint from which it is more possible to gain an objective view of the world and human activity in it: that of the working class. This is not because the working class is either morally superior or more oppressed than other social groups, but because the labour of the working class is central to the capitalist system, indeed defines the system, in a way which is not true of other oppressed groups. Racism and sexual oppression are a product of the wage-labour system, not vice-versa. Thus Engels explained how the class struggles between the relatively young working class and its rulers in the early 19th century lead to a questioning of the whole bourgeois system of understanding:

The new facts made imperative a new examination of all past history. Then it was seen that all past history, with the exception of its primitive stages, was the history of class struggles; that these social classes warring with each other are always the products of the relations of production and exchange – in a word of the economic relations of their epoch; that therefore the economic structure of society always forms the real basis, from which, in the last analysis, the whole superstructure of legal and political institutions as well as of the religious, philosophical, and other ideas of the historical period is to be explained. [49]

It was the position of the working class, thrown into conflict with the ruling class, that enabled Marx and Engels to develop the tradition of analysing society on a class basis. This approach is valid for both historical analysis and science, which is above all the study of the material world. Science cannot be understood unless it is seen as a subject which emerges from a history of human activity, and therefore is as prone as any sphere of human activity to an analysis based on a class understanding of society. [50]


From the time of Marx and Engels, there has been a tradition of interest and debate about science in the Marxist movement. [51] There are two reasons for this. The first is that Marxism was founded on the philosophy of materialism. The most fundamental idea of materialism is that there is a real physical world outside ourselves, which we can begin to understand and, more importantly, to change. The history of science has been an area in which Marxists have defended materialism against idealism. [52] Marxists also have an interest in science because without the achievements of modern science, a socialist society would not be possible. We live in a world where science and technology has given us the capability of feeding the world, the capability of giving every person a decent standard of life. The priorities of capitalism mean that the potential is never realised.

Modern science grew up within the developing capitalist system. It has been shaped and formed by the changing nature of the system, and in turn the system has been shaped by the science it has produced. Socialists often describe science as being distorted by capitalism, but this is only true in the sense that all human activities are distorted by capitalism. It is not true that there is a neutral, ‘value free’ science which is acted on from the outside by capitalism. You cannot understand the history of science or the nature of the ideas it produces without understanding its intimate relation with capitalism. A recognition of this fact has lead some on the left to dismiss all science as mere ideology. But the methods and models of science are tested against the real world. It is at least partially in the interest of the system that these methods and models should be useful. This relation of science to the real world makes it somewhat different to other aspects of bourgeois knowledge. A study of the history of scientific ideas reveals that it is both shaped by the rhythms of the changes in wider society and has its own internal rhythm of change. The changing ideas of science are influenced by the processes of social change but cannot be reduced to them.

These two books are both useful in their different ways. The Politics of Western Science does, for all its weaknesses, give a picture of current academic thinking on science. For anyone interested in following up the debates, it would be a useful starting point. However, the essays are uneven in quality. The best, like Leslie’s article on Cold War American science and Cassidy’s study of the role of the physicist Heisenberg in the Third Reich, give a real insight into how science works and is shaped by the wider society. The worst are simply academic reviews of the current literature, with little content of their own. Hidden Histories of Science, on the other hand, contains five excellent essays which give a much broader view of the development and changes of scientific ideas in the last 200 years. If you want to learn about the history of science, Hidden Histories is the place to start.


1. L. Wolpert, Why Should the Public Trust Science?, The Guardian Online Section, 13 March 1997, p. 4.

2. J. Carey, Introduction to The Faber Book of Science (London 1995), p. xxiii.

3. M. Perutz, Is Science Necessary? (Oxford 1991), p. 94.

4. M.C. Jacob, Science and Politics in the Late Twentieth Century, in The Politics of Western Science, 1640–1990 (New Jersey, 1994), p. 2.

5. T. Cliff, Lenin: Revolution Besieged (London, 1987), p. 73.

6. P.R. Josephson, Soviet Scientists and the State: Politics, Ideology and Fundamental Research from Stalin to Gorbachev, in The Politics of Western Science, op. cit., p. 105.

7. See T. Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia (London 1988), p. 164.

8. Quoted in T. Cliff, Trotsky: The Darker the Night the Brighter the Star (London 1993), p. 40.

9. P.R. Josephson, op. cit., p. 110.

10. P.R. Josephson, op. cit., p. 115.

11. The changes in Soviet society in the 1930s were complex and this description does them scant justice. For a more complete analysis see A. Callinicos, The Revenge of History (Cambridge 1991), pp. 21–40 and references therein.

12. Lamarckism was a scientific theory first proposed in the 19th century. It suggested that acquired characteristics could be inherited – that is, changes in an organism that occurred as a result of events in the organism’s life could be passed on to its offspring.

13. A useful analysis of this phenomenon is given in R. Levins and R.C. Lewontin, The Problem of Lysenkoism, in The Dialectical Biologist (Cambridge 1985), p. 163.

14. P.R. Josephson, op. cit., p. 117.

15. D. Cassidy, Heisenberg, German Science, and the Third Reich, in The Politics of Western Science, op. cit., p. 166.

16. The resistance of socialists in the medical community, who organised themselves into the Association of Socialist Physicians, is described in R.N. Proctor, Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis (Harvard 1988), p. 251.

17. D. Cassidy, op. cit., p. 157.

18. The academic discipline of history of science grew in the late 1940s in America as the Cold War developed. It was a conscious attempt to show that good science is only compatible with a free society. S.W. Leslie, Science and Politics in Cold War America, in The Politics of Western Science, op. cit., p. 220.

19. Ibid., p. 201.

20. Ibid., p. 202.

21. Ibid., p. 201.

22. Ibid., p. 203.

23. C. Wilson, The Politics of Information Technology, International Socialism 74 (1997), p. 50. See also p. 57 for the military origins of the internet.

24. J. Baxter, More Than its Parts, Socialist Review, September 1994. For an account of the origins and history of the project see T. Wilkie, Perilous Knowledge: The Human Genome Project and its Implications (London 1994); or D. Kevles, Out of Eugenics, in The Code of Codes, edited by Daniel Kevles and Leroy Hood (Harvard 1993), p. 3.

25. He argues that America’s economic decline in high technology industries, as compared to its German or Japanese competitors, can be partially traced to overspending on the sophisticated machine tools needed for military production. A more rounded analysis would take into account the role of arms spending in both the rise and relative fall in the American economy, without tracing it simply to technological factors.

26. R.C. Lewontin, The Doctrine of DNA: Biology as Ideology (London 1994); S.J. Gould, Wonderful Life (London 1991).

27. For a brief account of these ideas see J. Baxter, Born or Bred?, Socialist Review 199, July/August 1996. The ideas are covered in more depth in R.C. Lewontin, op. cit., and S. Rose, R.C. Lewontin, L.J. Kamin, Not in our Genes: Biology, Ideology and Human Nature (London 1984).

28. R.B. Silvers, Introduction to Hidden Histories of Science, op. cit., p. ii.

29. D. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics (London 1986). See also Out of Eugenics, op. cit.

30. D. Kevles, Pursuing the Unpopular: A History of Courage, Viruses, and Cancer, Hidden Histories of Science, op. cit., p. 106.

31. R. Levins, When science fails us, in International Socialism 72 (1996), p. 59.

32. D. Kevles, op. cit., p. 80.

33. J. Miller, Going Unconscious, Hidden Histories of Science, op. cit., p. 13.

34. Engels also became interested in this area and, in one of the few complete sections in Dialectics of Nature, attacks prominent scientists hoodwinked by phrenology and spiritualism. He argues that the tendency of a number of natural scientists to believe in fake mystics was linked to their tendency to see observation as everything and theory as at best secondary: ‘it becomes palpably evident which is the most certain path from natural science to mysticism. It is not the extravagant theorising of the philosophy of nature, but the shallowest empiricism that spurns all theory and distrusts all thought’. Because scientists could observe what they thought was a demonstration of phrenology, they felt it had to be real. Engels even describes how he and a friend hypnotised a young boy and with the appropriate prompting, were able to demonstrate that the organ of drunkenness was in the big toe. F. Engels, Natural Science in the Spirit World, in Dialectics of Nature (Moscow, 1974), p. 50.

35. J. Miller, Going Unconscious, Hidden Histories of Science, op. cit., p. 29. Behaviourism was a conscious attempt to make psychology a ‘hard’ science, to make it more like physics. It originated in the experiments of Pavlov in the 1920s, who found that dogs ‘learn’ to salivate at the sound of a bell, if the ringing of the bell has been repeatedly associated with the provision of food. This ‘conditioning’ became a model for human learning, seen as a response to ‘reinforcement, reward and punishment’. It was a viciously reductionist attempt to explain behaviour, not in terms of genes, but seeing an organism’s environment as rigidly determining its observed behaviour. As such it is equally vulnerable to the Marxist criticisms of reductionism described in Not in our Genes, op. cit., p. 266.

36. J. Miller, op. cit., p. 31.

37. O. Sacks, Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science, Hidden Histories of Science, op. cit., p. 141.

38. Ibid., p. 167. The 20th century revolutions in physics are discussed in D. Blackie, Revolution in Science, International Socialism 42 (1989), p. 115.

39. A. Einstein, The Evolution of Physics, quoted ibid., p. 166.

40. A clear and non-technical account of mainstream ideas in philosophy of science, including those of Kuhn and Lakatos, is given in the first nine chapters of A.F. Chalmers, What is This Thing Called Science? (Milton Keynes 1982).

41. A.F. Chalmers, op. cit., pp. 80, 106.

42. Lakatos used this formulation to dismiss Marxism as unscientific – in his terms it might be internally consistent but it does not lead to the prediction of new phenomena. Callinicos has used Lakatos’ theory to show that the variant of Trotskyism represented by this journal can be viewed as a progressive research programme. A. Callinicos, Trotskyism (Buckingham 1990), p. 79.

43. M.C. Jacob, op. cit., p. 3.

44. R.N. Proctor, op. cit., p. 293, quoted in S. Harding, After the Neutrality Ideal: Science, Politics and Strong Objectivity, The Politics of Western Science, p. 82.

45. These ideas are attacked in Not in our Genes and The Doctrine of DNA, op. cit.

46. S. Harding, op. cit., pp. 94–99.

47. Ibid., p. 101.

48. Ibid., p. 95.

49. F. Engels, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific (London 1993), p. 84.

50. Engels started, but was unable to finish, a book which discussed science in relation to class society. The fragmentary notes he made have been published as F. Engels, Dialectic of Nature, op. cit.; see in particular the Introduction. Engels’ ideas are discussed in P. McGarr, Engels and Natural Science, International Socialism 65.

51. A useful guide to the debates within Marxism, up to 1945, is given in Sheehan, Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History (New Jersey 1993).

52. This issue is discussed in P. McGarr, Engels and Natural Science, op. cit. See also D. Blackie, Revolution in Science, International Socialism 42 (1989).

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