Abstract. The answer to the problem of science as a political agent should demonstrate the extent to which the topic of philosophy of science and technology intersects with the philosophy of politics and modern science and technology studies, or STS. This problem is part of the topical agenda of social discourse on the nature of the Modernity and Postmodernity, the prospects of civilization, the role of scientific and technological development and the growing role of the media. The main feature of modernity is that science and technology determine points of growth in all areas of social life. However, the question arises: has this turned science into a political agent? Have there ever been such precedents? What is political agency as applied to science? Is there a place for political agency within the scientist’s mission? Analysis of the problem of political agency of science begins with clarification of the question: is this all about political power or the power of knowledge? The next step is to determine the forms of the appearance of such agency in the theoretical and practical activities of scientists. Thus, a general theoretical solution to the problem is proposed and compared with the results of case studies of scientists’ participation in the solution of socially significant tasks.
Knowledge Is Power: Background
The image of new science as a social institution is the key premise of the methodological analysis of knowledge in New Organon by Francis Bacon (1620). The true content of this treatise becomes clear only through reference to the English thinker’s other works and the features of his biography. Bacon believed that the new scientific method could only be grounded and spread in the form of a cultural revolution, that is, a campaign for social legitimization of science as a priority social institution created and supported by the state. Bacon’s ideas have been vindicated by the history of the creation of European academies of sciences. These ideas acquire a new character today in the context of ethical and communicative approaches to the analysis of science, restructuring of the relations between science and society and the being of science as a political agent.
Modern society is often described as a “knowledge society,” meaning the all-pervading influence of science and education on social practices and technologies. At the same time, attention is increasingly drawn to dubious political and information technologies of “post-truth,” which deliberately spread misleading and false information to achieve political ends. One is reminded again and again of George Orwell and his novel 1984. For example, he used the slogan “Ignorance is Power”—an ironic inversion of the famous phrase attributed to Francis Bacon—to describe the ideology of “doublethink” in a future society, an ability to adhere to two opposite propositions simultaneously.
Francis Bacon is an heir to Plato and Aristotle in their cognitivism, i.e., recognition of the leading role of knowledge in man. He said famously that man is what he knows [2, p. 13]. It is, however, a sad paradox that we recall Orwell as we mark the 400th jubilee of the New Organon. As a matter of fact, ascribing the formula “Sapientia potentia est” (or “Scientia est potentia”) to Francis Bacon is an example of post-truth. The phrase is not to be found in this form in any of Bacon’s texts. So, the task of the critics of “the idols of reason” is still relevant, since knowledge is constantly and deliberately distorted, inverted and misused to achieve political, economic and cultural dominance. Even within science itself, malpractices and fraudulent science are widespread. Therefore, a deeper insight into the original formulas “Sapientia potentia est” and “Scientia est potentia,” whoever is their true author, is the imperative of the time.
Historians have found formulas analogous to the slogan “Knowledge Is Power” in various cultural sources, both Western and Eastern. In the West European philosophical tradition, it was apparently launched in English in Leviathan in 1651 and in Latin in 1668 although it differs from the classical formula. Bacon, though, uses it in a different form and in a different context. Describing the attributes of God in Meditationes Sacrae (1597), he uses the phrase “scientia potestas est,” which should probably be translated as “science is His power,” because it is with the deity that knowledge and power are indistinguishable and inseparable as omniscience and omnipotence [3, p. 95]. As for man, everything is different, according to Bacon and Hobbes: knowledge can become power, and power can be ennobled by knowledge, but one has to work for it.
Steve Fuller draws attention to the fact that misinterpretation of the “Knowledge Is Power” thesis in modern science and technology studies (STS) stems from their inherent professional value neutrality and the prevalence of the empiric and descriptive approach. This approach sweeps under the rug the original Enlightenment-era message that the more we know, the less we are influenced by others, and if our power grows, it is only in the sense of potential, i.e., possible action. Growing knowledge makes us freer precisely by weakening and not strengthening the link between knowledge and power [6, p. 211].
This is not the only paradoxical connotation of the “Knowledge Is Power” formula. In a certain metaphysical sense, the widening space of knowledge also expands the space of our ignorance, i.e., creates new risks. “Taming” of knowledge is thus a religious-theological strategy that warns us against moving in an unknown direction. Unable to totally impose his own will in promoting his projects, a conservative leader tries to persuade people not to resist his will because nothing can be done without substantial risks, and therefore one should not even try (“don’t change horses in midstream”).
Interpreted in this way, the formula “Knowledge Is Power” is less a statement of fact than a philosophical normative exhortation. It should be interpreted as part of a massive campaign to promote science, which Bacon pursued in his works and practical activities. Science here does not yet challenge religion but acts in unison with it. In cognizing, man moves closer to God, never attaining His infinite might. The Protestant slogan “Sola Scriptura” meant that only a community of people who read the Bible had proper access to God. Thus, knowledge is the power of the select who share a common program. At the same time, in Bacon we encounter for the first time in history someone who understands science as a new global social project. Arguably, the English thinker’s main discovery was that the idea of the right scientific method needed social legitimization and adequate institutionalization, which are impossible without a corresponding state policy. By the same token, the implementation of this ideal of science called for a radical restructuring of the whole society. The latter should not necessarily be democratic, rather it should be an expertocracy sharing with society its “fruit-bearing experiences” while reserving “light-bearing experiences” for itself.
Here Bacon again falls back on antiquity, this time on Plato’s Republic as a project of “aristocracy of philosopher scientists.” This borrowing was the result of broader Italian influence in England beginning from the 15th century, which saw the emergence of Respublica literaria, “the republic of scientists,” or “the republic of sciences” (the epistolary community of Italian Renaissance scientists in the 15th century). Bacon’s New Atlantis was a clear hark back to the “republic of scientists,” which lent itself to various interpretations. Thus, Bacon’s project produced two sprouts, which effectively demonstrated two types of science agency, the Paris Academie des sciences and the Royal Society of London. French science put its agency in the service of state needs and became an “invalid,” “a subject with impairments,” a handmaid of the state. It reached its peak in the Napoleonic era, when it tackled the problems of militarizing the economy. Its public countenance was pale in spite of its practical achievements: “The Republic does not need scientists,” said Jean Coffinhal-Dubail, Chairman of the Revolutionary Tribunal, in response to a petition in defense of Antoine Lavoisier. British science took a different path. It practically distanced itself from the social problems altogether to become “a subject in and for itself,” “an ivory tower.” However, this actually enhanced its role in the industrial revolution and helped Britain to achieve world dominance in the 19th century. Already then, science was becoming an international enterprise under the Union Jack.
Bacon in some ways foretold the main feature of the approaching Modern time in that science and technology based on it are “locomotives of the era” bringing about revolutionary changes in politics, economy and culture. Marx’s thesis to the effect that “Revolutions are the locomotives of history” fully applies to the Modern scientific revolution. In the 19th century, “general social knowledge (Wissen, knowledge) has become an immediate productive force” [11, p. 143], to use a Marxian expression. This was in many ways due to the fact that Bacon in his time had proclaimed science to be a new political agent and his ideas acquired a material form in the science academies of the Modern Times.
In the post-Modern society (“information,” “digital,” knowledge” society), Bacon’s ideas are relevant in their own way, configuring new discussions and questions . What is modern science, an ivory tower, a republic of scientists or a commercial enterprise? Who is the main opponent of science, the state, business or the church? Are democracy and scientific knowledge (expertise) compatible? Has science acquired special political influence owing to its leading social role? What is political agency as applied to science? Is it limited to its influence on people’s minds? Is access to social consciousness perhaps the main channel of political power?
Bacon seems to have anticipated many of these questions and offered answers to them. He identified the clear advantages of science: its specific interest, special method and practical efficiency. Revisiting Bacon’s ideas today we bear in mind that science has turned from a utopia into reality with all its merits and demerits. Science, claiming as it does the status of a political agent, may set a positive moral example for society. Society, in supporting science, makes sure that it corresponds to humanist values. Such balance is as hard to achieve today as the idea of Bacon’s science was in his time. That is why it amply deserves the status of a promising philosophical project.
Faust and Themis
The sources of Modern natural science have long been found to contain gnostic, hermetic, Cabbalistic, magical and theological ideas (Frances Yates, Alexandre Koyré), a disciplinary theological matrix , and trade and production practices (Vladimir Vernadsky). The question as to what extent Themis can be considered to be the mother of Faust, i.e., how European law has influenced the birth of experimental science, is less well studied.
The image of Faust, known since the European Middle Ages, symbolizes a scientist, a magician, a physician who, however, spends more time in the laboratory than invoking supernatural forces and juggling with syllogisms. Herein lie its novelty and prognostic force in relation to the 17th century scientific revolution. During that period, the experimental method was seen as the way to master the natural elements. “Experimentalism”  was a kind of world-view that led man to believe in his ability to make knowledge a productive force. Invoking the experiment contributed to critique and renunciation of scholasticism.
At the same time, the type of world-view prevalent during that period bolstered scholastic discourse. It was “the legal world-view” that was symbolized by Themis, a dispassionate and objective judge. Engels described the legal world-view as “the classical outlook of the bourgeoisie,” which supplanted the theological world-view of the Middle Ages . There are grounds for thinking that this world-view was already widespread during the Middle Ages. The trials of witches and “love trials” are typical phenomena of the time mentioned by Johan Huizinga, along with numerous property cases, which were almost the main way to make a fortune. “The generally prevailing formalism, writes Huizinga, is at the base of that faith in the effect of the spoken word, which reveals itself in primitive culture in all its fullness and still survives in late medieval times in the form of formulas of blessing, of magic, and of condemnation. A solemn appeal still has something of the quality of a wish in a fairy tale” [8, p. 281].
It has to be noted that law in Medieval Europe was a complicated tangle of general and particular laws, precedents, modes of judicial proceedings and law enforcement. In the context of feudal fragmentation, every small state invented its own legal system. It combined church law, elements of natural and common law, privileges and ordinances of rulers with fragments of Roman imperial constitutions. Roman law had some distinctive features. These included consummate legal technique, detailing of most aspects of legal relations of the epoch, recognition of the supreme value of private rights and personal interests. This made Roman law easy to apply to the regulation of new social relations. Reception of Roman law was aided by the respectful attitude of Medieval culture to antiquity. That is why Roman law, having survived many vicissitudes in Medieval Europe, became by the end of the 11th century firmly entrenched as the universal philosophy and practice of law, a universal basis for legal decisions. Not surprisingly, the law faculty was one of the three leading faculties in the medieval university. A large proportion of learned people were lawyers and legal thinking was deeply rooted in the mentality of educated classes.
Here we discover, metaphorically speaking, an alliance between Faust and Themis. “The power of knowledge,” as it turns out, carried strong judicial connotations. Bacon, who considers science as a method and an institution, approaches it as a learned lawyer. For him, the model for the new natural science is law, not theology (which has too close a substantive link with scholasticism and mysticism), and not medicine, which is a low science. The scientific method has yet to learn the fundamental lesson of a court investigation, a judicial experiment and a court decision.
Incidentally, the etymology of the terms “experiment” (experiri, “to try, test,” “litigate”) and “object” (obiectus—“accusation”) points to jurisprudence. The experiment, which a scientist sees as impartial proof of his argument coming from the mouth of nature itself, often turns out to be a confession (not necessarily false, but far from voluntary) extracted under duress. “It is impossible, in depicting the way in which even the most banal experiments stage the scientific ordeal of truth, to base ourselves on the prevailing idea that the sciences are pure, objective, disinterested, distant,” writes Bruno Latour in his work “Scientific Objects and Legal Objectivity” [10, p. 82]. He compares the work of judicial bodies and scientific laboratories, with scientists in this description acting of course not as judges but as plaintiffs who “sue” a thing challenging it to say about itself something that they feel needs to be said. In this context, the object becomes simultaneously the victim of an interrogation and a judge, for “it passes judgment on what is said about it” [10, p. 81].
Latour’s comparative exercise, though, ends with a banal attack on social constructivism and with the conclusion that scientists should not deliver the final verdict and judges should not invoke the truth. This normative appeal is somewhat at odds with his own denial of any usefulness of epistemology for science; perhaps his opinion about sociology is somewhat different. However, Latour’s main contribution is in highlighting the numerous similarities between laboratory science and legal practice. For all their differences, natural science reproduces the inherent feature of legal science and the humanities as a whole, i.e., interpretative work with texts. The scientific experiment inherits the practice of an “ordeal” spreading it to nature. Scientific debate uses the method of proof borrowed in many ways from court proceedings. While law in the early bourgeois revolutions was seen as the base of the state, science, in prescribing laws for nature, was seen as a cosmic constitution. This leads Bacon to conclude that science, being of exceptional importance, would get rid of amateurism and become a state institution. Moreover, it is to become the engine of the state machine vested with full powers. However, Bacon’s project has been implemented only partially: science does not stand at the head of the state. Indeed, in “the society of professions” scientific and political activities are mutually exclusive: only professionals represent social value, enjoy prestige and achieve power. Does it mean that the power of knowledge is confined to the sphere of knowledge and exerts social impact only through mediators, through embodiments in various technologies?
STS versus Post-Truth
In the second half of the 19th century science produced a kind of “protective belt” by calling upon history and philosophy of science to popularize achievements, improve the social image and assert the special epistemological status of the scientific profession. A hundred years later, this role was hijacked by interdisciplinary studies of science and technology (STS). Before long, its representatives became aware of and manifested their strength in the modern “knowledge society,” launching “science wars,” discussions on post-Modernism, post- and trans-humanism and joining a full-scale political agenda. In recent years, STS have been increasingly vocal in claiming the right to be agents of socio-humanitarian expertise, i.e., to express the opinion of scientists and science as a whole on all the topical social issues. Not only are STS noticeably in opposition to the state and business, but they seek to hijack the role of the media in creating and playing with the widest range of newsworthy events.
Thus, philosophers, sociologists, and political scientists engaged in STS have come out against the social construction of lies and ignorance in mass consciousness, dubbed post-truth, as has been mentioned [14; 4]. They highlighted the situation in democratic society, which ensures free speech but at the same time risks confusing and equating post-truth with scientific knowledge. In such a situation, experts have to demonstrate their competence in the public domain and even engage in political activism. This becomes particularly necessary when politicians and businesspeople try to undermine the authority of science in pursuit of their selfish goals and treat science itself as if it were post-truth, using highly sophisticated means to do so.
Examples are the more acute social debates involving scientists. These include debates on the harm of tobacco smoking and its impact on the rise of cancer incidence. There are also the critique of Big Pharma companies, which develop ineffective and hazardous drugs on a monopoly basis; denial of human-induced climate change and the need to modernize industry; critique of environmental consequences of oil extraction, etc. These debates involve a large number of scientific experts who examine these problems on the basis of available facts and accepted theories. No wonder scientific discussions often see a clash of opinions and do not always achieve a consensus.
For example, there is convincing theoretical proof of the harm of smoking. There are authentic statistics of empirical data on heavy tobacco smoking (one pack of cigarettes a day and more), provoking disease. However, data on more moderate smoking are inconclusive because of the growing competing impact of other pathogenic factors. Furthermore, while there are exact data on the harmful impact of cheap cigarettes, such statistics are not available on the most expensive tobacco brands. In these and similar cases, politicians and businesspeople use the high epistemological criteria upheld by scientists against science itself. That is, any difference of opinions among experts is interpreted as a decisive argument against scientific consensus and validity of science as a whole.
That said, a number of prominent scientists in the field of STS have displayed true combative spirit. Thus, Scott Pruitt, administrator of the United State Environmental Protection Agency, denies man-made climate change putting forward the well-known methodological argument: correlation does not indicate cause-and-effect relationship. However, Naomi Oreskes, a prominent American scientist and social commentator, challenges this argument as sophistic. Even if a 5 percent probability of a negative scenario may lead to a catastrophe, even minimum risks become excessive .
Further, Jim O’Neill of the Food and Drug Administration argues that drugs should be checked only for safety and not for effectiveness. But how can one judge about the toxicity of substances without any reference to their effectiveness? Who needs drugs containing powerful substances that are dangerous to health if their positive effect has not been proven? If such a policy is adopted this would amount to scrapping the bulk of scientific knowledge embodied in the Agency’s work and procedures. Everything would be left to the discretion of doctors and their patients. These critical arguments are put forward by Sergio Sismondo of Canada, chief editor of the influential journal Social Studies of Science .
In Russia, too, the state organization Rospotrebnadzor watches only compliance with safety regulations and not with food quality standards. This means that foodstuffs may have a minimum of useful substances along with pulp fillers. The market is expected to separate higher and lower quality products as a result of free competition and the activity of independent expert organizations such as Roscontrol. Unfortunately, this situation has not yet been flagged by Russian sociologists of science.
Finally, there is an example from a sphere that appears to be even further removed from STS, yet for this reason is even more indicative. After Donald Trump was elected President of the US, many scientists experienced a shock because they saw the situation as a crisis not only of democracy but of the rational view of the world in general. Groups of STS specialists at leading American and Canadian universities (Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Toronto, etc.) developed an agenda of constant criticism of the administration, including monitoring of state structures for compliance with its promises. The program was called “First 100 days. Narratives on Normalization and Disruption.” Because it was assumed that the Trump Administration would be constantly lying, one of the program’s tasks was to archive published state documents, which might later be removed from the public domain. The scientists chose this tactic to combat the policy of post-truth, thus crossing the boundaries of science, raising general social issues and debunking populist and unscientific invectives of the politicians: “Fretting about knowing is part of the pathology of established power. We should get over it. With the establishment consensus fragile, governments prostrate by financial constraint, gridlocked and disempowered, whole populations locked out, held down, off-loaded by global modernization, the global commentariat is right to ask how long the center will hold, whether the postwar system is sustainable. Not a time to worry about the place of science in policy. A time to worry about our society’s political, economic, and ethical essentials,” writes Professor David Kennedy, one of the leaders of Harvard Law School .
And he continues his critical remarks by pointing out that knowledge and science can play different roles and should be assessed accordingly. Thus, the claim to knowledge (proceeding from facts, scientific theories, etc.) coupled with political power is similar to claims to ethical universals and is subject to the same distortions. In fact, Kennedy urges scientists not to cooperate with unworthy politicians and not to allow them to use scientists to dupe their electorates. By the same token, he argues that the moral impact of science on society will be much greater if scientists pay attention to social problems rather than upholding their special place in society.
This was the path chosen by the advocates of another program directed against the policy of post-truth. It is called agnotology (from the Greek ἄgnosis, “non-knowledge”). The term was suggested by Professor Robert Proctor of Stanford University in his book The Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don’t Know about Cancer (1995). The material for the book is the policy and propaganda of big tobacco companies, who hush up and distort data on the pathogenic effect of smoking. Proctor draws epistemological conclusions arguing that non-knowledge and ignorance are not identical to empty space into which knowledge is sucked. Ignorance is a far more complex phenomenon, which STS specialists must look into. It arises and spreads as a result of a certain knowledge policy. An important addition to political epistemology could be political agnotology, the study of ignorance that gives greater insight into commercialization of science .
Among the many who have recently been writing about the policy and ideology of post-truth in a general way is English philosopher and sociologist Steve Fuller . Below is a short definition of post-truth sufficient for the tasks set in this article. Post-truth is the strategy of simple solutions to difficult problems rhetorically distorting its real prerequisites and probable consequences.
An example of post-truth policy is the attempt to deal with the environment problem by bringing pressure to bear on industrial production and human consumption. It urges the need to ban nuclear power plants, renounce biotechnologies, promote universal vegetarianism and limit consumption in general. Instead of promoting a reasonable and gradual restructuring of production and consumption, what often gets promoted are rival industries, which derive extra profits from inefficient and expensive technologies that are by no means universally affordable.
Another example is combating poverty through direct subsidies to the population by raising taxes. This populist measure, which offers a fish instead of a fishing rod, as it were, perpetuates the dependence of the population on power. Yet other examples are fighting crime through the death penalty when, instead of fighting the social causes of crime, its consequences are targeted; the search for scapegoats among sexual and ethnic minorities, etc. The social base of post-truth is the group of the population particularly susceptible to populist slogans. Relying on its support, the populist policy puts on the mask of egalitarianism and anti-elitism while in fact it attacks political opposition and leads to authoritarianism.
It is noteworthy that post-truth also makes use of popular images of science, which capture something of its real ambivalence. For instance, it is not so easy to define what expert knowledge of scientists really is. On the one hand, it looks like and often works as the prime source in political decision-making, an element of the dominance of science over everyday consciousness, an instrument of the elite working in the interest of the customer, politicians and businesspeople. On the other hand, a large section of the population with a higher education sees expert knowledge as an element of common distributed knowledge. Scientists have no monopoly of this knowledge because it can be understood and criticized by others. Thus, total social knowledge is the product of cooperation between scientists and non-scientists in the course of collective procedures (public hearings, media debates, civil initiatives, focus groups, etc.).
Further, the obviously controversial image of the scientist is itself an object of speculation. In accordance with the special epistemological status of science, the scientist is an expert who generates and disseminates a particular type of knowledge, which is objective and true. This image of a scientist includes an element of power. However, that status is instantly lowered if science as a social institution becomes a sphere of social production and the scientist becomes an intellectual worker who receives remuneration for the goods and services he produces. Scientists then become an exploited and dependent social group, which, as it were, rent means of production (laboratories, libraries, etc.) from their owner (the state or private business). And yet the scientist has not entirely lost the Faustian image of a magician who has insight into nature’s mysteries and controls the elements. The unfathomable mysteries of the cosmos and of the human psyche prompt the myth-and-magic perception of the demiurge who creates wondrous technologies bringing both prosperity and risks. Post-truth politicians use the scientist’s ambivalent image in which master, slave and shaman, submission and mystery are rolled in one to undermine trust in science.
Scientists are opinion leaders and agents of influence. In reality, science is the most resolute opponent of the policy and ideology of post-truth, the struggle that shapes it as an agent. However, to understand science as a political agent, it is necessary to clarify the concept of political agency in general. In our opinion, it is a combination of three elements: a particular independent interest, social trust and power over a certain segment of reality. This, however, throws up a number of questions.
Political power is generally identified with state power. Then, in terms of the separation of legislative, executive and judicial branches, they should all have political power. But this reveals contradictions, for example, when speaking about the political power of the Central Bank. Nor is there a ready answer to the question whether the Constitutional Court, banking and industrial associations, non-profit organizations and the media are political agents. For we have the law on foreign agents covering NGOs, that is, non-profit organizations are de facto recognized as potential political agents. Think of the well-known metaphor: the media are often referred to as the Fourth Estate. This, of course, applies to independent media, but in that case, these are commercial structures which bring massive profits because they can demonstrate their capacity for political advocacy. Science may also carry political connotations when it is called Arian or Islamic, asked to protect “national interests” or is accused of political conformism. Paul Feyerabend wrote that in a free society all traditions have equal rights and equal access to centers of power. Democracy implies competition, so science, if it wants to be an agent, must uphold its right to have an independent interest, seek to win social trust and thereby power—at least over minds but also, as far as possible, gain a place in the political power system proper.
An independent scientific-political agency apparently did not begin to be formed until the 20th century. Science, having matured thanks to nuclear and space mega-projects, emerges as a real social force with a degree of independence, trust and power. The state, as before, seeks to use it, but it is unable to keep it in total submission. Let us mention some of the key signals of such independent agency. German physicists largely boycotted the invention of the atomic bomb under the Nazi regime. The prosecution and indictment of Robert Oppenheimer during the McCarthy era (1954) provoked an exodus of physicists from military laboratories. In the 1950s and early 1960s, scientists demonstrated their influence in the creation of the Pugwash movement and during the resolution of the Caribbean crisis. The Club of Rome founded by scientists in 1968 highlighted contemporary problems and the need to solve them. It was scientists who caused the ban on the cloning of humans to be imposed (Russia joined it in 2002).
The recent reform of the Russian Academy of Sciences is a separate case. A 2013 Romir study has shown that the RAS tops the list of social institutions that command the greatest trust . Therefore the 2013 RAS reform can be interpreted as an attempt to deprive science of independence, trust and power. During the reform the policy of post-truth had a field day, with fake accusations of the RAS and misinterpretation of a number of facts. Objective difficulties in the running of science in contemporary Russian society and some shortcomings in the work of the RAS were used to present the RAS as totally ineffective and corrupt. However, the reform triggered a backlash among a significant number of scientists. Several social movements and independent trade unions of science and education workers sprang up. Petitions in defense of science and democracy were filed and other protest actions were launched.
Aleksandr Antonovsky and Raisa Barash, analyzing the practices of science activism in Russia, identify three types. First, the interactivity-oriented type characterized by the absence of rigid organizational structures (for example, July 1 Club and Science Workers Society). The second type, on the contrary, is rigid conservative organizations with membership rules (trade unions of organizations of the RAS and other research and education institutions). Finally, “the most advanced form of radicalism in science are system-integrated forms of protest, above all at the level of media communications (television, the Internet and newspapers) exemplified by the newspaper Troitsky variant and the social network type of scientific protest, like the Dissernet community [1, p. 26]. The practice of “open letters” of the broad circles of intelligentsia, often initiated by scientists, is arguably yet another form of social protest and a manifestation of the political self-consciousness of science.
What are the theoretical arguments to bolster the view that science is a political agent? First, there is its special objective, “disinterested interest” in new and true knowledge: it seeks to present a state of affairs as it really is, i.e., independently from any other interests. Second, science offers a special method, i.e., organization of activity according to the criteria of rationality, practicability and the systemic approach. This method is transparent; it guarantees trust in the knowledge obtained because it always can and must be aimed at science and its critical appraisal. Third, science promises practical effectiveness of scientifically backed decisions, i.e., increases man’s real power. Moreover, it does so unselfishly because the cost of science is much less than the profits it generates.
The scientific community can claim to be a political agent. It is not the whole modern science as a social institution, which diverged into separate branches in the second half of the 20th century. It includes state-owned and private research laboratories, institutes and universities as well as other organizational structures. They are analytical-information centers, expert councils under the president, parliament, at law courts, ministries and departments; individual ministries and agencies (the Ministry of Science and Education, the State Committee for Science and Technology); science councils at major corporations. From this point of view, science is not a single power (and political) agent at all; it is not a coordinated communication and subordination system. Only some influential elements of science can claim a political role. Can science, then, achieve political success?
Let us model two opposite variants based on Karl Popper’s idea of “open science” and Thomas Kuhn’s concept of “closed science,” respectively. In the former, scientists, following science’s ethos and viewing science as a factor of social good, create an intellectual and moral atmosphere that contributes to deliberative democracy and personal growth. The state for its part conducts an enlightened policy with regard to science and policy in general, rejecting populism, technocratism and headlong commercialization. The state reckons with science and people reward it with trust and respect. Science contributes to technological and social progress and society is guided by the values of rational humanism. However, not all scientists can match such a high standard. Thus, the scientific community shrinks dramatically, with the majority of scientists moving into other spheres while the rest form an elite club, which cannot meet the obligations it has assumed.
In the second case, the political elite puts a premium on cutting costs, optimization of social obligations and on holding on to power by any available means. Then, it uses science and technology to solve these tasks while scientists risk becoming a caste of experts prepared to sacrifice personal rights and the interests of society for the sake of self-preservation. Technocracy consolidates its power by invoking science and builds society according to the templates of paradigmatic theories. In this case, the scientific community splits again, with one part on the side of populism, technocratism and commercialization, and the other on the side of radical political movements. This leads to a political crisis, the collapse of science and radicalization of global problems.
If these two variants of science development are plausible, science can achieve the status of political agent only to the extent permitted by other political actors. A mutually beneficial balance of science, the state and business appears to offer a political niche for science. However, in reality, such an alliance makes the political function of science redundant, such that it becomes indifferent to politics. Conversely, a lack of balanced coexistence forces science to put forward political demands. Power is never dropped in one’s lap, it has to be fought for. That is why the question, “is science a political agent?” can be answered in two different ways. The first—descriptive—answer is negative. Science has not achieved the status of a real political agent. The second answer has to do with the prospect of science and has a normative character in line with the famous advice of Kozma Prutkov: “If you want to be a political agent, be so.”
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