The Chaos of Science in Power

Trevor McKinnon/Twirling steel wool, Australia

To say one is “following the science” is, somewhat tragically, to become a sloganeer of contemporary liberalism. When used to justify policy action—for example, in the COVID response—the phrase conflates the scientific truth-finding process, the political calculus of state action, and the official ideology which justifies the actions of power. That conflation is untenable. Although we don’t rigorously distinguish the three very often, each of them has a necessarily different epistemology. 

Critics read the early scientific declarations against mask-wearing by the government, as well as later bureaucratic decisions around halting distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, as fumbles that could be avoided if only the administration had a truly scientific, rational, and objective understanding of the facts. 

But this just doubles down on the error: using state authority to govern society on one hand, and reproducing and extending scientific knowledge on the other, means working with two very distinct kinds of logic. Conflating them brings political corruption to science, confusion and indecision to state action, and dishonesty and loss of trust to state justification. The inconsistency on the message of masks from experts and governments did great damage to the credibility of the public policy response to the crisis, precisely because it was billed as a matter of scientific truth, rather than state tactical decision.

To get this right, we have to understand how these different epistemologies—science, state ideology, and state action—work in detail, how they interact with each other, and how they constrain the thoughts, speech, and action of elites.

Ideologies of Thought and Action

Being able to analyze a situation is different from being able to act upon it. This is especially important when we are talking about the state, where the realm of possibilities for action is much smaller than the realm of possible ideologies. Functionally, a state actually has two distinct ideologies: one of thought and one of action. What a state formally professes is not always the same as what it actually does. But a state’s actions reinforce and perpetuate its power. The ideology of action might be implicit, in contrast to the more formalized ideology of thought, but it is one of the state’s core epistemological bases.

We can see this difference play out, for example, in democracy-promotion. Formally, the U.S. has a firm commitment to moving the world towards liberal democracy; in practice, intelligence and security services have historically carried out interference in both foreign and domestic democratic processes in order to secure other interests. 

This is not mere hypocrisy. America’s national security and intelligence agencies form a core part of American power, but this role is not entirely reflected in America’s ideology of thought. They are part of its ideology of action: the logic behind what it actually does. Neither are these justifications necessarily in conflict; one of the reasons democracy-promotion is so adaptive is precisely because foreign democracies can be more easily manipulated by the habitual methods of American power than other regime types.

The state generates an ideology of action because it has a structural role that takes precedence over all else: it must preserve the foundations of the existing society. In the modern liberal society, that means it must uphold private property, civil society, the education system, the media system, the electoral system, and so on. It also oversees the more general needs to maintain security, military, and economic power. It must ensure the continuation of the existing incentives, power differentials, goods distributions, and institutions that keep people cooperating and in their place. This is the inherent rationality of a given political and economic system. It is a rationality emergent from the necessity of social reproduction, not one verbalized in any textbook or theory. 

Politicians and other agents of the state cannot take actions that jeopardize this rationality unless there are other, imminent threats to the reproduction of a particular society. This means that the ideology of action has inherent stability to it.

An ideology of thought has a similar purpose. A ruling ideology, the ideology of elites, must also work to reproduce existing society. But it does so on a more immediately formal level, in giving justification for the state, its policies, and the relations between social classes to each other and to production. 

Unlike its counterpart, the ideology of thought is far less stable. Ideas and rhetoric can change far faster than entrenched policy frameworks and factional interests. Multiple lines of justification can co-exist at the same time, even with some contradictions between them. The major constraint is that the ideology of thought must justify the actions of power, and significant enough changes in policy will demand a change in formal ideology. These two kinds of ideology may seem to be two sides of the same coin, the same sort of distinction as with theory and praxis; however, while there is a relationship between the two, it is an indirect one, because the ideology of thought is about the rhetorical and motivational justification of action, not the planning of action itself.

To understand the logical limits of an ideology, we have to come to an understanding of the necessary characteristics which define it. Ideologies don’t arise out of a vacuum. Rather, some kind of major upheaval collapses the previous set of norms and forces state elites to adopt new ones. This means that the existing ideological paradigm must have overcome the contradictions of the particular crisis that the old paradigm was unable to overcome. 

That this is a necessary condition is not necessarily intuitive; a ruling ideology presents itself as a neutral description of what is, often presenting itself as the natural description that any reasonable person would arrive at. One of the necessary conditions of ruling ideology is its very birth as a ruling ideology: the period when it went from being merely one idea among many to becoming the paradigm that situates society’s elites more generally. To do this it must have overcome the particular contradictions which brought the last paradigm crashing down. This is why a state’s ideology of action is generally upstream from its ideology of thought. New norms of action generally develop first, with formal intellectual justifications developing afterward. 

This is not too dissimilar from the concept of a paradigm shift in the field of philosophy of science, but there is one crucial distinction. Ideally, a scientific paradigm shift demands that the new theory also be capable of solving all the old problems; Einstein’s equations were capable of solving the same problems as Newton’s, as well as new ones. An ideological paradigm shift only needs to solve the problem of the latest crisis. Political regimes are quite capable of suspending contradictions. 

Despite this important distinction, our society’s ideologies of thought and action claim to be building on the epistemology of science. From a historical perspective, it’s easy to see why this occurred. Scientific epistemology played an important role in expanding human knowledge and creating the preconditions for the industrial revolution. Early social scientists tried to apply this same lens to human society itself. The increasingly prominent theories about human society necessarily lent themselves to naturalistic explanations of existing social institutions and distinctions, and thus to becoming ideologies—tools for justifying political power.

But once those theories obtained political power as ideologies, they now found themselves under the same constraints as their predecessors. The paradigm might have changed, but the political imperative of defending and reproducing the ruling paradigm remained. This produced a confused mixture of scientific and political epistemology, as the logic of politics, of the state, and even of simply reproducing society overrule any attempt of scientific objectivity. This is the situation of our own society, which is among the most advanced in this process. 

The Case of the Social Sciences

The history of paradigm shifts in mainstream social sciences is a history of responses to changes in material reality, rather than the conclusion of formal dialectical debates. Who wins and loses technical debates here has little bearing on the reproduction of elite ideology. In other words, they function just as we would expect if they operated in response to the logic of state ideology, despite the use of apparently scientific norms like theoretical models and peer review.

The result of the Cambridge Capital Controversy, a mid-century debate between British and American economists over the relationship between capital and production, is an excellent example of this. It also wasn’t the long debates over Say’s Law, which states that production itself creates demand, or over whether general overproduction was theoretically possible, that forced economists to reconsider their commitments to laissez-faire policy. Rather, it was the Great Depression. And unlike those in the rigorous physical sciences, when the British economist John Maynard Keynes put forward his general theory, he did not bother to solve the same problems which had been solved by Malthus: the problem of pre-industrial wage rates. Despite this, he cited Malthus as a pioneering critic of Say’s Law. Unlike Einstein with Newton, Keynes could use Malthus’s analysis opportunistically, without caring about whether his own model could solve the same theoretical problems.

This is not to deny that economic theories and academic work often focus on these older questions in addition to the new ones. It is only to say that the reason that Keynes could even call his theory a “general theory” was because the whole field of problems he was attempting to deal with was particular to the historical crises of his time. His was a general theory of markets in an industrialized capitalist economy, not of human economic activity as such. His theory only had to solve the problems of the current crisis, not those of previous paradigms overall. In other words, the debate played out according to the logic of state ideology, not that of science.

Economics is regarded as “the queen of the social sciences.” It is the only social science with its own White House office. It is this royal aspect of economics, its integration into the state apparatus, which defines its existence as a state ideology despite its naturalistic aspirations and apparent reliance on mathematical rigor.

This status reveals another one of the limits of maintaining a scientific epistemology in political power: the relationship between a ruling and an insurgent class ideology. This tension is best illustrated by the transition between classical political economy and modern economics. 

By 1890, Karl Marx’s Capital: Volume 1 had been out for about 23 years. From the perspective of its advocates, it had brought together the full sum of classical political economy’s knowledge up to that point, critiqued it, and brought it to its logical conclusions. It had found, in the basic assumptions and models of the field, its theory of value—why a car would be more expensive than an onion—the theory of exploitation, which awkwardly showed how profits were directly determined by the labor of workers. The theory of exploitation, which was founded upon assumptions that political economists previously understood to be naturally and scientifically true, became the justification for the attempted usurpation of the capitalist class by the proletariat.  

That same year, Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics was published in England. Historians later called this the victory of the marginal revolution. Several economists had independently come to the math of marginal utility, but it was only with Marshall that the labor theory of value was fully ejected from the mainstream. He accomplished this feat only by throwing out the question of value entirely. Marshall attacked the theory of exploitation put forward by Marx. But unlike the classical political economists, he no longer had to honor the assumptions on which it was based. Marshall’s Principles of Economics became the primary textbook for economics in the Anglosphere for generations. 

The marginal revolution never did solve the problem of value: to this day, mainstream economics struggles to mathematically describe, on a macro equilibrium level, why a car is worth more than an onion. Before this move, value theory was a central point of investigation for political economy. It was a major aspect of the field, going back to Adam Smith and David Ricardo. But when faced with an insurgent faction that made previously apolitical theories about economic value the basis for their claim to power, the ruling faction responded with a new paradigm within economics that stripped those precepts from the discipline. 

The social science of economics did not update in response to new information, but in order to sever those aspects of its work which had become tools for a dangerous ideological challenge. A ruling ideology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It must fend off threats from other factions too. And in order for those other factions to become the new ruling elite, they must have their ideological base of power in turn. 

There must be a distinction between the ruling ideology and the insurgent ideology. An insurgent faction needs its own justification for its rule and wealth. While we can discuss the content of a particular ideology, we cannot make any real assumption about insurgent ideology in general. All we can say is that the ruling class ideology cannot be identical to it and that the ruling ideology must necessarily reject whatever specific logic is central to this insurgent claim to power. It must attack whichever assumptions make the usurper’s rule appear like a natural consequence. 

The marginalist revolution is far from the only example in the modern era. The adoption of race science played out similarly after African slaves began to be taken from primarily Christian populations rather than “heathen” ones, as did the later, final rejection of that same race science when it was used to justify white insurgent movements like those defending segregation. A similar logic also played out during the suppression of independent worker organizations in China and the USSR following their initial role as supporters of those revolutions.

To the extent that scientific theories become relevant to the ideological justification of state power, they will start operating according to ideological logic, rather than scientific. Social science is especially vulnerable to this corruption because modern states have come to justify themselves in social-scientific terms. Physics and other hard sciences are much less prone to this problem because modern powers no longer justify themselves in terms of physical cosmologies—though they did in the middle ages, as illustrated by the debates around heliocentrism.

The Scientific Epistemology

Science, and the reproduction of scientific knowledge as a process, require a subject–object distinction. It is well-known that true objective knowledge is an impossibility. We can never come to terms with things in of themselves as doing so would require a God’s-eye view. 

To experience this world, it is necessary to have an ideology. This is true whether we are speaking of individuals, or society more generally. When we first come to grips with external objects, we understand them only as they relate to us. This goes far beyond babies lacking object permanence. When a young girl is asked to write down a description of or draw her family, she will not do so on the basis of purely material facts. Indeed, she may reduce their physical bodies to stick figures in art and to an odd adjective in prose. What she emphasizes instead is whatever attributes are central to their relationship with her.

The materiality of things, their existence independent of their relation to us, is something that we must slowly, painfully learn. As we do so, we begin to understand that there is more to the world than how it relates to us individually. This kicks off the process of gaining more objective knowledge. Scientific epistemology, unlike state ideology, exists to guard against the natural error modes to which our subjective minds are prone. But even when we attain relative objectivity, we are still ultimately dealing in concepts that shape our own perception and engagement with the world, and thus with a subjective perspective.

Naive empiricism, attempting to simply describe the world we perceive, would appear to give us access to an objective view—but let’s not forget that the stick figure drawing is actually such an empiricism. Similarly, measuring the minutes of angles of stars in the sky does not give us knowledge about what stars are as they exist out in the universe. We incorporate these measurements, as phenomena we experience, into our subjective frameworks.

Science is not beyond ideology; nothing is. And yet, scientific discourse accepts paradigm shifts differently than other kinds of discourse, specifically in a way that is designed to move beyond the subject. While modern political elites certainly have more use for science than elites of other eras, they are always on the outside of this process, looking in. While the social sciences are first in the business of creating a ruling ideology, they also attempt to produce knowledge about social reality that is valuable beyond the scope of justifying power. 

What of those elites that do take hold of the scientific content of the social sciences? Or even those that are able to overcome their individual biases? Take, for example, those who became aware of the fat-tailed nature of financial markets, such as Nassim Taleb, who gave warnings about the possibility of extreme events shaking the economy before the 2008 crash, and who were ignored by banks and governments. 

Or we might consider the fate of Michael Kalecki, a Marxist economist who, after independently discovering key insights of Keynesian economics, returned to his native Poland after it had fallen under communist rule and took on a job in the economic planning bureau. Kalecki was perhaps the foremost expert on state-socialist economic growth at the time. He immediately identified that the planning targets were so ludicrously ambitious that they would cause substantial waste and inefficiency and that the state could not meet them. He was quickly sidelined by more patriotic comrades who believed that by virtue of abolishing capitalism they would achieve miraculous levels of social wealth.

In these cases, both the overall system and the majority of elites within the system kept going with business as usual. This shouldn’t be surprising: the necessary aspects of their positions demanded the reproduction of the existing ideologies of thought and action. These took precedence over a potential update to the ideology of thought that had no spurring change in social conditions behind it. Those who care about the objective, scientific knowledge about society find that they have become gadflies the moment that their studies bring them to conclusions in opposition to the ruling ideology—the moment the ruling elite hears ideological bad news from them. 

We Must Build New Epistemologies

What are we as individuals able to do under these circumstances? Should we just complacently accept that there are some areas that elites will never be able to deal with rationally and objectively due to their specific ideological blindspots? This stance seems absurd on the face of it. What if a threat is actually existential in the long run? How do we come to terms with what real serious problems in our society? 

The professionals in our media and politics seem quite content that there is nothing left for us to do other than provide funding and support for the existing centers of expertise. Now, more than ever, it is unacceptable to try and push beyond existing paradigms of knowledge outside their walls. And it seems reasonable: the experts can point to contemporary social movements driven by various conspiracy theories as examples of what happens when people foolishly take matters into their own hands and ignore professional wisdom. The mantra of the Qanon conspiracy theorists, after all, was “do your own research.”

But the kind of democratization that conspiracy theories provide is still one of consumption of new and different facts, images, and narratives, not a full epistemic update. This approach is not so different from the kind offered by official media. The median conspiracy theorist only updates their sources, not their method. Rather than uncritically accepting whatever the talking head on cable news says, they now do the same with an alt-media personality, a WhatsApp chat, or a Facebook group. They function like naive empiricists, not like scientists. Instead of updating their theory of society in response to information, they absorb information as it fits their subjective lens.

It’s not enough to do our own research. We must also do our own epistemology. As individuals engaged in the world around us, we have to build our personal theories of knowledge. This means investigating the subjectivity of those who present information to us and investigating our own subjectivity and biases, just as much as it entails seeking out new information. 

It is precisely in the making of accomplished facts that individuals can have their impact felt. To take a larger example, consider the history of the Volcker shock. The decision by Paul Volcker’s Federal Reserve to dramatically raise interest rates in the heavy inflation of the 1970s is exactly one of these accomplished facts. It also had a lot more to do with Paul Volcker himself than with the structural forces moving society at the time. The tepid policy failures to curb inflation that had preceded him could have continued and the offensive by capital against labor that accompanied the shock could have happened regardless, in response to the more general crisis of low profitability. Moments of crisis like this necessarily create historical contingencies, creating opportunities for individuals to leave a broader impact on history, for better or for worse. They can move beyond the limits of a given systemic logic on the strength of their own private epistemology.

Any attempt at a more objective study of society immediately creates questions about what issues are worth intervening on and how someone could do so. This includes the question of how we could move beyond our own paradigm in the face of an existential threat. Historically, this either means finding a way for the elite class to transcend itself—as in the case of the German nobles and Soviet nomenklatura who refounded themselves on capitalism—or to take the side of a usurper faction.

Some intellectuals who see themselves aligned with the lower classes and oppressed populations believe that there is an inherent higher rationality possible in their thought and potential political power. Being out of power, they assume that they are free of its ideological distortions. However, this is an optimistic error. When you are among the ruled, you are even more subject to the ideology of the ruling class; when you usurp the ruling elites and replace them, you are then subject to the systemic logic of having to reproduce society and your own ideology of justification. 

Even if you have somehow sustained an existence outside of regular social reproduction, as many social critics have through patronage or wealth, you are not immune to ideology. Your outsideness can just as easily blind you to the material nature of reproduction and economic necessity. There is no easily identified position in society that exists as a point of easily successful resistance to ideology and power. Likewise, there is no easy substitute for scientific epistemology in the work of statecraft.

You, as an individual, are also not immune to ideology and propaganda. Your personal biases are just as difficult to isolate seeing as they come from the same place as rational thought. There is no guarantee that your intervention in society would be any more rational than the status quo, even if you got the opportunity. 

But this doesn’t mean effort towards a paradigm-transcending superior understanding of society is futile.

Individuals and small groups, while ultimately bound to their own perspective, are able to overcome existing ideology. If we do the hard work with care and good judgment, our private discourses can become a coherent alternative paradigm. Any alternative paradigm will still be faced with the same structural constraints, but it can handle them better by being more consciously careful in how it works around them.

For example, just as modern states mostly transcend physical cosmology as a line of ideological justification, future states could transcend social science by drawing on other claims for legitimacy. Such a state could then admit a far harder social science—one that it could operationalize to solve problems and understand our subjective historical position—just as today’s hard physical sciences are oriented to investigation and problem solving rather than political justification.

Even in the absence of an established regime in that pattern, its very possibility is a powerful framing device for individuals and small groups to ground their own theories of society.

By studying society and our own limits, and paying careful attention to our epistemic foundations, it becomes possible, though far from guaranteed, to overcome established ideology and make our own superior judgments and paradigms. No one else can do it for us.

Nicolas Villarreal works as an analyst for a government contractor and formerly worked in federal banking regulation. He is a graduate of the College of William and Mary, and author of the novel Caeruleus.