Thursday, May 26, 2011

Think politics and science don't mix?

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the theories of Charles Darwin began to have a profound influence on all aspects of academic inquiry. They also were adopted to political theory by proponents such as Darwin's half-cousin Francis Galton (1822 - 1911, pictured above).

Notoriously, Darwinian theory had a clear and direct influence on the eugenics movement, not only in countries that later became fascist such as Germany and Italy but also in Great Britain and America. Recently, American scholar Bradley Hart has uncovered groundbreaking new evidence of the connections between British proponents of eugenics and the more sinister outgrowth of the same Darwinian ideology in Nazi Germany.

Mr. Hart has published previous work exploring the connections between the British eugenics movement and the political ideology prior to and after the First World War, such as this paper entitled "Public and Private Memory of the First World War and the British Eugenics Movement," in which he explores the impact of disciples of Galton such as Karl Pearson and Benjamin Kidd and their later followers after the First World War and leading up to the Second.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this ugly chapter in human history is the extent to which political aims and political theories of the day influence which research and academic inquiry is funded, encouraged, and privileged.

From the perspective of history, we can look back at those misguided and vile policies and wonder how academia could have been influenced to such a degree by the agendas and political ideas then in fashion. Yet are we so naive as to think that the same thing does not take place today, albeit with a different set of ideas that are currently politically dominant? In other words, looking at that period -- while painful to do -- provides us an opportunity to see the process at work, which is much more difficult for us to notice in our own time because, like the proverbial fish who does not see the water, we are surrounded by the assumptions currently in vogue to a degree that they become almost invisible.

We have already noted the indisputable fact that modern academia can appear to be very open to freedom of inquiry in directions which support the reigning orthodoxy, while completely marginalizing and silencing discourse that is not conducive to the foundations of the existing paradigm. These powerful biases act in exactly the same way as the biases of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, except that the biases are now different. Analysis which suggests, based on the evidence, that ancient contact may have taken place between cultures from Europe and cultures of the Americas will be ignored, or even attacked as racist (for an example of such attacks, see the one discussed and linked in this previous post).

The more these blind spots are ignored, the more powerful they are. If we acknowledge the fact that we have biases and presuppositions, and try to remain conscious of what they might be, we can be more attuned to potential missteps.

There is a reason why almost every crime story features an outsider (or group of outsiders, in the case of Scooby Doo and the gang) who come onto the scene and notice clues that the "authorities" have overlooked. The outsiders do not share the same assumptions and mental framework that inform the analysis and conclusions of the representatives of the establishment. Therefore, they can actually see things that are invisible to the authorities, even if those pieces of evidence are in plain sight (just like the fish and the water).

Because we are so far removed from the hideous dogmas that informed the eugenics movement in western Europe and the US at the dawn of the last century, we can see the "water" that they could not. However, we should realize that we are not so very different than they were, and that the same process is taking place today. Then, we can ask ourselves what biases and assumptions dominate the thinking in this day and age, a hundred years later, and ask ourselves what sorts of blind spots and incorrect conclusions our current paradigm is most likely to create.