The new science wars

I happen to be reading the book Wittgenstein’s Poker, which was an infamous but brief exchange between two philosophical heavy weights, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. I’ve meant to read it for years, and now that I found it for under $5 it seemed timely to learn a bit more about the old kind of science wars where battles were over things like whether and how language and social practices affect the objects of scientific inquiry.

Ah, those were the days.

Today it is more likely that the battle lines are drawn as a war about whether or not to do science at all. Dan Farber has just such a piece over on his blog, which details how an assessment of “peer review” for NSF projects seems more of a thinly veiled political exercise.

Dan’s piece sounds similar to the stories coming out of Canada: the general hostility between politics and science and the on-going barb’s being thrown at the Prime Minister for accidentally coining a phrase when he warned we should not “commit sociology.”

What’s odd about this?

The first thing is that the back and forth, “he said she said” about science and politics (such as in this interview probing the war of words between James Hansen (climate scientist) and Joe Oliver (Canadian Minister of Natural Resources) over the KXL Pipeline) misses the deeper issues in the fit of science to democratic institutions. That the two are commensurable (at least the current types of science and democracy) seems far from guaranteed. That would seem a more interesting debate to have.

The second is that there is a widely acknowledged strategic shift in what sort of projects fall under new funding priorities. It seems odd to harp on this point, especially since many of the disciplines themselves grew up in exactly this way – geography, for instance, was hand-maiden to the military for a long time. Sociology to statecraft, and so on. At any rate, it seems odd to distance the two in an arbitrary way now.


  1. Government is being stripped to what the people who can afford to buy politicians and regulators consider its core functionality. For neoliberal centrists, government’s only legitimate purpose is to enable immediate upward transfer of wealth. Funding science is about a future those wealthy old men don’t expect to live to see.

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