September 19, 2017

Science and social control

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Chapter 4 of The Stable Society: its structure and control: Towards a Social Cybernetics, Wadebridge Ecological Centre, UK, 1978

We live in an Age of Faith, not in God but in science. If most of us are still capable of facing the mounting problems of the world today with relative equanimity, it is because we sincerely believe that science will provide us with the means of solving them, just as we would have expected God to do were we living half a millennium earlier.

Our scientists are functionally the priests of our industrial society. It is only they who are capable of mobilising, for our purposes, the limitless powers of science, of acting thereby as the intermediaries in our relationship with this new and formidable deity.

It is not surprising that their writings are imbued with an aura of sanctity previously reserved for the holy texts of the established religions. If a proposition is classified as ‘scientific’, then it must be true, indeed incontestable. If, on the other hand, something is branded as ‘unscientific’ then it must be the work of a charlatan. This has provided the scientific establishment with the power to prevent any undesired deviation from scientific orthodoxy, just as, in the same way, the Catholic establishment of the Middle Ages would excommunicate any heretic whose teachings were a challenge to their authority.

Indeed, one finds among the annals of the scientific world some which are strangely reminiscent of Medieval witch-hunts. Consider, for instance, the response of the scientific establishment to the publication of Limits to Growth.76 It was branded as unscientific by both Nature and Science, the world’s two most prestigious scientific journals.

In Britain the inquisition was led by Lord Zuckerman, once chief scientist to the British Government. It is easy to see how he exploited the terms ‘scientific’ and ‘unscientific’ to discredit this very important work in the following outburst in a speech delivered in Stockholm during the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment: “Our newspapers,” he proclaimed,

“urged on by a plethora of pseudo-scientific books, articles and speeches are filled with items which warn us that irreversible damage is being done to our physical environment . . . I have referred to a book Limits to Growth which has been hailed . . . mainly by the scientifically uninitiated as a scientific statement about man’s environmental problems . . . for my part I have no hesitation in saying that I am among those professional students of environmental problems who dismiss the book as unscientific nonsense.”77

What is Science?

In view of this, it is clearly important that one should know just what ‘science’ is, and precisely how one determines what constitutes a ‘scientific’ proposition.

‘Science’ does not appear to have ever been adequately defined. In general, it seems to involve the accumulation of knowledge. But what is knowledge? Here we encounter a major snag: to answer this question we must leave what is generally regarded as the realm of ‘exact science’, and enter that of epistemology or the theory of knowledge.

However, for scientists to regard epistemology as being outside the scope of science is to renounce the responsibility for examining the assumptions on which their work is based, that is, for determining to what extent it is justified.

This task is delegated to people who work outside the field of science and know very little about it, and who, like most specialists today, tend to regard their field of study as largely autonomous, i.e. as something that can be studied in isolation from everything else. As a result, one finds little in current epistemological writings that can serve to provide a theoretical basis for modern science—a lamentable situation. As Einstein wrote:

“Epistemology without contact with science becomes an empty scheme, science without epistemology—in so far as it is thinkable at all—primitive and muddled.”

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What is Knowledge?

Knowledge is clearly some sort of information. To qualify as knowledge, however, this information must display certain characteristics. According to Ayer, who appears to be one of the principal spokesmen for the modern school of empiricism, it must be true, we must know it to be true, and for the right reasons. This implies, above all, that knowledge is conscious information of some sort. This is presumably the only type of information that can be studied empirically. Also, it is by basing one’s behaviour exclusively on such information that one is regarded as acting ‘rationally’.

If epistemologists knew a little about such subjects as cybernetics, ethology and psychology, they would realise that conscious information plays by no means a determining role in the behaviour of even the most sophisticated members of the species Homo rapiens. To understand the use of conscious information without reference to that of unconscious information is simply not possible. In fact to understand the use of information in the brain is difficult without examining it as part of a general theory of information, which must mean examining the way it is built up and made use of by systems at all levels of organisation. Such a study would reveal that information in the brain is built up and used in very much the same way as it is in a gene-pool or a fertilised egg and that there is in fact only one way of organising and using information among natural systems.

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The reason for this is that information is built up for one purpose only, and that is to constitute a model of the relationship between the system of which it is part and its particular environment. Information is, in fact, of no value by itself as a basis for behaviour. To identify a technological device as being a nuclear power station, for instance, is of no value if one has not previously built up a model of the relationship between a nuclear power station, the biosphere of which we are a part, and the rest of the technosphere of which it is part. Only in this way can one understand what are its implications and hence how we should react towards these diabolical contrivances. It is a serious illusion to suppose that the mere fact of attaching a label to something provides information about it.

If information is only organised for a single purpose, this is also true of the model of which it is part. A model is only built up for the purpose of serving as a basis for the control of a system’s behaviour towards its environment.

This whole notion of control is largely ignored by epistemologists as well as many scientists who have implicitly adopted the empiricist position. There is a good reason for this, of course. If a system is controlled, this must mean that it is goal-directed or purposive, for what else can control mean but to keep something on its correct course? And how can it be kept on its correct course if it doesn’t have one? The goal, needless to say, cannot be pin-pointed in space-time. It is simply that course along which discontinuities and their corrections are reduced to a minimum. By taking such a course a system is capable of maintaining its basic structure in the face of environmental challenges, i.e. of remaining stable.

It is also by taking such a course that free energy is reduced to a minimum over a long period. In this way the system remains in four-dimensional equilibrium with its environment. This principle of directiveness is irreconcilable with empiricist philosophy, since it cannot be induced on the basis of observation, i.e. according to what empiricists regard as the only legitimate method for building up knowledge. Also, it justifies a methodology for building up knowledge which is in competition with induction. I refer to deduction from the general principle cited. Thus one could postulate that to maintain its stability in specific environmental conditions a system must be able to achieve a given set of sub-goals, those that, in the circumstances, enable it to maintain its stability. A specific behavioural act could therefore be explained in terms of its contribution to the achievement of a sub-goal, and judged in accordance with its ability to do so. This is, in fact, the cybernetic as opposed to the reductionist approach.

To reject the directivity principle, however, is to reject the very principle of organising information, and hence, among other things, the possibility of science. The reason for this is very simple. Information is built up out of data, the raw materials of information. Data, as we shall see, are interpreted in the light of a system’s model of its relationship with its environment. They then constitute information. This means putting order into what might previously have appeared to be random data. This is only adaptive if this order corresponds to something, i.e. if it reflects an ordered situation. Since behaviour is, by its very nature, dynamic, i.e. involves change, this change must be orderly, which means that it must be heading in a given direction (see Appendix II).

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The Mechanism of Control

Cybernetics has probably contributed more than any other discipline to the unification of science by demonstrating that control, at all levels of organisation, is achieved in the same way—that, in fact, the basic cybernetic model is of universal application.

Data are obtained, transduced and interpreted. A hypothesis or model is postulated and projected back onto the data, followed by a modified hypothesis and a further projection. Each time the hypothesis is made to fit better with the general model of the system—by modifying either the hypothesis or the general model. This can be repeated over and over again, and in this way there will be a continual monitoring of a series of ever better hypotheses formulated after successive accretions of information. This process gives rise to a damped system, i.e. one in which errors are progressively reduced. If behaviour is taken as tending towards a position of four-dimensional equilibrium, i.e. along an equilibrium course, which we can represent by a straight line, it will in fact take the form of a series of oscillations of ever-diminishing size—tending towards the reduction of errors, and associated with the development of an ever better representation of the system. On the other hand, if this mechanism does not function properly, i.e. if the system gets out of control, then the oscillations will increase in size. This of course cannot continue indefinitely; the discontinuities would eventually become insupportable and the system would collapse—just as is happening to our society today.

At this point it might be worth noting that, for two million years or so, human social systems displayed considerable stability. Unstable social systems appear to have been largely confined to recent times, i.e. to the period following the Neolithic revolution.11 Even during this period, traditional societies which have succeeded in remaining outside the orbit of mainstream civilisations have continued to display considerable stability. Such stability can only be achieved in one way, and that is by the operation of a control mechanism of the type described above.

This mechanism is a society’s culture, of which an essential component is a specific worldview, comprising a model of the society’s relationship with its environment, a corresponding goal-structure, and a means of achieving it.78

Science appears to be an attempt to replace the cultural information embodied in traditional worldviews, that is, information which is very different in the case of each traditional society, by means of a single organisation of information, which should theoretically serve each of them equally well. It is an attempt, in fact, to substitute objective for subjective information as a basis for control.

Such a substitution has many implications, which I shall look into later. First of all let us consider what can conceivably justify it.

Epistemologically, the answer is fairly obvious. Traditional information does not qualify as ‘knowledge’. It is only true vis-à-vis a largely subconscious and very subjective model and not vis-à-vis a conscious objective one.

It involves reference to such things as gods and spirits whose presence is empirically unverifiable, and it establishes a strange set of cause-and-effect relationships between man’s ritual activities, the behaviour of these gods and spirits, and day-to-day biological, social, and ecological events, a procedure which is regarded as ‘irrational’.

If cultural information is organised subjectively, it is assumed that it must provide a society with a very restricted view of its environment, only that which it has so far required for its own specific adaptive purposes. If information be organised objectively, on the other hand, then it will provide a faithful reproduction of the outside world, which should serve as the basis for a much wider range of adaptations, enabling a society, in this way, to adapt to all possible eventualities.

For this to be so, at least two conditions must clearly be satisfied. The first is that relevant objective information can actually be obtained by our scientists and organised so as to constitute an effective model of a society’s relationship with its environment. The second is that individuals and the societies into which they are organised are actually able to make use of this information to determine their relationship with their environment. In this paper I shall show that neither of these conditions are satisfied and that for the purpose of social control objective information cannot be substituted for the subjective information contained in traditional culture patterns.

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The first obvious reason why scientific knowledge cannot replace traditional cultural knowledge is that science is reductionist. It seeks to understand the behaviour of a complex system by examining its parts in isolation from each other. Unfortunately, this cannot enable one to understand a complex system which is more than the sum of its component parts. This must be so since a system is above all an organisation and its specific character is not only due to its components but to the way in which they are organised.

Thus, if it is possible to build up a great diversity of natural systems from a limited number of components, this is due to the extraordinary difference in the behaviour of these components when used in different ways, i.e. when combined in a particular way with other components. In other words, a system is very much more than the sum of its component parts. It is for this reason that studying one in isolation from the larger system of which it is part provides very little information on the way it will behave in any conditions, save the artificial ones of the laboratory in which the study is being conducted, and in which they alone occur. Indeed, isolated systems do not exist in nature, any more than do phoenixes or unicorns—and this important fact makes nonsense of most scientific research carried out today.

To illustrate this thesis, let us consider why we understand so little of human nutrition. As Ross Hall,79 one of the few ecologically orientated nutritionists of today has pointed out, the function of a vitamin or of any other nutrient cannot be understood simply from its chemical composition. Its action, like that of all the other constituents of our food is very different in different environments, i.e. when used in a different way. This means that when flour, for instance, is refined and nutrients are lost, their subsequent reintroduction provides no compensation for this loss. For whole-wheat is a system, which means that it is more than the sum of its component parts, and by enriching the devitalised flour, we do not restore its lost nutritive value.

This may be confirmed by the fact that, though in Canada, practically all the bread sold is enriched with thiamine and iron, a recent study by Nutrition Canada has revealed that a vast majority of Canadians suffer from thiamine and iron deficiency.

The fact is that, once we have broken down the wholewheat into its constituent parts, we are incapable of putting it together again in the correct way. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, as Ross Hall 79 puts it, cannot put Humpty together again, and what is more, this is true of any natural system which we may have irresponsibly taken apart. Thus, if one allows a family to disintegrate into its constituent parts, one cannot reconstitute it by forcing its members who have grown up in isolation from each other, to come back and live together again. The basic interrelationships required to hold a family together cannot be easily restored. Still less, of course, can one recreate a biological organism that has disintegrated into its component cells or molecules.

If we cannot reconstitute a natural system once it has disintegrated, nor can we provide a substitute that satisfies both the countless requirements of the smaller systems, which compose it, or of the larger one, of which it is part. Whatever we introduce in its stead, in fact, can only be expected to satisfy a minimal proportion of these requirements. A good illustration of this principle is our attempt, as part of the developmental process, to substitute bottled cows’ milk for human milk. Needless to say it is always easy to find experts, who, on the basis of a simplistic notion of human nutrition, assure us of its superiority. One reason often given for this is that it has a higher protein content. As Crawford 80 points out, however, a calf needs more protein because, at birth, it grows more quickly than does a human baby. Much more important is the fact that cows’ milk contains less polyunsaturated fats which are required for building up brain tissue than does human milk—enough in fact to satisfy the requirements of a calf, but not that of a human baby whose brain grows much more quickly. There are a host of other reasons why cows’ milk is a poor substitute for human milk. For instance, it contains an almost equal ratio of calcium and phosphorus, which is undesirable for a human baby, who requires more calcium. The level of sodium in cows’ milk is too high and may give rise to primary hypertension. The low level of copper in cows’ milk has been related to the reduced transportation of iron and hence contributes to the iron deficiency associated with anaemia, which is common among North American infants. In human milk too, the proportion of long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and short chain fatty acids is that which most favours their absorption and conversion to energy in the human baby.

Other characteristics of human milk also favour the necessary absorption of palmitic acid, which appears not to be the case in cows’ milk. The ratio of whey to casein protein is also higher in human milk than in cows’ milk, which minimises the amount of nitrogen that must be excreted by the liver and kidneys.

Furthermore, the gastro-intestinal tract of a baby fed on human milk is colonised by the bacteria lactobacillis bifidis. The important role played by this bacillus seems to have been grossly underestimated. Its presence appears to be essential to assure the absorption of protein and other nutrients in the milk. In addition, there is ever more reason to believe that the important relationship between the mother and infant which develops during breastfeeding has a significant effect on the child’s digestive capacities. Equally important is the role played by human milk in assuring immunisation to disease. Certain antibodies (IgG) are transmitted via the placenta which is permeable to them. This is not so with other antibodies (IgA and IgM). This means that babies are born without immunity to the diseases against which the latter provide protection. This includes those of gastro-enteric origin, which happen to be the leading causes of mortality among babies throughout the world. However, these antibodies IgA and IgM happen to be present in human milk in sufficient concentrations to provide protection against many gastro-enteric diseases such as those caused by E. Coli, and also against polio, though it appears that this immunisation only occurs if the corresponding antigens are present in the child’s immediate environment. (See Note #1.)

As Katz and Young 81 point out, it is likely that a real synergy exists between the nutritional, immunological, psycho-endocrinological and maternal responses, which foster infant development. It should be clear that as a result of millions of years of evolution breast-feeding has come to satisfy a large range of subtle requirements for both the infant, as part of the family system, and of the family as part of its ecosystem. It is indeed truly preposterous to suppose that it can be advantageously replaced by feeding an infant milk designed by evolution to satisfy a very different set of requirements—those of a baby ungulate—and contained in a bottle designed to provide but a crude imitation of its mother’s teat.

Yet this is the sort of notion that is shaped on the basis of modern scientific method which is innocent of any theoretical concern with the structure and function of the natural systems which have co-evolved as the interrelated parts of the biosphere.

By concentrating on the parts, in fact, science does not enable one to understand the nature of the whole. Often it does not even enable one to realise that there is a whole. Thus until recently our scientists ignored the very notion of an ecosystem. If specific systems are part of a larger one, it means that they are subjected to a particular set of constraints which will enable them to act, for certain purposes at least, as a unit. Our failure to recognise that we are part of a larger unit called an ecosystem implies that we are totally unaware of a whole set of constraints that must be observed if we are not to destroy that larger system. Even more astonishing is the fact that the very existence of a society as a natural system is still not generally understood by the scientific community. It is widely supposed that any group of heterogeneous people can constitute a society so long as they occupy the same area. This provides a rationale for today’s pathological concern with the individual as opposed to the family and the community.

The notion that a society is a behavioural unit in its own right, a natural system in the sense that a biological organism is a natural system, is accepted only by a few thinking people who are familiar with the functioning of the tribal societies in which man has been organised during 99 per cent of his tenancy of this planet. Yet this notion is unquestionably correct, and our failure to accept it means that we ignore yet another set of extraordinarily important constraints to which human behaviour is, in normal conditions, subjected.

Thus the nature of the social problems such as crime, delinquency, alcoholism, drug addiction, etc., that our industrial society is suffering from, cannot conceivably be understood unless it is first understood that society is a natural system which normally provides its members with the requisite social environment. Only then can these ills be correctly interpreted as the pathological manifestations of social disintegration and, from the point of view of the victim, as the symptoms of social deprivation. Otherwise, these ills will continue to be interpreted as the signs of material deprivation—a convenient diagnosis in a society geared to the production of material goods, but one which, by promoting further industrialisation, and thereby further social disintegration, can only serve to aggravate the problems it is supposed to solve.

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