George Walford: Ideology in Science

In the orthodox view ideology appears as a distorting influence which shrivels under the hard light of science, but systematic ideology suggests otherwise. It shows science to be as much an ideological activity as politics, for here, too, the course of action depends upon the assumptions accepted, and assumptions are the units of which ideologies are constructed.

Close to the heart of science, pure, cold, and free from any suspicion of whimsy, stands Euclidean geometry, setting out to elucidate the implications of a few “axioms.” These, being defined as propositions accepted without demonstration, are unquestionably assumptions. Systematic ideology bases its claim for attention largely on the proposition that when the assumptions change the behaviour changes, and this applies even in this most scientific of sciences, for when geometers start by making assumptions (adopting axioms) other than those of Euclid they come up with non-Euclidean geometries. The suggestion that assumptions, and hence ideology, play a governing part in even the hardest of sciences is less wild than it may at first appear.

The professional behaviour of scientists generally is affected not only by axioms, adopted with intent, but also by assumptions which have been accepted for the most part unknowingly. The physical and biological sciences study different objects and this seems at first sight to be the reason for the differences between, say, ballistics and biology; bullets and rats have to be studied in different ways. But this factor can be eliminated by directing the two sciences towards a common object, and even then the difference between their approaches persists. Physics does not normally study living creatures but it can do so, predicting the amount of water a given man will displace if submerged and the impact when he falls from a known height. A psychological report is unlikely to mention these features, speaking instead of (for example) his tendency to associate with members of one or the other sex and suggesting reasons for this.

The difference between the two reports originates in the different starting assumptions accepted by the two sciences. Physics treats the man as (assumes him to be) a material body, that is to say, something known to occupy a specific volume of space and move in a straight line at a constant speed unless affected by outside influences. Some schools of psychology, on the other hand, assume him to be largely self-motivating, his behaviour only approximately predictable. The approach taken by each science results from the assumptions with which it begins, but it is unlikely that many of the practitioners appreciate this; the assumptions they begin with, assumptions which set the course of their work, are adopted for the most part unknowingly.

If we are thoroughly to understand these sciences, and the parts they may be expected to play in society, we need to know how these different assumptions come about, how they are related to each other, how stable they are likely to prove and, at least in a general way, the numbers of people they are likely to attract. These questions come within the province of systematic ideology.

Science stands as the stronghold of clear-headed rationality. When the influence of ideology can be traced within this fortress there will be small reason for surprise at its appearance elsewhere, and enquiry shows that in each of the activities that go to constitute society the conclusions reached and the courses of action followed vary with the assumptions adopted. Industry and commerce, religion, education, philosophy, medicine, the police and the military, in fact all the institutions, occupations, functions and organised activities that go to constitute a society, become more readily and more thoroughly comprehensible when related to the series of major ideologies.

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PEOPLE are illogical? If so, that shows the limitations of logic, not of people.

AN OLD Yiddish saying has it that if the rich could pay other people to die for them the poor could make a wonderful living.

DIALECTIC: A sadist is one who is kind to masochists.

from Ideological Commentary 28, July 1987.