Monday, September 7, 2015


215. Ideology, power and knowledge

Ideology loads actions and knowledge with strongly held, prejudicial convictions of interest, purpose, and perspective. It used to be thought that ideology may be avoided, certainly in science, in disinterested, objective knowledge. That is an illusion, according to Nietzsche and Foucault, and I agree. Is every knowledge ideology, then? I don’t think so.

Ideology immunizes itself against critical discourse, blinding itself, deliberately or not. While knowledge is inevitably biased it can yet be open to debate, pursuing what earlier in this blog (item 104) I called warranted assertibility, where one accepts the obligation to substantiate one’s view with arguments and facts, even though  those are never objectively or ‘rock-bottom’ true. So, if there is anything left in the way of a universal principle of scientific morality, it is that.

Karl Popper laid down the principle that scientists should seek falsification, not corroboration of theory. Instead of looking out for facts that confirm, they should look out for ‘forbidden events’ at odds with the theory.

In fact, in science there is bias, dodging forbidden events and criticism, posturing, clamour, painting caricatures, ridiculing the opposition, setting up straw men to flog, in order to draw attention, or to protect established reputation and authority. So, Nietzsche and Foucault are right to say that knowledge entails battle, fight for power.

Counter to Popper’s scientific morality, in fact scientists routinely seek confirmation rather than falsification. 

Progress in knowledge is seldom up to an openness of the individual scientist to criticism or falsification, and more a matter of battle, in rivalry and competition, in arenas of publication and debate, within and between disciplines. Scientists try to falsify not their own theories but those of colleagues.

That may not be so bad, but the process is affected, indeed shaped, by positions and roles of authority, in editorial teams and boards, and by dominant styles and practices of research and publication .

Presently, scientific authority derives from one’s number of citations or publications in highly cited journals, and then gives access to positions of gatekeeping in editorial positions of journals. Countries with a large audience, such as the US, yield the advantage of a larger basis for citation. One gets cited more often as an American. People gain advantage by investing, diligently and diplomatically, in positions in networks, building on and citing the work of the ‘top dogs’, the gatekeepers, imitating their style and acquiring their patronage. 

Top dogs serve as role models, and dominant styles get established. For example, from the US, the norm of producing ‘single-issue’ papers, not ranging too widely, going for incremental, recognizable and easy to place results, rather than ambitious breakthroughs, and aiming for the high-impact journals, which often means US journals. In the rat race for careers Europeans argue that ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’.

Top economic journals select according to the ‘spirit of geometry’ enshrined in mainstream economics. I once submitted a paper to such a journal and received the following one line of response: ‘This paper does not maximize utility subject to constraints, therefore it is not science’.     

 Here, science indeed comes perilously close to ideology.