Hiram Caton to Catt, 15 March 1996



Letter from Hiram Caton

March 15, 1996.

Dear Ivor,



As for the politics of knowledge, I agree that money and access to money is a key factor in keeping things as they are and in promoting such changes as occur. But I think that you under-play prestige and loyalty to the master's ideas. Prestige figures in science have the same function as charismatic figures in politics and religion, or celebrities in entertainment. They are shibboleths (or brand names) that serve as recognition signs enabling persons who don't know one another personally yet to recognise themselves as members of the same science church. This in turn promotes cooperation (and prevents cooperation with heathens), and it figures in climbing the social ladder of the church. Science climbers like social climbers frequently invoke the name and memory of the guru, to signal their own orthodoxy and trustworthiness. They also hate what the patriarch hates. All this is a phenomenon of animal sociability as ethologists understand it. Suggestions and imitation are the feedback/feedforward loops that bind members to the church.

In some fields the dominance of a church is broken by fission. Psychology, for example, isn't a single field. It's about 80 fields. Neurobiologists, behaviourists, psychologists of perception, Darwinian psychology, therapeutic types, humanistic psychology, etc. Each field develops a scathing socio-psychology of rivals that brands them as irrational and iniquitous. For examples of science orthodoxy in full cry, see B F Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity (and just about anything else he wrote) or Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene and the endless replication of the book in a series of articles and books. To appreciate how profound the influence of prestige is, you have to see these guys in action. At conferences and other gatherings, the adulation of lesser mortals arms them with the aura of invulnerability and infallibility. When they take the podium, they speak with confidence that their words are golden, that their aspersions on heterodoxy are so many arrows in the careers of dissenters, that their crimes in the service of the cause will be applauded.

At a conference where he was the keynote speaker, Richards Dawkins was hailed up by a heathen (me) who pursued him on the question whether the selfish gene is a metaphor. Pushed to exasperation, he said: "I say it's a metaphor to defend myself [against ridicule of unbelievers] but I mean it's really selfish." This was an admission of deceit in the communication of scientific ideas. In the ethics to which scientists formally aubscribe, that's a capitaI crime. Did the audience respond in horror and dismay? On the contrary, it broke into resounding applause. About six months after the event, I wrote to some of those who were present, asking whether they recalled hearing Dawkins say that he believes genes to be really selfish. Those who responded said that they couldn't recall it. The crime never happened. Very convenient for conscience. No need for devious casuistry.

That prestige, mystagogy (especially the mystagogy of "Eureka!"), tamper tantrums, and shamanism (rife in medical science) are major elements of scientific persuasion can be gleaned from observation and biographical confessions. But there's no method for documenting it; it all happens at the level of interpersonal interaction. The written records of scientific controversies leave permanent tracks of these processes at work, but they do not display the venom and hatred as it actually happened, and that's where souls imprint the prestige, shamanism, tantrums etc.

To put this in terms of psychology. Every science church erects a boundary between rationality and irrationality. The boundary marks out the territory of mandatory, permitted, and heretic opinion. That there is no salvation outside the church means that your career is in ruins if you cross the line. Since self-image is bound up with career (= social success), career ruin spells social death. Inside any given church it's not permitted to notice that all churches use the same 'mechanisms' to consolidate and enforce orthodoxy. If you sin, and view churches comparatively, it's easily seen that they all use the same non-rational tricks to effect cohesion and fighting trim. If we sin more and compare culturally, we see that the repertoire is indistinguishable from the religious repertoire of miracles and special effects. If we abandon ourselves to really criminal ideas, we see that animals use these tricks too. Bottom line: if institutional science operated exclusively by reason, it would not be social or institutional. Alternatively, all social coming and going operates on the basis of sub-rational propensities and routines.

All best wishes,

[signed] Hiram Caton

Book by Hiram Caton; "The Politics of Progress"




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