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Make society work happily

Science’s brave new world

Cognisant of my solemn duty to observe balance ((See Unspeak, p226.)) in my daily gobbets of fast-typed sarcasm, I thought it only fair to point out that, while some non-scientists say some silly things about science, so do some scientists! Here, for example, is Randy ((No, I’m not going to go there. Oh wait, I just did?)) Olson, a marine biologist and author of a new book entitled Don’t Be Such A Scientist: ((The book is addressed to other scientists, rather than to AN Wilson or “Melanie Phillips”.))

With the knowledge of science we can solve resource limitations, ((What, by magicking more stuff out of nothing?)) cure diseases, and make society work happily.

I suppose (disclaimer: I Am Not An Evil Authoritarian Psychopharmacologist) that science could make society work happily by drugging everyone into a state of smiling docility such that they accept their dystopian lives of hopeless slave-labour. But this really would be science fascism in intense and terrifying form!

Possibly such a nightmarish Nazi-drug-overlords-Arbeit-macht-frei scenario is not what the author intended. But then, how exactly can “knowledge of science” by itself “make society work happily”? Isn’t the claim just nonsense on stilts? And if scientists really do know a way to make society work happily, why the hell aren’t they telling us? Are they holding the world to ransom until we buy them shinier laboratories?

The point of Olson’s book is that scientists need to learn to communicate better in order to “arouse the interest of the broader audience”. No doubt a laudable aim in general. But I fear that the promise that science can make society work happily is too arousing for its own good.

What kind of scientistic fantasy arouses you, readers?

  1. 1  Dave Weeden  November 6, 2009, 9:40 am 

    I think you’re thinking of science as meaning purely the hard, physical sciences, but it was used to include sociology, psychology, economics, etc. There is a science of happiness. There are methods of comparing the happiness of different nation states. (I can’t say how good these are; but it does seem that, roughly, equality makes people happier.) There are psychological-philosophical-economic studies of morality, which seems to be more or less innate: it’s not inculcated into children by stories about bogeymen getting them if they’re not good. We can learn better methods of education. Schools are less brutal than they were. That alone seems to be a happier state than before.

    Can we make society work happily? I think friction can be played up or down. It was played up by the Nazis; it’s played down in most of the West at present. Some companies are better places to work than others. Which ones and why can be studied, and those methods can be spread. I proposing a sort of evolutionary model: good things survive and spread, bad things die out. Science can speed this up by analysing things less equivocally; by having a more concrete language less liable to spin.

    I’m not putting this as well as I could, but, no, I don’t think there’s any sinister Arbeit Macht Frei whatsit about Randy Olsen’s optimism.

  2. 2  Torquil Macneil  November 6, 2009, 10:35 am 

    “I suppose … that science could make society work happily by drugging everyone into a state of smiling docility such that they accept their dystopian lives of hopeless slave-labour.”

    If they were happy, it wouldn’t be a dystopia, would it? It would be a utopia. But we’re getting into Nozikish territory there.

  3. 3  Dave Weeden  November 6, 2009, 11:05 am 

    No, I’m with Steven on that point, “dystopian lives of hopeless slave-labour” would be true whether they were aware of it or not. I *think* there’s a valid meaning of ‘happy’ outside of whether one is happy or not at a given moment. Anyway, I think one is better able to judge happiness in the moment in others than in oneself. Happiness is like health in the present: one is largely unaware of it. If you’re playing a game you like or watching a film, you don’t think “I’m having fun”, you’re lost in the moment.

    But I’m using ‘happy’ to mean something like ‘self-actualized’, and both being drugged and being a slave labourer get in the way of that.

    Of course, medical science has gone a long way to making people happier by vastly reducing the number of infantile deaths and the deaths of mothers in childbirth, which must have been an incredible source of misery in the past.

  4. 4  Torquil Macneil  November 6, 2009, 11:17 am 

    “No, I’m with Steven on that point, “dystopian lives of hopeless slave-labour” would be true whether they were aware of it or not. “

    Nozick agrees with you. And I think Keanu too. But doies it really make sense to say that you are not the best judge of your own well-being?

  5. 5  Bruce  November 6, 2009, 11:32 am 

    Ephemeralization, a term coined by Buckminster Fuller for a measurable attribute of technology (“progressively accomplishing more with less”) makes sense to me, although we needn’t be Fundamentalists about it.

    And we needn’t confuse that line of thinking with idiocies such as the phrase Steven draws our attention to: “make society work happily.”

    I haven’t read Olson’s book, so I can’t put his words into context, but even if he had in mind something more “sensible” (eg the kind of technological “efficiency” which should lead to less human labour), he probably should have realised that adding the word “happily” to “make society work” doesn’t make a very poetic combination. To say the least of it.

  6. 6  Naadir Jeewa  November 6, 2009, 1:38 pm 

    Quite like your invocation of “nonsense on stilts.” Bentham probably wouldn’t have much of an issue with an Evil Authoritarian Psychophamarcologist.

  7. 7  Kirk  November 6, 2009, 2:21 pm 

    “But does it really make sense to say that you are not the best judge of your own well-being?”

    Well, it certainly makes sense. The real issue is whether it’s true or not. And there doesn’t seem to be anything obvious stopping it being the case – we are not the best judges of all sorts of attributes that we possess. Well-being doesn’t seem like the sort of thing we have privileged access to either.

    Just think about how judgements about your own happiness can sometimes go when you think of your past: ‘I was really happy then, but didn’t realise it’ seems a perfectly intelligible thing to say, and if that can be true then we have room for other people to be better judges of our own well-being than ourselves.

  8. 8  Steven  November 6, 2009, 6:48 pm 

    Amartya Sen for one argues persuasively that people can indeed be poor judges of their own well-being, such that judging situations according to people’s self-reported happiness can leave injustices in place. These might be (I am paraphrasing from memory) situations of inadequate information (eg such that there is wide cultural acceptance of chronic disease that could in fact be treated), or of people putting a brave face on what fortunate others would perceive as appalling hardships, because that’s the only way they can carry on, etc.

    Sen clearly does think that “science” broadly defined in Dave W’s terms (economics etc), if correctly and justly applied, could reduce injustice and improve the lot of many people, and I agree. But this is not the same thing as saying that it could “make society work happily”.

  9. 9  john c. halasz  November 6, 2009, 10:05 pm 

    It’s awkward usage in contemporary English, but it’s clear that our fearless scientist meant “happily” in the sense of “felicitously”, i.e. well-suited or apt in manner. On the other hand, “happy” derives from “hap”, luck, so maybe he meant we’ll all just get lucky.

  10. 10  Kirk  November 6, 2009, 10:10 pm 

    The views about well-being that seem most plausible to me are the ones that can accomodate a subjective and objective component. By this I mean paying attention to the ‘lived-experience’ of a person, seen from the inside, as well as their objective capacities etc. Some people think this distinction is an unhelpful one (I think this is Havi Carel’s line), but entirely subjective accounts seem thin on the ground.

    Have you thought about reviewing Sen’s new one?;sr=8-1 I’ve not had time to look at it myself, but some colleagues tell me it is worthwhile.

  11. 11  Steven  November 7, 2009, 9:27 am 

    Funny you should ask!

  12. 12  Dave Weeden  November 8, 2009, 9:39 am 

    Two points. It’s not really unspeak is it? It’s not as if Randy Olsen is euphemising (if that’s a word) an unpleasant project. Second, the problem seems to be solely with the word ‘work.’ Steven immediately invoked ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’.

    I can see the difficulty with using ‘work’ to apply to society. I thought about suggesting that society was _pace_ Le Courbusier, ‘a machine for living in.’ But the problem with society being a machine is that machines need to be constructed, and who if ‘we’ constructed it (‘we’ in the sense of ‘society’), then it seems we have a problem… But I still feel that ‘work’ is the best verb to apply to societies. We put something in and we expect something out. And among the things we expect from society are certainly the constituent elements of happiness. (Justice, freedom for fear, etc.) The Tories think ‘Britain is broken.’ I don’t agree but are we only allowed the machine metaphor when we think the machine isn’t working? Is it so terrible to consider it might work well?

    Would ‘make society happier’ be any less sinister? It still has overtones of soma dosed mind-slaves. But making society happier isn’t far from the point of existence is it? We don’t pursue happiness alone, really.

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