«In the early part of this year (2015), over a number of days, Revolution conducted a wide-ranging interview with Ardea Skybreak. A scientist with ...»
SCIENCE AND REVOLUTION
On the Importance of Science and the Application of Science
to Society, the New Synthesis of Communism and the
Leadership of Bob Avakian
An Interview with Ardea Skybreak
In the early part of this year (2015), over a number of days, Revolution conducted a
wide-ranging interview with Ardea Skybreak. A scientist with professional training in
ecology and evolutionary biology, and an advocate of the new synthesis of communism
brought forward by Bob Avakian, Skybreak is the author of, among other works, The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism: Knowing What’s Real and Why It Matters, and Of Primeval Steps and Future Leaps: An Essay on the Emergence of Human Beings, the Source of Women’s Oppression, and the Road to Emancipation. An excerpt from this interview, “On Attending the Dialogue Between Bob Avakian and Cornel West,” was first published in February 2015, and some other excerpts from this interview have been selected to be published as separate articles as well. The text of the complete interview follows here (and a Table of Contents, with links to the different sections of the interview, is included at the end).
A Scientific Approach to Society, and Changing the World Q: I thought we would start by briefly asking some questions about science and the
scientific method. So I actually wanted to start with kind of a provocative question:
What does science have to do with understanding and changing the world? And, just quickly for some background on that, I think most people, including most natural scientists, don‟t think that you can, that you need to, or that you should take a scientific approach to analyzing society, or analyzing the “social world,” much less changing it. So I wanted to ask you: Why is that notion wrong, what does science and the scientific method have to do with understanding and changing society and the world?
AS: Well, I think that‟s a very important question because, as you say, even many people who are scientists in the natural sciences and who apply very rigorous scientific methods when trying to deal with the natural world (biology, astronomy, physics, and so on), when you talk to them about society–the problems of society, the way societies are organized–all of a sudden it seems like their grasp of scientific method goes completely out the window! Many natural scientists actually start to revert then to a kind of crass populism, to just kind of talking vaguely about the “will of the people,” or about elections, or some other things that really have little or nothing to do with analyzing in a scientific way the main features of a given society–how it‟s set up, how it functions–or with analyzing in a scientific way what‟s wrong in a society, or how societal problems could be solved in a scientific way. Not everyone is like that, but it‟s striking–the degree to which many advanced thinkers in thenatural sciences seem to forget or drop everything they know about scientific methods whenever they try to think about the problems of society!
I think it‟s very, very important to understand that science as a method has not been around in the history of humanity for all that long. So people generally are simply not accustomed to trying to understand and transform reality in a scientific way. For most of the history of human beings on this planet, the understanding of both the natural and social world was derived more from a sort of basic trial-and-error approach, trying to figure things out catch-as-catch-can, and trying to solve problems that way–often making up all sorts of mystical and supernatural explanations to fill in the gaps in people‟s understanding. So, you know, people used to think lightning was the anger of the gods, or something like that, because for a long time they didn‟t have a scientific understanding of what actually caused lightning.
So I think it might be worth starting a little bit by talking about what is science, to demystify it a little bit. I mean, science deals with material reality, and you could say that all of nature and all of human society is the province of science, science can deal with all that. It‟s a tool–science–a very powerful tool. It’s a method and approach for being able to tell what’s true, what corresponds to reality as it really is.
In that sense, science is very different than religion or mysticism, or things like that, which try to explain reality by invoking imaginary forces and which provide no actual evidence for any of their analyses. By contrast, science requires proof. It requires evidence. It is an evidence-based process. That‟s very important. Science is an evidence-based process. So whether you‟re just trying to understand something in the world, or trying to figure out how to change reality–for instance, you might be trying to cure a disease, or you might be trying to understand the dynamics of a rain forest or a coral reef ecosystem, or you might be trying to make a revolution to emancipate humanity, you know, the full range of material experience–science allows you to figure out what‟s really going on and how it can change.
I read somewhere that Neil deGrasse Tyson, in popularizing the importance of science, said something like–I‟m paraphrasing here, but he said something like: Science allows you to confront and identify problems, to recognize problems and figure out how to solve them, rather than run away from them. And I think that‟s an important point, too. Science is what allows you to actually deal with material reality the way it really is. Whether you‟re talking about the material reality of a disease, of a natural ecosystem, or of a social system that human beings live under, science allows you to analyze its components, its history, how it came to be the way it is, what it‟s made of, what are its defining characteristics and underlying contradictoriness (and we‟ll come back to that) and therefore also what is the basis for it to change, or to be changed, if your intent is to change it. Whether you want to cure a disease or make a better society, you need that scientific evidence-based process.
One thing about science is that it asks a lot of questions about how things came to be the way they are, and about how things have changed over time. I‟ve always been very interested in what‟s called the historical sciences–for instance, biological evolution, but there are also other historical sciences, including the science of human society–which deal with how things change over time. And then, of course, if you‟re studying how things change over time, you can study how things can change some more, including in directions that human beings might be inclined to have it go. All of reality has evolved, has changed over time, and it‟s still changing all of the time, whether you‟re talking about the natural world or the social world. If you want to change life, if you want to change the way a society is organized, if you want to change the world, if you want to change anything in nature or society, you need a scientific method, because that‟s the only way to deeply and systematically uncover how reality really is, on the basis of systematic observations and interactions, manipulations, and transformations of reality.
That‟s how you learn how things really are, how they got to be that way, and how they can be changed. Again, it‟s an evidence-based process, it‟s not just “what you think” or “what I think.” We need evidence, accumulated over time. This is what reveals what reality is made up of, how it came to be a certain way, how it may be changing right now, or how it may be possible for human beings to further change it.
Here‟s an important point: Without science, you can only say what you as an individual think reality is, or maybe you can say what a whole bunch of people think reality is, or maybe you can say what a government, or religious authority, or some other authority might tell you reality is like, but that doesn‟t make any of it true. Without science you are at the mercy of being manipulated, of having your thinking manipulated and not being able to tell what’s right from what’s wrong, what’s true from what’s false. If you really want to know what‟s what, what‟s true, and what to do, you need science–not fantasies or wishful thinking, but concrete evidence and a systematic process, a systematic method of analysis and synthesis. The analysis breaks down experience and knowledge over time; synthesis brings it back together in a higher way, in a more systematic way, getting the bigger lessons, the core lessons out of the accumulated experience.
So this is one of the reasons why you need scientific revolutionary theory if you really want to change a society at its roots. You know, we talk about radical change in society.
Well, the word “radical” comes from the Latin meaning “root”; it means get to the root of the problem. Don‟t just stay on the surface of what the problem appears to be, on a superficial level or at just one moment in time. Get underneath it, get deeper, the way a good scientist does, to understand what are the deeper rules of the system, what are the deeper ways the contradictions inside a system make it work certain ways that cause problems, or that can bring forth possibilities.
Q: Well, if I could interject just for a second, this strikes me as really important and critical in terms of what is science and what‟s involved in a scientific approach to reality;
what you‟re saying about the importance of science being evidence-based and the different points you were making about that, I think are very important there. One thing I wanted to interject is to kind of zero in on this question: I think a lot of people would recognize, including a lot of natural scientists–and obviously you, yourself, were trained as a natural scientist, and so maybe you would have some particular insights on this–but a lot of even natural scientists would probably look at what you were saying and respond, OK, I see how that process can be applied to the natural world, to the natural sciences–patterns, looking for evidence, synthesis–but then they would kind of recoil at the idea that you could actually apply that to human beings and human society. Or maybe another way to go at it is that some people would say, Well, OK, but human beings and human societies, that‟s just too complicated to be scientific about or to apply science. So maybe we could zero in a little bit on what does it mean specifically to take a scientific approach to human beings and human society and their development, and why is that correct?
AS: Well, look, for one thing, in any system, whether it‟s in the natural world or human society, there‟s both complexity and simplicity. The idea that human beings or human societies are just too complex to analyze with science is ridiculous. It‟s the exact opposite. How could you possibly deal with the complexity of human social organizations and interactions over various historical periods and up to today, and all the contradictions within that, all the complicated patterns and things, and the different forces, and so on, and different objectives of different peoples and different periods of history–how could you deal with all that without science? How could you even begin to make sense of it and understand it? And it‟s not true that natural systems are somehow simpler, you know. If you want to understand the dynamics of complex ecosystems–like, for instance, a rain forest, which has many different layers of trees and shrubs in the undergrowth and so on, and which is characterized by very complex dynamics in terms of the many different kinds and levels of interactions among and between the incredibly diverse plant and animal species–I mean, you could spend a lifetime, and many people do, just trying to get a beginning understanding of a lot of these complex dynamics. Or, if you wanted to better understand coral reef ecosystems, or desert ecosystems, or the differences between different ecosystems and which ones might be more vulnerable to being disrupted and which ones might be relatively more stable, or assess relative species diversity or how to preserve diversity...so many questions worth exploring further...Look, I‟m not trying to get into all that right now because I know you want to talk mainly about human social systems, but what I am saying is that in both the natural and social world, material reality is very complex, and that while we as human beings always have some shortcomings in our understanding (things that at any given time we don‟t quite get yet) we also have tremendous abilities and a lot of accumulated knowledge. Our brains are capable of actually investigating and exploring all sorts of questions, from many different angles, and we‟re actually capable of summing things up over a period of time, accumulating historical experience and knowledge that way. This is one of the things that‟s very particular to human beings: our great ability to accumulate understanding over generations, over centuries, over millennia, and to understand some of the patterns of organization of societies or of natural systems or whatever we turn our minds to.