Aug 14

Scientific collapse: lessons from Vietnam

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One of the most fertile insights of the book The Mandarins of the Future. Modernization Theory in Cold War America of Nils Gilman is the description in Chapter 6 of the rapid intellectual disintegration of the institutional circles that had spread and supported a social scientific paradigm as successful as MT. The death of the MT is a relevant event because it combines the different logics and dynamics that Kuhn and Lakatos had pointed out as the principal causes of success and failure of science. Likewise, the collapse of the MT is also instructive because it can help to grasp the possibilities of overruling a hegemonic paradigm as the Neoclassical Economics (NCE). In this sense, I will do an attempt to systematize the causes and reasons of the refutation of MT provided by Gilman in order to display the intellectual and social battlefield where theories fight for being accepted by governments and public opinion. Indeed, we are talking about two battlefields: academic dynamics and social dynamics, where it is impossible a complete shift in academic world without a clear alignment of the speakers of public opinion. So, what happened to MT? First, we have:

Academic dynamics:

1)     Blockage of internal criticism

As Nils Gilman explained, Gabriel Almond and his Committee of Comparative Politics (CCP) blocked the attempts of focusing on internal contradictions or argumentative pitfalls of MT to interpret reality. The honest intellectual research was neglected, disregarded or marginalized in order to keep intact the scientific authority of the MT and its scholars. This is a classical intellectual inquisition inside academic disciplines closely related to political power. As instrument of transforming reality, the MT has to work, so it is not possible assume doubts or plan a honest and coherent research, because all the intelectual production is conditioned by the necessity of reach public repercussion and recognition, especially in general medias. That is the original sin of social sciences and the reasons of its conflicts with the ethical norms that inspire the academia. In doing this, the successful scholars invited by politicians to rule the world transform their own theories in a self promotion platform. It does not have an immediate effect as happened to MT and CCP, but it is the beginning of a basis of criticism that would spread to heterodox groups and help to a convergence that would unify a widespread suspicion to the orthodox postulates.

2)     Coincidence of epistemological refutation from extremes

This internal intellectual blockade means the death of the creativity and vitality of the paradigm. The young scholars who are adopted by the fathers of the theory only could reproduce their thesis without doing an honest and independent research. So there are no differences, it is always the same story told again. Before this confluence to scientific reproduction and papermaking devoted to academic career promotion, outside the mainstream the critics would have finished a total and complete refutation of the hegemonic paradigm. In the case of the MT, these critics came from the left and the right and, obviously, there was a huge gap between their political and moral purposes, although there was a complete coincidence in their theoretical refutation to the validity of MT as coherent project of research.

3) Dark derivations

Although Gilman considers Samuel Huntington and his authoritarian and anti democratic militarism more an outsider to MT circles than an apostle, I see him as the logical dark derivation of MT. (Spain was exposed to the conservative version of MT in order to legitimize the Franco’s dictatorship, so we know this version as the normal MT). All theories converted in a real tool of power appeal scholars with desires of being philosopher king and applying to others its plans of domination in order to conquest the right order for the right society. It means that more popular and successful is a social scientific paradigm and more politicians want to hear the scholars, there will be more ambitious scholars with personal frustrations who desire to do research following the hegemonic paradigm (sorry, I’m a bit psychoanalytic in this point). As result, darker variations of mainstream theories lacking humanitarianism will be published. The sense of power and the desire of applying it demand less empathy to ensure self confidence. The feeling of self righteousness is only possible if we do not care about the concerns and feelings of others, because, since we are right, we do not need to care about them. Trapped in this dynamic, the scholars will propose more extreme and cruel variations of the theory, because they only could feel that their theory is scientifically right crossing the moral limits and reaching official recognition for it. Indeed, breaking the moral limits for receiving official attention and tacit approbation in spite of a public sanction is the method that proves the social validity of their theories. Since this situations, it is easy to understand that Huntington had proposed a “genocide by draining” to win the Vietnam War.

4) Final self denial

These three traits do not refute a hegemonic paradigm. In order to overthrow it, the direct and vehement intervention of public opinion inside academic circles is necessary. This is what I call the “social dynamics” and I will analyse them after this passage, but the conjunction of the former elements with political failure and social sanction condemns any theory. Reached this point, even the apostles of the hegemonic paradigm will desert their cause and will try to reconfigure their academic careers to portray their past such as casual o conjunctural coalition with the hegemonic paradigm. They are trying to escape to the consequences of public and moral sanctions to their work, so it is even necessary to dismantle the net of academic institutions associated with the hegemonic paradigm. It is not only outdated, it is responsible of serious wrongdoings. In the case of MT, the step back of Gabriel Almond and Lucian Pye probably was a defensive tactic to avoid being associated with the fall of W.W. Rostow and the failure of the Vietnam War and minimize the loss of public reputation, but this produced a serious vacuum in the mechanisms of intellectual reproduction that was covered by the criticism of the MT. In these circumstances, Charles Tilly was invited to edit The Formation of National States in Western Europe (1975) and to write with complete independence and honesty. The result was the official certificate of the useless and scientific irrelevance of the MT approaches. But this happened because the CCP hoped to reconvert the MT thanks to Tilly contribution and in this weak defensive position had to deal directly with all the criticism that had been blocking.

Social dynamics:

1)     An intellectual public figure

Rostow was the recognized father of MF by the public opinion. He was also a politician directly involved in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and he advocated publicly for the hard line in the Vietnam War, a hawk. He represented the MT and he associated the MT to the fate of the the Vietnam War and his own fate. All this helped to a general audience to focus with more attention and facility on abstract theory as MT. In the pursue of success and popularity, academic starlets are vital for the paradigms, but, at the same time, it ties the paradigm on the life of these intellectual celebrities. In the case of the MT, Rostow monopolized the attention and made easier evaluate the MT evaluating him. When he was not allowed to come back to the MIT in 1968, it was obvious that Rostow was rejected by his colleagues, that he has lost his reputation among the peers. It was a harsh public sanction that showed the repulsion to his complete commitment to the Vietnam War. Probably, it was motivated by personal feelings and by the pressure of social protests against the war, but the point is that Rostow did not win the Nobel prize of economics. He lost his job and for the general audience it was also a public censure to the MT by the academia.

2)     Refuted by a crucial fact.

In theory, the Duhem–Quine thesis about the impossibility of validation of a general theory by a crucial experiment should be protect the MT. However, as the supporters of the MT demand the scientific authority for themselves, they need to test the MT to prove that they deserve this authority. This was one of the reasons of the involvement of Rostow in Vietnam War. The Vietnam War was the lab camp of the MT and the victory of the South Vietnam War would prove that the MT was right. Nevertheless, the result was the contrary, but it was possible for the general audience the understanding of the invalidity of MT thanks to the protagonic role of Rostow and the crucial fact that SV was defeated.

3)     Moral wrongdoing

The scholars are the priest of liberal society. They should not been involved in material and political affairs and only pursue eternal truths, truths that are understood as public goods. By the contrary, Social Sciences and its eagerness for political influence, at the end, contaminate these high ethical standards. Besides, if the focus is on a intellectual public figure is more easy to evaluate the pertinence of his actions and the consequences of his theories. Obviously, promote the escalation of the conflict, massive bombings or military incursions in neutral countries were not the typical concerns of a scholar, but when Rostow acted in this way, he was a wrongdoer for important sectores of public opinion and he destroyed the moral independence and the neutral ideology of the MT. He showed to the public that the MT was an instrument of power, a tool for politicians, very far away of the ideal science.

The lessons of the collapse of the MT is the importance of public figure who incarnated a theory to evaluate his theory in accordance to his behavior. In political affairs it is impossible doing this separation, so this bound could save or conduct to collapse the hegemonic paradigms. After this display in front of public opinion, the academic dynamics could be opener and the invisible colleges have to adopt a low profile to hide themselves from public scrutiny. In the case of NCE, the academic dynamic are completely fulfilled. The mainstream, although supposed public plurality, marginalize, neglect or disregard all criticism to NCE paradigm. In the same way, so radical and extremely different familias as post marxists, ecologists or austrians have refuted the incoherence of the assumptions of the NCE and its impossibility of being validate by external variables, since it is a logical closed construction conformed by self submitted evidence. Likewise, the proposals in defence of free market for organs or drugs are the dark derivations that came from the NCE mainstream.

However, the social dynamics are grasped by the difficult to focus on a singular scholar devoted to a singular political campaign. Although the economic crisis should be an intelectual crash, the impossibility to reduce it to so clear test such as a match or a war, makes more difficult evaluate the reasons of failure or success. Similarly, the impact of Vietnam War in public opinion was more directed and concentrated, while the economic crisis is wider with multiple sides that affect everybody in different ways. Vietnam War galvanized a strong and unite opposition, an opposition with new demands related to widespread moral and civil values that allowed to censor the wrongdoing of scholars more closely and more effectively. By the contrary, the erosion of moral and civic values suffered by our society thanks to relativism makes harder today to rebuild a civic opposition to NCE in public spheres, especially because an economic crisis has not as clear intentionality and protagonists as a war.

In the same way, it is harder to define the crucial fact that can validate or refute the NCE, because the consequences appear in the long run and it is not easy to elaborate a understanding and clear relate that unify the facts and events. Besides, there are no intellectual figure leaders enough popular by general audience (may be the exception is B. M. Friedman) to help them to follow the succession of events. All these peculiarities make more difficult the collapse of NCE, although it is a hegemonic paradigm similar to MT. On another hand, it reveals the importance of comic books as Economix, because it is an attempt to bridge the distance between academic dynamics and social dynamics. Moreover, it is also necessary the publication of critical biographies of academic economists who normally took part in the process of decision making with a low profile.

To summarize, if Rostow had not been involved so closely to Vietnam War, probably the MT would have been capable of resisting better the criticism and would have not collapsed.

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