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Excerpt from Welcome to the Machine

False Choices (p. 29)

From chapter "Science"

A classic device of power—and this is true whether we’re talking about emperors or perpetrators of domestic violence—is to present their victims with a series of false choices whereby no matter which the victims choose, the perpetrators win and the victims are further victimized. Nazis, for example, sometimes gave Jews the choice of different colored identity papers. Many Jews then focused, reasonably enough, on trying to figure out which of these colors would more likely save their lives. Of course the color of the identity papers made no material difference: the primary purpose of the choice was to divert victims’ attention from the task of unmaking the whole system that was killing them. In addition, this false choice co-opted victims into believing they were making meaningful choices. In other words, it got them on some level to take responsibility for what was being done with them: If I am killed it is my own fault because I chose the wrong color.

Now, would you rather vote Republican or Democrat? For which major corporation would you like to work? Which shopping mall has the best deals this weekend? Do you want privacy or security?

Both the spies at the Pentagon—or maybe at some corporate headquarters, we always get confused as to which is which—and public interest advocates at, for example, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) state that we should and must have security and privacy. But it’s another false choice, both sides of which, framed as they currently are, serve to divert our attention while those in power continue to extend their control. The military industrial complex continues to operate as if spying on “our enemies” will make each of us individually—separately—and the world in general more secure. And lawyers continue to operate as if more regulations will stem the tidal wave of invasive technology and commercialization of culture. Neither of these positions has a shred of evidence to support it. In fact both are demonstrably untrue. Nonetheless they are clung to, articles of faith in some religion to which we do not—cannot—admit we adhere.

Not only the spies and übersoldiers are invisible. So are our beliefs.

* * *

Aronowitz told me that a “fundamental precept of science is that at some point we’re finally going to get to the bottom of things, that we are getting closer and closer to ‘the truth.’ That someday we’ll understand the fundamental building blocks of matter, we’ll unify electromagnetism with gravity, and, like Einstein believed, we’ll have a general theory. This conceit may be scientists’ version of utopian hope. Now, some scientists don’t believe this, instead believing there will always be uncertainty and upheaval, but the majority believe we’re moving toward some ultimate theory. And you really have to say that this latter group subscribes to science as a religion.”

“What’s wrong with that?” I asked.

“First, their religion masquerades as something it’s not; in fact they consider themselves skeptics, and are often highly scornful of people who rely on ‘mere faith.’ More broadly, science is coercive in the same way that dogmatic belief in a deity can be coercive. Just as God is then taken as an axiom by true believers, so the four elements of scientific discourse cannot be questioned.”

“Four elements?”

“The first is the exclusion of the qualitative in favor of the quantitative. If you cannot assign a number to something, it doesn’t exist. The second is that except at the outset, speculation is excluded in favor of observation and experimentation. The third is that knowledge is claimed to be free of value. There’s nothing inherently wrong in knowing how to make a neutron bomb, for example.”

“Those who make them can say, ‘We are research and development people. We think about what’s possible, not what the government will do with it. That’s somebody else’s job.’”

“It’s simply information, so the mythology goes. And the fourth is that method is given primacy in the confirmation of knowledge.”

“Meaning . . .”

“Meaning that since science has defined its methods as the only way to discover truth, the only acceptable criticisms of science are those conducted within the methodological framework that science has set up for itself. Further, science insists that only those who have been inducted into its community, through means of training and credentials, are qualified to make these criticisms.

“Many scientists consider it absurd that Christian fundamentalists use biblical references to bolster their claim that the Bible is literally true, yet we all let science use the tools of science to settle disputations concerning its own viability. That makes no sense to me.

“But there is something else at stake here. Theirs is a belief in the end of history. It’s a version of a belief, at the level of science, of what Francis Fukuyama says at the level of human affairs, that we’ve finally ended history. Fukuyama thinks we’ve ended history because the world has been unified under the common denominator of capitalism, so-called liberal democracy, the market.”

“Obviously there are a lot of problems with Fukuyama’s boosterism of capitalism, not the least of which is that it doesn’t match reality. . . .”

“Oh, absolutely. He makes no sense at all. And the same is true scientifically. The scientific hope is for an end of natural history. We will someday understand everything.”

“And essentially be as God. . . .”

“But let me ask you this: Does the world change? Is the material world itself moving constantly?”


“Well, if that is true, then we can’t ever know the ultimate anything. If there exists anything even remotely resembling freewill actors anywhere in the universe, then there can be no ultimate knowledge of the sort science purports.”