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A question about objectivity in politics

  1. Apr 29, 2005 #1
    Hello all

    I have been lurking on these boards for a while, and following some of the discussions in this forum as well as in the science and maths forums.

    I have a question: I was just wondering whether anyone thinks that the kind of objectivity one pursues in scientific enquiry is also a worthwhile goal when trying to understand politics?

    I mean, I have read various discussions in which people have said that scientific 'truths' and 'facts' are always provisional, and that 'facts' sometimes change in the light of new knowledge. I have read that scientific theories supported by individuals on this forum are re-evaluated in the light of new information. This is, in my view, as things should be.

    But I have observed that this rule does not seem to be applied at all when the discussion is social or political. In social or political discussions, many of those people who claim to always be open to re-evaluating their scientific theories and beliefs in the light of new knowledge seem to actively resist re-evaluating their political and social views at all. They seem to refuse to consider any information that is presented to them that may contradict their views.

    Does this mean that people believe that it is neither possible nor desirable to seek (at least provisional) political and social truths?

    I consider my question to be political rather than philosophical (that is why I thought it fits best in this forum) because the answer to this question has real and important political implications - but I may be wrong about where I am posting this question (this is my first post). And my own view is based on my perception of myself as a social scientist (which means that I believe that it is possible - through honest and disciplined enquiry - to correctly interpret and evaluate social phenomena).
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  3. Apr 29, 2005 #2


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    I have, a number of times, argued for the application of the scientific method to politics (and morality/ethics). As I often say, there is a reason why its called "Political Science".
    Quick clarification: theories are provisional, facts are not. Now, if you redo an experiment with better equipment, you can get more accurate data, but that isn't the same thing: the old data is still factual, but has an (at the time) unknown error in it. Scientists always try to minimize, predict, and explain their errors, but even an old, error filled experiment can provide useful insight.

    Applied to history, take the US Constitution: What the US Constitution says historical fact. No amount of new information will change that. About the only thing that could is some kind of historical trickery, which would be akin to someone faking their experimental data in science.
    I agree, and it seems to me that the reason is that people think about politics and morality far too much like its religion. They also take it far more personally than they do science. With physics, for example, a scientist performs an experiment. In morality, each participant in the discussion is also part of the experiment.
    As I said above - in my opinion it is both possible and desirable. We have had some success with the limited case of Marxism. Applying historical facts to the theory of Marxism reveals a theory that failed. That is somewhat well recieved, but people don't like to try to apply that method elsewhere.
    In many ways, politics is an extension of sociology. To me, that's just self-evident (again - Marxism: it fails because it doesn't fit human nature).
    Last edited: Apr 29, 2005
  4. Apr 29, 2005 #3
    There is a significant difference between the pure sciences and social sciences. Though some scientific method may be applied, for example trying to control for variables in conducting polls and applying statistical analysis in presentation of the results, ultimately the original topic/inquiry will be of a subjective nature. Politics, and especially moral issues are very subjective, and the majority of the population do not reach their conclusions based on fact. This is the unfortunate reality, and the lack of interest and prevailing ignorance of the general public has been debated in this forum many times as a problem to be studied in itself.
  5. Apr 29, 2005 #4


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    Only if you're trying to understand the politics of someone else's country. It's hard to maintain objectivity if the observer is part of the experiment - especially if the outcome of the experiment will have a definite impact on the observer.
  6. Apr 30, 2005 #5
    I agree with everyone that it is more difficult to be objective when thinking about social and political issues (than it is in the sciences) because we are part of the situation we are trying to analyse.

    russ_watters, while I agree with some of the things you say, I definitely and absolutely disagree with the statement that marxism is a 'theory that failed'. What historical evidence are you thinking of to support this claim? Do you mean the 'collapse' of the Eastern bloc? Or the fact that the 'worker's revolution' has not happened? Contrary to statements made by postmodernist theorists such as Fracis Fukuyama, history has definitely not 'ended' (as the various conflicts around the world so powerfully demonstrate).

    This brings up another question: I am really curious about what you mean by 'Marxism' - do you refer to it as a method of analysis, or do you equate it with 'socialism' or 'communism'? So much depends on the definitions of terms.

    I suspect we may be talking about different things when we disagree on this one. I have been studying marxism, and have been using marxism as a tool of analysis for studying the social and political world, for many years now. It remains an incredibly powerful tool of analysis and I have not yet found a theory that can better explain capitalist society (having read critical theory, functionalist theory, feminist theory, etc). Declaring 'marxism' irrelevant does not in actuality make it so (just as declaring that the universe is static would not make it so).

    Like any 'good' theory, marxism is useful in that it provides tools of analysis that can be used to explain (in a way that makes sense) the key aspects of capitalist societies, as well as current trends in the globalisation of capital. I realise that there are ideological reasons for 'writing it off' as a theory - but ignoring it doesn't change anything; the fact is, it DOES explain key aspects of the social world :smile:
  7. Apr 30, 2005 #6


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    The thing with Marxism is that it has been tried dozens of times in various forms. And it only works on the extremely small scale (many church governments are forms of communism). Lenin was considered a Marxist, but he deviated considerably from Marx's vision. Why? Because Marx never developed his vision into a workable form of government. And the dozens of people to try to do that ended up as vicious, murderous dictators.

    In short, the fact that there is not a single Marxist government in existence today is evidence of its failure. Yet, capitalism/democracy has resulted in virtuall all of the peace and prosperity in existence in the world today - not to mention the oldest government in the wold - the United States government.
  8. Apr 30, 2005 #7


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    This is precisely what Alexandra is denying. Specifically the USSR, PRC, Cuba, Albania, etc. are/were not marxist. Lenin and Mao, and still more Castro and Hoxha opted for practical tyranny over marxist solutions. "Socialism in One Country" is not marxism! The long march and the great leap forward had nothing to do with marxism, except that they waved red flags.
  9. Apr 30, 2005 #8


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    How exactly are you to implement Marxism without tyranny? I would hardly think it coincidence that all leaders/nations that tried to implement Marx's vision decided to do so by tyranny. Unless you expect several million people to voluntarily give up their hard-earned private property, which seems to me a fairly unreasonable expectation.

    By the way Alex, I would argue that the best theory by which you can understand capitalism is not Marxist theory, but rather capitalist theory.
  10. Apr 30, 2005 #9
    Ok, thank you russ-watters - now I know how you define marxism, I can continue with the discussion. Please do note that I am not trying to convince anyone that I am right and they are wrong, and was not myself going to discuss marxism explicitly in this thread. However, since the issue has arisen, I would like to explore it a bit if anyone else is interesed:-)

    I have formally studied political science, and the 'political science' definition of marxism is that it is a system of analysis (a theoretical perspective which gives one tools with which to analyse the socio-political-economic world) rather than a system of government. Of course, Marx's theory also incorporated a possible 'vision' for the future (what you were talking about, russ_watters), but this is not the aspect of his theory that I am referring to when I talk about marxism - I am talking about the theoretical tools.

    As a system of analysis, marxism provides a number of conceptual tools one can use to analyse capitalist society. As you probably already know, two key marxist concepts are 'class' and 'historical materialism'. I believe that a marxist analysis is a very powerful theoretical tool that is still very much valid because it enables social scientists to understand capitalist societies since:

    1. Classes still exist (capitalism is, by definition, a 'class' society - ie. there are different economic classes). Marxism does define 'class' in a very specific way, but that may be a bit too technical to go into at this point.

    2. A properly conducted marxist analysis involves examining the historical context of whatever one is interested in investigating. Perhaps people will agree that one cannot really understand any single event taken out of context, and that one has to consider the historical evolution of events in order to understand them?

    3. A marxist theoretical perspective adopts a materialist position when trying to explain events - it does not draw on reasons such as 'religious beliefs' to explain conflicts, for instance, but looks for material reasons (eg. the acquisition of territory, or of material resources). Marxist explanations can therefore be supported by the use of relevant evidence and are, in scientific terms, therefore more credible.

    4. It is a dynamic perspective that uses the 'dialectical' method of analysis (from philosophy), recognising the every socio-political situation is fluid and changing, and that there are a multitude of variables interacting with one another and affecting one another in the interaction. In other words, a rigorous marxist analysis takes into account the complexity of the socio-political world, which is not something many other theoretical perspectives are capable of doing.

    My main point is this: if ever there were a theoretical perspective/tool of analysis in the social sciences that was scientific, marxism is the one. That is why I could not agree that it has lost its explanatory power: it explains capitalist societies in a depth that no other theoretical perspective achieves. Of course, one first has to learn about how to work with the theory - what the conceptual tools of analysis are, and how to apply them. This takes dedicated study, as is the case with many difficult theories in the sciences as well. It is also possible to do completely crude so-called 'marxist' analyses -but such simplistic analyses cannot really be considered to be marxist.

    So, that's it. It doesn't matter if people disagree with me (I expect them to), but I do think many disagreements occur because people argue 'past' each other and do not clearly state what exactly it is they are arguing for or against. Thanks for this dialogue, russ_watters; it's interesting :smile:
  11. Apr 30, 2005 #10
    Yep, selfAdjoint - I agree: none of those political systems were actually socialist or communist (not by the technical definitions of these terms). The fact that they claimed they were socialist or communist does not mean that they actually were. There has not yet been a socialist system of government in this world - never mind a communist system.

    I would just like to add that I think it is confusing to use 'marxist' as a synonym for 'socialist' or 'communist' - the terms have erroneously been used interchangeably in the mass media, and that is the source of the confusion. We should separate these terms so we all know what we're talking about. Technically, there can never be any such thing as a 'marxist' political system or system of government since marxism is a theoretical or analytical perspective. Another common source of confusion is the use of the word 'Stalinism' as if it had the same meaning as 'socialism' and 'communism'; it doesn't.
  12. Apr 30, 2005 #11
    :biggrin: I was hoping you'd respond, loseyourname - I wanted to compliment you on your choice of signature message; it's great! I would also like to 'borrow it' for a while (while we are having this discussion, during which I expect to have my views 'attacked' from many quarters - but I don't mind).

    Ok, back on task... It is true that one cannot get beyond the capitalist system of private ownership of property by asking the rich to 'be nice' and 'share' (this is the sort of naive, utopian plan that the early French socialists had, and Marx completely dissociated himself from them as he wanted to develop a scientific theory to explain social change).

    Just as the transition from feudalism to capitalism involved a political revolution (the French Revolution, which Marxists refer to as the bourgeois revolution since it transferred power from the aristocracy to the emerging capitalist or 'bourgeois' class), the transition from capitalism to another soco-political system would, realistically, involve a political revolution. It is not reasonable to expect to ask very rich people to give up what they have out of 'the kindness of their hearts'. The point is, though, that there are relatively *very few* rich people - the capitalist class (as defined by Marx: the owners of the means of production) is not only relatively small, but the gap between what they have and what the rest of the world has to share is also widening.

    So, Marx predicted that when the material conditions are right (ie. when the vast bulk of humanity is so impoverished that the ordinary people have nothing to lose), people will unite and do whatever is necessary to try and secure their physical survival. It's a sort of 'survival instinct' thing: either that, or they will simply starve to death! We shall have to see how history unfolds, and it is no use arguing about it. It does not matter in the least whether you and I agree or disagree about whether or not this will happen - but it is something to consider, perhaps? An interesting thought experiment?

    When you say that I should use 'capitalist theory' to understand capitalism, I don't really know which theory you are referring to. Please point me to some readings. If you are interested, I am sure you could easily locate some of Marx's work to read as well - it's a fascinating intellectual exercise, if nothing else:-)
  13. Apr 30, 2005 #12


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    loseyourname's point is really all that needs to be said about the attempts at Marxism. I have only one thing comment on:
    I'll accept that it attempts to explain capitalist societies, but is it successful? It has predicted failure and revolution. It simply hasn't happened - in fact, the opposite has happened: capitalism is expanding, and with it, prosperity. Marxism fails on both sides of the coin: the predicted failure of capitalsim and the predicted rise of communism. It has failed as completely as any hypothesis can.
    Last edited: Apr 30, 2005
  14. Apr 30, 2005 #13


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    Interesting question.

    It would be nice if the politicians could pass laws and make decisions on an objective basis. However, that is certainly often not the case.

    Also, there is the matter of discussions and deals going on 'behind closed doors'. How could one apply objectivity when so much is 'hidden'?

    Comparative studies of different political and economic systems may be done objectively - one can certainly measure the inputs, outputs and some state variables. But when one tries to understand why communism failed or capitalism succeeded, one may not be able to 'look inside the black box'.

    Whether or not capitalism or communism, or any other politico-economic system succeeded or failed may depend on the criterion (criteria) or definition of success or failure.

    Personally, I find failure in all systems, and invariably personal corruption (which fosters institutional corruption) is the major cause.
  15. Apr 30, 2005 #14


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    I have only pity for someone who seemingly devotes his life to the study of Marxism. One may just as well use the Bible as a means to determine the Earth is 6000 years old. It is a useless waste of one's life. It would be far better to study the reasons for the remarkable success the US has had in enriching the lives of all its citizens.

    In this post,
    you provide four well written paragraphs, four well written paragraphs that say nothing.

    If there is any substance provided, it lies in these fallacious statements:

    "Classes still exist (capitalism is, by definition, a 'class' society - ie. there are different economic classes)."

    That is not a definition of capitalism except possibly in the minds of those wishing to destroy it. Marxism requires the wealth of the nation to be controlled by the state under the guise of public ownership. That obtuse concept does not warrant any discussion. You cannot ascribe to Marxism the concept of an equal distribution of wealth; Marxism is the denial of wealth to the individual. Distribution of wealth, slowly, steadily, inexorably is a natural outcome of a capitalistic economy in a free society. How many US citizens perusing these forums are not invested in private enterprise? IBM has more stockholders than Marx had viable brain cells. Forty percent of America’s poor own homes equipped with conveniences the royal princes of the 19th century would sell their sisters to have. The growing wealth of the US citizen, the increase in his quality of life is a consequence of capitalism not a consequence of the idiotic ranting of a failed philosopher.

    "A marxist theoretical perspective"

    I suppose theory is a word that can be ascribed to many writings that should be dismissed as ignorant ramblings. Marx's offering is as ludicrous as that offered by the demented author of "Mein Kampf". Each proclaimed capitalism as the reason for the evils of mankind; each attributed malevolent intent to minority groups or individuals; each was responsible for spawning despicable and despotic governments.

    It is not possible to dismiss "Stalinism”, ”Maoism”, “Castroism” or the like as poorly or incorrectly implemented versions of Communism. Communism requires a despotic government; it cannot tolerate dissent, it cannot tolerate individualism, it can only tolerate the more equal of the equals, the ruling elite, and the worker ant toiling for the greater good. The greater good is of course the preservation of the ruling "class" and its deserved access to the better things in life.

  16. Apr 30, 2005 #15


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    All!? Not quite. I can take you to many places, in most large cities and across rural America where this is absolutely not true. Let's start in the Appalacian mountains of the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky - then rural south.

    Many Americans are slowly losing ground.

    Not quite, although that is usually they way it has happened historically.

    You mean the Bush Administration, right? :biggrin:
  17. Apr 30, 2005 #16


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    And yet none migrate to communist nations to improve their lot. Few if any migrate to the EU to improve their lot. Many poor, many wealthy migrate to the US, presumably to enjoy a lower quality of life.
    While many more are gaining ground.
    There’s an exception?
    Ho-hum, back to the typical persuasive liberal discourse.
  18. May 1, 2005 #17
    Tut-tut, GENIERE, do you pity me, then? The concepts I raise areobtuse , are they? I have uselessly wasted my life, have I? Well, why don't I just crawl into the little hole I belong to and be done with it? Actually, GENIERE, I was really expecting a much higher standard of discussion from the people on this forum - for some reason, I thought there were intelligent people here, people who cared about understanding the world.

    So anyway, let's try to continue without getting personal. It is a discussion, not a name-calling exercise, I was after. There are plenty of forums I can go to if I want to participate in name-calling, and I sincerely hope that this one rises above that level - perhaps if we could all consciously work on keeping it civilised and impersonal.

    Actually, Marxism does not require "the wealth of the nation to be controlled by the state under the guise of public ownership". Marx's theory suggests that if humanity is to progress at all (and that is a big IF) then social organisation will move beyond private ownership of wealth to *true* public ownership of wealth. That is Marx's vision: true public ownership of wealth, the eradication of huge discrepancies in wealth and life chances, a truly egalitarian society in which there is no want and no poverty and in which human beings actually care about other human beings. This has not happened yet, but this does not mean it cannot or will not happen. Wow -anyone would think, the way people react in their minimal knowledge of Marx's work (and how they wilfully REFUSE to read his actual writings), that equality and an equitable distribution of wealth and life-chances were a bad thing. How is this bad? How is it wrong to want to adopt a more human approach in social organisation?

    To these statements I have only one response: read your own laws - the 'Patriot Act': http://www.epic.org/privacy/terrorism/hr3162.html

    Ok, how do you expect me to respond to the above statements? Apart from the fact that you are conducting a personal attack rather than addressing the issues under discussion, it is preposterous to suggest that Marx was stupid and a 'ranting idiot'; the only way in which you can honestly think or make such a statement is if you know nothing at all about his intellectual development and his intellectual work. I know you won't do this (because people make up their minds about things without even reading original authors - for some reason they think they can judge others' work without even knowing the work involved), but I don't see how we can have an intelligent, meaningful argument unless we know what we are talking about. Here is a website that publishes only SOME of Marx's vast body of works in case you decide you really want to learn anything about this: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/cw/index.htm . His most important work is Capital Volume 1, for those who are really interested in intelligent debate.

    Well, Marx = Hitler, huh? Ok, this is pure, irredeemable slander. Again, I know that you will not do this, but here is my suggestion for anyone who wants to
    be intellectually honest about this - read about Hitler's intellectual background and compare this with Marx's, and tell me how you can compare their work after that. Mein Kampf is not a research-based intellectual work, and it is Hitler's only publication. Marx's theory is developed over a number of complex works/writings that drew from respectable disciplines like English political economy (Adam Smith, David Ricardo) and German philosophy (Hegel, Feuerbach). Marx was a scholar whose work was based on extensive research and the application of his well-developed intellect (he trained as a lawyer, read in philosophy, edited a newspaper, studied political economy, etc).

    It is both grossly unfair and *very misleading* to compare Marx's life's work with that of Hitler, who was a school drop-out and a general failure intellectually. Just in case anyone is curious to read more objective histories of Marx, this Wikipedia URL is a good starting point: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marx . You can also read up Hitler's biography on the Wikipedia site to check that what I say is correct, ie that he was a school drop-out and cannot be compared to the serious scholar, Marx.

    I am after honest debate - let's try to be objective. Is it possible to be objective when discussing politics, I ask again? If not, then just declare that you refuse to be objective. But then I think it is important to be aware of your subjectivity, and not to fool yourself into believing that you have any interest whatsoever in truly understanding the world.

    Reading the kind of dialogue that passes as arguments in some of these political discussions, where people refuse to even read the references the 'opposing side' provide and to consider the hard evidence presented, is very frustrating. It is as frustrating to a political scientist as a physical scientist would find trying to talk to someone who believes the earth is flat and help them see, through the evidence of their own eyes (if only they would look) that it is NOT flat. Oh no, no matter what evidence you present, they stick to their view... Very, very frustrating.
  19. May 1, 2005 #18
  20. May 1, 2005 #19
    I wish I were more competent in political science. I don't even reach the level of amateur. But I'm enjoying very much your views and clear, informed exposition.
    I hope you meet interesting debatants in this forum. Please don't be disappointed too soon. Hope to keep on reading. Thanks.
  21. May 1, 2005 #20
    To quote Marx
    This is the essence of Marxism. Slavery of the able to the lazy as such a proposition can only be implemented by force. Nobody is going to give up his right to life voluntarily.

    You should go to North Korea then.

    If you are equating the Patriot Act with dictatorships, then you really need to learn something about dictatorships
    Last edited: May 1, 2005
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