As I will demonstrate, it’s no exaggeration to say that without anarchy we would be living in the dark ages, which are a pretty good example because it turns out that during that period the Catholic Church was doing a stellar job of repressing the greatest example of anarchy known to humankind.
I’m talking, of course, about science — that glorious exhibition of anarchic principles in operation, continuously demonstrating that anarchy can work, and that it works remarkably well.
Consider this sobering thought: the scientific community as an anarchic structure spent the last century having quickly adopted the utterly insane (for the time) premise of quantum mechanics and has been implementing and improving on it ever since, to the benefit of humanity as a whole. The United States of America, on the other hand, is a “representative democracy” that’s like 300 years old or something, and it still can’t quite agree to the wacky notion that all humans deserve equal rights and representation under the law, much less make good on that promise, which featured front-and-center in the Constitution which incorporated it.
I dunno, but it sure seems like lumbering de facto power structures aren’t really that great at changing for the better; though they’re certainly quite good at rapidly retaliating and suppressing any and all alternatives.
Over the last while, more or less since the time the BLM movement really began making waves, I’ve noticed the word anarchist being thrown around a bit more than usual. Google Trends seems to disagree with my brain though, so perhaps there is less of an increase in the use than I thought. Still, turn on the news and you’ll be hard-pressed not to hear that “anarchists” are rioting, or looting, or plotting to steal The Election (TM), or … whatever.
One thing which is certain is that anarchy is used most frequently in the negative sense, often as a slur of sorts, which is a fact that is actually quite cynically reasonable, when you think about it.
Politicians and the cool kids started it, but the word has been used as a drop-in replacement for “bedlam”, “running amok”, and generally describing any situation where there is nothing but chaos for at least a half a century now. “Chaos” is not anarchy, though; you can tell because they are different words. Nevertheless, the word has been used in that respect for so long, by so many people in a position of power, that it’s simply become the way we use it culturally. “It’s anarchy out there” is understood by all to mean “Everything’s gone pear-shaped.”
It’s a perfectly reasonable thing for people in power to want to obscure the word though, because anarchy is the antithesis of everything they represent, as we shall see shortly. Suffice to say for now that by turning anarchy into a catch-all for “a pretty bad state of affairs” serves them well, because anarchy is any state in which those in power don’t have the same sort of power anymore.
Clever individuals have subverted the meaning of the word, which is nothing more than a reference to a state of a society, or a way of constructing groups. Instead, it’s more frequently used to describe a situation where the current power structure has failed or is failing, in an attempt to blame the problems on that specific power structure’s lack of control.
The statement that without a power structure there is anarchy, is roughly accurate. However, as we will see shortly, anarchy (and therefore, a lack of power structure) is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be the greatest strength of any group of people, allowing it to be both rigorous and adaptable simultaneously.
To that end, I’d like to take a brief journey into a real-life, existing form of anarchy; one which is essential to our everyday lives and enhances them greatly.
Science is anarchy.
The first indication of this fact is that nobody is in charge of science — there is no actual authority in science. We have no science pope, no president of science, no scientific parliament, nada.
That this truth is often startling to most people when I mention it is a tragic indication of the sorry state of science education. Rather than focusing on the scientific method, rational inquiry, skepticism, and analysis, we focus on facts and figures and formulae, and insist that they are correct because of some sort of scientific authority which does not exist.
At least … not as such.
This is where we have to talk about the concept of de facto authority. Essentially (and bear in mind that this is a simplification) de facto authority means official authority. The US government is a de facto authority — whether or not a person thinks that it should be in charge, it is in charge. You can tell that it is in charge because if you do things that it says you shouldn’t, somebody will come and physically force you to stop doing them, or make you go someplace unpleasant so that you can’t do those things anymore. If you have pigmented skin, there’s even a much higher chance you’ll even be murdered by agents of that authority …
You don’t have to agree to de facto authority’s rules, but you do have to follow them.
Back to science, one can see that there is no de facto authority. There are experts in their fields, there are scientific journals of repute and renown, there are scientific bodies composed of scientists and engineers who design standards and uniform measurements and definitions, etc. But, none of those are actually in charge of anything.
Consider the IAU — The International Astronomical Union — who, in 2006, announced that it had refined the rules which classify an object as a planet, leading to the controversial demotion of Pluto from planet to dwarf planet. This kicked off a societal brouhaha, one which I sincerely doubt that many non-astronomers have managed to get over even to this day.
What’s important to note here is that nobody has to listen to the IAU. They’re not actually in charge of space, or planets, or anything at all except for their own set of rules and compendium of research, which people, scientists, and governments can choose to use or ignore.
Should you choose, you may write a paper in which you constantly refer to Pluto as a planet. You may submit this paper to a scientific journal. You will receive a rejection slip in return. This may be emotionally painful and not a little bit embarrassing, but there are no science cops who will issue a warrant for your arrest and imprisonment. The most official thing that might happen is that if you continue to do shoddy science you may be ejected from an official scientific organization, like the IAU, if you were a member in the first place.
You don’t have to join the IAU to be an astronomer though. Likewise, there is no licensing division for scientists, so if you would like, you are free to call yourself a scientist. If you keep calling Pluto a planet though, without any good explanations for why the IAU and every other astronomer of repute has agreed to stop doing that, then while people may say “Oh so-and-so, they’re not even a real astronomer”, you can rest comfortably, knowing that the Official Astronomer card you issued to yourself is in no danger of being revoked.
The same is true of all science. You don’t have to follow anyone else’s rules. It is pure anarchy!
If you’re concerned that this means that anyone could publish junk science then let me be the first to tell you: that’s exactly right. Check out the Family Research Council sometime. It’s a splendid example of how anyone can start up a “scientific journal” of their own, fill it with garbage that would never pass peer review anywhere else, and shove it out for gullible people to use, and sometimes even cite.
How is science policed, then?
There is no Science Government that can shut the Family Research Council down and arrest them for being wrong about nearly everything, doing shoddy research and analysis, and outright lying when they feel the urge to do so. Science is powerless to stop them from saying — with a straight face too, amazingly — that they are doing real research.
This isn’t the disadvantage that it may seem though, because the scientific community has other tools at their disposal. Think of it this way: nobody whose work is taken seriously in the broader scientific community in relevant fields of study takes the FRC seriously.
The FRC just … doesn’t get invited to parties anymore. Nobody takes it seriously or wants to be involved with it.
There aren’t any science cops to come and arrest you because you used the integral instead of the differential form of Maxwell’s equations in your paper. They also won’t show up to arrest a professor for writing in cursive on the blackboard. Perhaps these things would be nice, but that’s irrelevant. If it means there have to be pigs, it’s a bad thing: nobody should want a system that needs to invent cops.
Likewise, those science cops won’t show up if you’re flagrantly trying to peddle your ideological opinions as scholarly research. There’s no reason trying to punish those sorts of people, because they won’t learn, and it’s far more effective to simply alternate between ignoring them when they’re shouting and mocking them later, when they’ve left the room.
So, science is anarchy?
I like to say that science’s greatest strength is that it is about conventions, not regulations; about consensus, not mandates. Anyone and everyone is welcome to call themselves a scientist, and they can call anything they do science, but if they want other people to use those words to describe them, they’ll need to voluntarily adopt a variety of conventions. The fewer they adopt, the harder it will be to engage in the scientific community.
If this sounds like a high-school clique, you’re missing a lot of the nuances, or else you’re deluding yourself to the realities of life as a human. Nearly everything we do is a high-school clique; that’s called society. The only thing that changes between the human social interactions that we mock as childish when high-schoolers form them naturally, is that when we become adults we start handing guns to certain people so that they can enforce the things the popular crowd decides. It’s strange to me that people seem to confuse being an adult with being mature or making good decisions, when just a casual glance around will show how stupendously erroneous that conclusion is.
There were two reasons that I wrote this post. The first was to highlight that anarchy is not a synonym for bedlam, using science as the example of anarchy working well.
The other reason is to lay the groundwork for my next few posts, in which I’m going to be comparing de facto government solutions, to those of anarchy. Typical discussions about this are limited to the theoretical — “what if we had an anarchic society, what would that look like?” We’ve got an anarchic system though, it’s called the scientific community, so we know what a practical one would look like. What I’m going to do is look at the common problems we look to power structures to solve, and see how traditional government compares to the way the scientific community handles the analogues.
If you take one thing away from this post, let it be that any time you hear the word anarchy used to describe a chaotic nightmare situation, you will remember that all the things made possible in your life by science would never have existed if it weren’t for the fact that anarchy works, and it works remarkably well for science.