Keeping Science and Ideology Apart



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Our stated policy at the Social Evolution Forum is that we focus on science. Ideological or partisan posts and comments, on the other hand, are discouraged (so far I only needed to remove two such comments; usually, simply asking commenters to refrain from straying into politics is sufficient).

There are good practical reasons for banning ideology from the SEF. During the early days of the Internet I have followed a number of discussion boards and on-line forums. With depressing regularity, they all foundered when the discussion turned from issues to politics, and then to increasingly bitter ad hominem attacks.


More generally, there are equally good practical reasons to keep ideology out of science as much as possible. Empirically, once ideology sneaks in, the quality of resulting science quickly deteriorates.



But we also want our science to be relevant. In fact, we scientists owe it to the society that ultimately supports us. It doesn’t mean that every scientific project needs to justify itself by promising to produce an immediate benefit to the society. Readers of this blog know that I think such an attitude is counterproductive (and, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid).

But ultimately – in the long run – science should be a force for good. Most scientists, a few ivory tower inmates excepted, agree on it.



This question has lately been much on my mind, because I am currently writing a critique of a scholarly book that boldly mixes up ideology and science (with predictable results). In general, history is a discipline that is particularly prone to be misused and abused for ideological purposes.

Incidentally, this is why the Soviet Union produced so few famous historians and social scientists, and so many fine mathematicians and chess players. Fortunately for the latter, dialectical materialism says nothing about how to prove theorems, or how to move figures on the chessboard.

If you know your history well enough, you can always find multiple historical examples to support any theory that you like – and a different set to support its logical opposite. This doesn’t mean that history is hopeless; it just means that we have to be careful about how we test our theories about the past. In particular, no cherry-picking is allowed. You must include all cases within a certain, objectively specified sampling set. Also, you have to worry about biases that may affect your data, including political agendas of chroniclers (and their bosses) and physical processes that may make some artifacts more persistent in the archaeological record than others. It’s technical, requires a lot of thought and work, but quite doable.


Saint Nestor the Chronicler

All of this is fairly obvious (which does not stop politicians and their academic shills from continuing to routinely abuse history). But consider another example. Suppose a small, but proud country teaches its youth about its glorious national past, its celebrated victories over external enemies, and the important contributions it made to the world’s cultural heritage. In reality, the surrounding empires never bothered conquering it, because it was too poor and had no strategic value; none of its writers are read outside the country, and none of its scientists ever got a Nobel Prize.

Would you insist that they bring their school curriculum in line with our best and objective historical scholarship? I am not sure I would. After all, nations need their ‘mythomoteurs’ (using the felicitous term of Anthony D. Smith and John Armstrong). Who knows, if you were to destroy their pride in their glorious past, it might degrade the ability of people inhabiting the country to cooperate within national institutions; it could increase cynicism and corruption, and ultimately lower their quality of life.

In other words, history curriculum in schools is not about science. It has much to do with social glue, but it is orthogonal to cliodynamics.

Of course, the sense of national pride and self-importance can get out of hand, as happened with Georgia in 2008. By attacking South Ossetia and Russian peace-keepers therein, the Georgians triggered the war with Russia, which led to a speedy and humiliating defeat, and a painful blow to national pride.

Not-so-small and proud nations are also prone to nationalistic hubris, with disastrous consequences for the surrounding countries and, often, for themselves. The example of the Nazi Germany is, of course, paradigmatic, but one can think of many others.

I am not sure if I can come up with any earth-shattering conclusions. Still, I believe that keeping science as ideology free as possible is a good idea. It’s very important not to mix ‘what is’ with ‘what should be.’ If we want to change the world for the better, we first need to be clear-headed about why societies work the way they are. Good science can yield politically incorrect and, sometimes, difficult to swallow results. But if we shy away from such unpalatable conclusions, we simply sweep the deep causes of social ills under the rug. That’s not the most effective way of changing our societies for the better.

So, in order to be the most efficient about achieving ‘what should be,’ we first need to ignore it in the pursuit of ‘what is.’ Only after we have figured out how societies function and evolve we can start designing ways of nudging them in the right direction.

What it also means is that any explicit (or even strongly implicit) ideological or partisan comments will continue to be ruthlessly expurgated!



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“After all, nations need their ‘mythomoteurs’ (using the felicitous term of Anthony D. Smith and John Armstrong). Who knows, if you were to destroy their pride in their glorious past, it might degrade the ability of people inhabiting the country to cooperate within national institutions; it could increase cynicism and corruption, and ultimately lower their quality of life.”

You have contributed to the understanding of how the countries or empires rise and fall through multi-level selection. Agree a ‘mythomoteurs’ is important for a country.

Would be interesting to see more work on entriprise rise and fall. Most often we think that competition is good because we get better products by beeing able to choose from products of several companies, but e.g. Salomonsson el al think competition is not only good for that but also because free riding inside companies is eliminated by competition:

“In similar models, Vega-Redondo (1993) and Sjöström and Weitzman (1996) discuss the effect of competition on efficiency. Within companies, employees have an incentive to shirk. However, if they do so, then their companies run a larger risk of going bankrupt, implying unemployment for the staff.”


Peter Turchin

Rob Axtell has several papers on modeling firms competing in the market place, consisting of heterogeneous agents. The dynamics are essentially group selection. This confirms my intuition that firms competing in the marketplace and polities competing in the international arena are, at base, very similar processes.


The personal reason for me being interested on the question is that I worked for Nokia in 19 years and saw the rise and fall of the asabiyah of the the company.

Peter Turchin

Sounds like there could be an interesting guest blog here. Let’s discuss it by e-mail.

Peter Richerson

An old political scientist colleague of mine, Paul Sabatier, had an interest in how scientists interacted with public policy. He once wrote a nice piece for a NAS panel on how he thinks scientists can be effective in applied fields. He contrasted his “advocacy coalition” view with the standard view that scientists are most effective when they act as disinterested experts. His observation was that effective applied scientists generally have in mind a problem they want to solve and a general idea of the means to solve it. They become long term members of coalitions that advocate particular solutions. Typically on important policy issues there are a few advocacy coalitions contending to influence policy, often just two. The scientists, engineers, etc. associated with each coalition try to establish facts that constrain the policy options that can be put on the table.

Here scientific objectivity does play an important role. Scientific peers not interested in the policy problem pass judgment one one’s science. If the scientists associated with one coalition can regularly get scientific papers related to the the policy issue in peer reviewed venues and the opposition cannot, a scientific rock can get planted in the policy road that all proposals for action have to work around. Often, scientists on both sides have their scientific reputations to protect, and may come to admit that an inconvenient rock has been One advocacy coalition may have to retreat on certain issues.

I have a copy of Paul’s essay and would be happy to pass it on to anyone interested.

Oreskes and Conway’s book Merchants of Doubt chronicles cases where the opposition was particularly well-funded, ideologically motivated, and unscrupulous. In such cases, winning the policy fight can be long and bitterly fought long after the main rocks constraining policy are quite well established.

Note added 14.V.2013 Here’s the Sabatier paper:

Peter Turchin

Pete, if you send the article to me, I can post it, and link it here.

More generally, what you seem to be suggesting is that the scientific community as a whole provides the objectivity check. I agree. But personally I don’t care to become closely associated with any policy coalition. I am primarily interested in science!

Richard Harper

Long ago when I took a course on the history of science I was struck by the influence of Charles II in that the reconciliation measures he took after the English Civil War formed much of the basis for the separation of Church and State, as well as the separation of Church and State from Science. (e.g. Cashiering a top admiral that had played a critical role in placing him on the throne because the admiral had insisted on the Catholic Mass for all the crew on his flagship. The informal policies of no discussion of religion or politics at Royal Society meetings — whose attendance had dropped to non-significance during the War. And so on.) I had thought I had read it in A History of the Sciences by Stephen Mason, but searching Google Books just now that appears to not be the case. I’m wondering just where I read the excellent chapter about that time.

Peter Turchin

Here we can discuss religion and politics – since this forum is on social evolution, we can hardly avoid these topics! But we will follow the good example of the Royal Society and ban all partisan-based comments.

Jeffrey Andrews

I couldn’t agree more. I learned sociology in my undergraduate and MA from post-modernists and Marxists, and I know first hand just how damaging teaching social sciences can be when it is tinged with ideological bents – I knew little and was very confused and bewildered about the world.

I must admit, I am amazed at how such things can be taught by honest academics to students are spending time and money on a formal education. Yet, at the same time it always serves as constant reminder of just how susceptible we (especially when we are young) can be to ideology – especially when it is widely believed, espoused by prestigious people and normative violations are punished.

Peter Turchin

Individually we are all susceptible to a variety of biases – ideological, theoretical, perceptional, etc. But the scientific method is the best tool we have to overcome such biases. Two things are critical: always checking your ideas against data, and the collective nature of the process.

Also, academia doesn’t really reward conformity. One of the best ways to get a job for a young scientist is by attacking an established dogma. Everybody wants to lead the next scientific revolution (sensu Thomas Kuhn).


Having just completed a doctoral program in the social sciences at an ivy league institution (and having a quantitative undergraduate background) I was deeply troubled by how much bias I found at every level. From the choice of faculty, to research paradigms, to the selection of material; the bias was pervasive.

I agree with Mr. Tolchin – the only way I can see forward is using science and reason and to attempt at every turn to root out bias and set it straight.

Normative models should be left to religious leaders until we can describe phenomena with at least some modicum of objectivity. This is no small feat!


Totally off topic, but it occurs to me that I’ve seen dogs bigger than the dragon St. George is skewering at the bottom of your post. I suppose the English may have puffed up the encounter a bit…


I frequently find myself in the role of “devil’s advocate” so why stop here. I wonder if other readers find any irony Mr. Tolchin’s use of the Nazi regime (a highly politicized, overused, and deeply troublesome recent historical example of all sorts of evil) in an article about avoiding mixing ideology with science.

This inclusion, whether intended or not, was a political act.

This is an excellent example of how hard it can be at times to separate the two.

It is my hope that Mr. Tolchin has the intellectual courage to admit the error and to redress it.

Peter Turchin

I think you are being too tough on me. If I used an argument ‘ad Hitlerum’ you would be correct to chide me, but this is a blog for popular audience and therefore I need to use examples that are well known. How many people even remember the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia, or know who attacked whom?


Science is always already tied up with ideology. Those who claim that empiricism is anti-ideology neglect to realize that anti-ideology is itself ideology.

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