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How the History of Science Demonstrates That Knowledge Is Power: Argumentative Essay

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The history of science is vast and varied, and yet there exists a particular, universal theme: the use of the advancement of knowledge (or restriction of it) to increase power. The word 'power' can have numerous connotations, but this essay will focus on just three definitions. Firstly, the power of individuals, either over citizens or of citizens, secondly the 'imperial' power of countries competing for supremacy in the world, and finally the power of humankind over nature - our ability to manipulate and control it. In all these cases, there are examples from the history of science that demonstrate that knowledge can lead to an increase in power, whether that be from a restriction and censorship of public knowledge to maintain power, a race to obtain the most knowledge first to show dominance or human kind’s thirst for knowledge to better our lives. These examples range from the beginnings of the study of natural philosophy in Europe in the 16th century to the most recent scientific advances, all demonstrating that knowledge is power.

The control of knowledge has often given power over the general population to authorities during the history of science. The most well-known example of this is the conflict between astronomers and the religious authority of Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. Before this period, the common view of the universe was that the Earth was in the center, with all other planets, stars, and the Moon orbiting around it (the Aristotelian model). The universe outside of the Earth and the Moon was thought to be unchanging and perfect, which matched the Neoplatonic teachings of the Catholic Church (more specifically, Joshua 10:13) at that time (Shapin, 1996, p.24). In 1543, Copernicus published 'De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium', which was the first work published that refuted the Church’s view of the universe. He suggested that the Sun was positioned at the center of the universe and backed up his theory with significant mathematical evidence. The Church was abhorred by this and believed that if this became common knowledge, their power over the citizens of Europe would lessen. So, the book was put into the Catholic Index of Prohibited Books and remained there until the early 19th century. This trend continued into the 17th century when Galileo used his telescope to make observations such as sunspots, which proved that the universe was not perfect (Shapin, 1996, p.17). Despite his links to the Church through connections with Barberini, who became the Pope in 1623, his attempt to prove Copernican theory and support the Church at the same time failed, and he was put on trial and subsequently into house arrest (Finocchiaro, 2007, p.53). These actions were likely taken as the Church believed that if it became common knowledge, people would begin to reject the Church, leading to a decrease in its power. This demonstrates that knowledge needed to be controlled and limited in some cases for the Church to maintain power over the citizens of Europe.

An analogous example to that of religion and astronomy in Europe is the control of the Chinese authorities over the dispersion of knowledge and technologies introduced by European explorers in the 18th century. When exploring distant areas of the globe, Europeans used new scientific instruments as gifts to gain a diplomatic foothold in already established countries (Dikötter, 2003, p.691). This was seen especially in China, where they presented gifts such as a planetarium and a chronometer to the imperial authorities. However, these new pieces of knowledge were not distributed or mentioned to the scholars in China as the authorities believed it would have given them too much power, which would have likely spread to the rest of the population (Dikötter, 2003, p.843). As such, it is clear that the authorities in China believed that knowledge is power and acted accordingly to maintain their own power over their citizens.

A final example of the use of knowledge to increase power over citizens is that of regional authorities in Italy using eudiometers to monitor and control people’s lives. The eudiometer was developed by British chemist Priestley in the 18th century as an instrument that could measure the amount of phlogiston in the air (Golinski, 2003, p.391). At that time, healthy air was thought to be pure and with as little phlogiston as possible, so this new instrument could be used to test the healthiness of the air. Instrument makers around Europe began producing and using eudiometers. For example, Fontana and Landriani sold their eudiometers to local governments in Italy (Golinski, 1992, pp.118-119). They claimed they could be used to monitor the atmosphere in certain areas, enabling the authorities to have more control over people’s lives, especially as it was still widely believed that the cause of many diseases was bad air. So, the supposed knowledge of phlogiston and the ability to measure it gave leaders power over their citizens as they believed it gave them the ability to know more about what their environment was like, and therefore they believed they were able to control their lives with more ease. The previous three examples have all shown that the control of scientific knowledge and instrumentation was used by authorities around the world, throughout the early modern period, to maintain power over the people in their region. As such, 'knowledge is power'.

The second form of power is the perceived power and dominance of countries around the world in comparison to their rivals, or 'imperial' power. A clear example of this is the rivalry between France and Britain, which manifested itself in the competition between Lavoisier and Priestley during the late 18th century to develop the correct theory of chemistry. Their methods were vastly different, with Priestley relying on his skillful use of very basic equipment to study gases and other elements, leading to him creating and backing the theory of phlogiston. This contrasted greatly with Lavoisier, who used the money earned in his past as a tax collector to develop novel instrumentation such as a calorimeter and balances alongside physicist La Place (Golinski, 2003, pp.392-393). These much more advanced methods of experimentation enabled him to prove that on burning the weight of metals increased, and so the theory of phlogiston (which was supposedly released by burning things) was refuted and replaced by the concept of oxygen in 1777. Despite quite conclusive evidence in support of Lavoisier, most British scientists continued in their support for Priestley, who continued to attempt to disprove Lavoisier, initially by questioning his equipment and then by rejecting the purpose of trying to disprove the theory of phlogiston (Golinski, 1992, p.140). These quarrels show how important scientific knowledge was to the respective countries in demonstrating their power and dominance over each other.

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Around the same time as the dispute over chemistry, European countries were fighting for dominance by attempting to explore and describe as much of the world as possible. Their primary aim was to set up trading posts around the world in order to establish power and wealth through trading, however, they also tried to discover as many lands as possible and claim them for themselves. This competition was initiated by the success of the British Endeavour mission, led by Captain James Cook alongside botanist Joseph Banks. This expedition achieved a huge advancement in the knowledge of the Pacific Islands such as Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, and New Guinea (Iliffe, 2003, p.627). Through the mapping of the coastline and the collection and analysis of flora and fauna, Britain was able to control and exploit the lands in the future. When this initial expedition returned and its successes recounted, France and Spain began to compete for dominance in the knowledge of natural history, largely studying South America rather than the Pacific (Iliffe, 2003, p.642), to which Britain continued to send crown-funded expeditions. The knowledge obtained on these expeditions was shown in museums and exhibitions, with each country attempting to bring back and understand increasingly impressive exotic goods. The involvement from each country’s authorities showed how significant this exploration and collection of knowledge was in representing the power of each nation in comparison to the others, as well as over the nations they reached during their expeditions.

A much more modern example of the intellectual battle for imperial power is that of the Cold War when America and the Soviet Union were competing to develop more advanced weaponry and spaceships in the arms and space races to prove their dominance. It could be argued that this competition began in World War I (Hughes, 2002, p.26) when nations were trying to develop more advanced explosives and chemical weapons to increase their chances during the war and therefore their power. However, the true intellectual conflict between the Soviet Union and America began towards the end of World War II, when Germany, the Soviet Union, and America were all attempting to develop a successful atomic bomb. This was the start of the arms race. Spies were sent to research labs in rival countries to try to learn how far ahead others were and how to improve their own weapons. In this first round, the unanimous winners were the Americans, who were the first to use atomic bombs. They used them twice on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 (Hughes, 2002, p.97). This contrasts greatly with the Soviet Union, which performed its first test in 1949 (Rubinson, 2016, p.16). As such, the United States laid out its dominance thanks to its more advanced technology and ability to collate and use the knowledge and expertise of the leading particle physicists such as Fermi and Einstein who had taken refuge in the country (Hughes, 2002, p.46). The attempt to develop more weapons didn’t end there, and as weaponry was made more dangerous, it became clear that governments really were desperate to use knowledge to gain or maintain power. For example, despite their major ethical objections to the development of the H-bomb, physicists Fermi and Rabi decided that the United States should still go ahead with it if the Soviets did the same (Rubinson, 2016, p.23). As such, there was a compulsion in both countries to constantly prove to the world that they were more powerful through their technological abilities. Up until this point, the United States had been ahead in the race for power, however in 1957, the Sputnik ship was launched by the Soviet Union, proving that they were significantly ahead in the space race. This triggered a huge incorporation of scientific input into governmental policy, with Eisenhower setting up the President’s Science Advisory Committee and passing the National Defence Education Act in order to put millions of dollars into science and engineering (Rubinson, 2016, pp.11, 29, 31). As such, this failure in the development of knowledge was seen as a huge setback that should be urgently rectified, demonstrating how closely linked knowledge was to the power of the state over its rival. So, knowledge is power.

So far, we have seen how control over, and the advancement of scientific knowledge is tightly linked to power in the more traditional sense; either over citizens or as a nation. Another, arguably more significant power that knowledge enhances is that over nature itself, so humans can manipulate it and benefit from such knowledge. A modern example of this is the recent development of genetic engineering and molecular manipulation that has resulted from our increased knowledge of molecular biology. The first major breakthrough that allowed these advances to take place was the determination of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick (alongside the work of Franklin and Watkins) in 1953 (Morange, 1998, p.110). For decades beforehand, the field of molecular biology had been growing steadily, but its progress was limited by the conundrum of the structure of DNA. Once it was established, it was much easier to understand how genes work, providing a starting point and enabling us to understand exactly how proteins are made over the following decades. Once this knowledge was developed, we could begin to modify the processes artificially using techniques such as recombinant technology, as such, increasing our control over natural processes. As such, new research endeavors like the Human Genome Project and technologies such as CRISPR have given us much more power to manipulate nature and, in cases such as cystic fibrosis, have begun to develop effective treatments and potential cures for molecular diseases. So, increased knowledge and understanding have led to increased power and control over natural processes.

Another medically relevant example of increasing knowledge leading to improved interventions and power over nature is that of the work of early bacteriologists. Even into the 19th century, people didn’t know what caused disease. Many believed it was caused by a miasma, or polluted air, a supernatural cause that couldn’t be controlled (Bynum, 1994, p.60). However, from the middle of the 19th century, research began to be conducted on potential physical causes of diseases that were devastating urban communities. The most famous of these studies is that done by John Snow, who looked at the cholera epidemics in London in 1849 and 1854 (Bynum, 1994, pp.79-81). Through significant data collection, he concluded that the disease originated from water, so could not be due to a miasma. Even though he could not identify the precise causative agent, the measures he suggested such as boiling water led to much improved control of cholera in the future. So, the collection of data, and therefore knowledge, led to the power of improved control over disease. This work was furthered in a much more objective way on the continent, where Koch and Pasteur independently developed the germ theory (that specific pathogens cause specific diseases) and new technology such as microscopes enabled scientists such as Filippo Pacini (the first to identify Vibrio cholerae) to observe these disease-causing microbes (Bynum, 1994, pp.81, 101, 107). Once these specific causes were identified, disease causation could be thought about in a much more straightforward fashion, so the public was more likely to undertake precautions to prevent the spread of disease. Also, the immunization technique pioneered by Edward Jenner in 1796 could be expanded and used to control other diseases (Bynum, 1994, p.107). This example is especially relevant to our current climate, in which increased data and understanding of the disease have led to a greatly improved method of disease control and limitation of death. So, the knowledge of specific disease-causing microbes meant that populations had the power to control the spread of disease.

The final example relates less so to practical power over nature but instead demonstrates the ability of increased knowledge and understanding to give humans the power to harness natural processes and phenomena and as such be theatrical through their manipulation of nature. It also shows how science can gain power over the public mind. During the Enlightenment period, between 1730 and 1790, scientists became increasingly fascinated by the phenomenon of electricity. Using the principles involved in the air pump developed by Robert Boyle in the 1660s and the excitement that was built among the scientific community by Francis Hauksbee’s displays of it in the Royal Society, scientists began to experiment with electricity and its effects, gaining apparent power over the laws of nature (Fara, 2002, pp.30, 38). Stephen Gray noticed that feathers could be attracted to corks at either end of his electric tube, so created experiments to test the limits of the transmission of electrical charge. Once he was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1730, he demonstrated such experiments and produced some apparently magical effects such as electrifying a boy hanging from the ceiling, which then caused feathers and other items to be attracted to him from below (Fara, 2002, p.44). Another equally impressive manipulation of electricity was performed by Benjamin Rackstrow, who succeeded in replicating a ‘beatification’, which involves creating a glowing crown above someone’s head (Fara, 2002, p.49). Rackstrow was not a scientist, instead, he owned a shop from which he sold furniture, mirrors, and picture frames. This demonstrates that the advancement of knowledge and understanding of electricity enabled people even with non-scientific backgrounds to manipulate natural phenomena, and gave them the power to produce impressive performances through such manipulation, captivating the attention of the public. So, knowledge is power.

In conclusion, the accumulation of knowledge throughout the history of science has led to an increase in the power of the human race. This includes power over nature, power of individuals over others, and the power of a country compared to the rest of the world. The prevalence of examples throughout history, from astronomy in the 16th century to ongoing scientific endeavors such as the Human Genome Project, shows that the connection between knowledge and power is not a one-off, nor is it particular to a certain form of power. Not only have there been examples in which increased knowledge has directly yielded increased power, but it has been shown that the concept of 'knowledge is power' was ingrained into many significant figure’s mindsets, with authorities determined to hold onto power restricting the knowledge held by others. Therefore, we can conclusively say that the history of science does demonstrate that knowledge is power.

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