Consider for a moment the current Climate Change debate (or the somewhat older debate over the Theory of Evolution). In both cases, both the scientific and non-scientific side are simultaneously asserting truth and applying sociopolitical force to control the perspective of the other side. This is power-knowledge, and it is pervasive in human culture. I suspect that Foucault meant that power-knowledge is the essence of pedagogy (though I don't think he ever said that), because pedagogy always has three components:
- The assertion that I/we know the truth
- The assertion that you/they must learn it
- The pragmatic political reality that I/we get to judge your/their knowledge, and punish any failure to conform or cohere
Despite Foucault's cynical and jaded approach to this topic, power-knowledge is a normal and usually non-problematic dynamic. When we first learn to drive a car, people tell us that a stop sign means to stop the car and look for crossing traffic before preceding. Most of us recognize that this piece of knowledge is meant to prevent car accidents, and thus represents a degree of power over our circumstances. Some people don't realize that, or don't care, and then we have systems of authoritative power — police offices writing expensive tickets, consequent increases in insurance rates, the potential for losing one's license to drive — meant to impose the truth that a stop sign means stop. In this case the body politic establishes a rule as truth, and sets up tests of that truth that every member of the body politic must pass, or suffer punishments.
Science is (perhaps) a special case, because science's form of power is (for lack of a better term) validation-shame. Basically, someone presenting a scientific theory to the world is saying:
- Here's a theory
- Here are cases where one can see with one's own senses that the theory works in practice
- Anyone who cannot or will not see such obvious pragmatic cases is too stupid or vain to be worth listening to
You may think that last statement is overly harsh, but that is exactly the attitude that anti-evolutionists, climate change deniers, flat earthers, moon landing truthers, and other anti-science movements are responding to: The presumed intellectual superiority of science.
Science advances when new theories shame old theories into quiescence. If you've read Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", he points out a number of such cases, where a new theory is proposed and a huge (and often nasty) squabble ensues. Most people initially reject the new theory. A few diehards who've made their careers on the old theory dig in as though it were a fight to the death. Over time the sheer empirical obviousness of the new theory brings most people around — they don't want the shame that comes from aligning with the hard-line diehards — and a new paradigm is formed. The validation aspect pushes the discipline forward (because no one will switch to a new theory that doesn't explain more than an old theory), the shame aspect solidifies it into a paradigm (because no one wants to look dumb by ignoring a better tool). The same is true in technology: who would stick with a land-line when a flip-phone is available, and who would stick with a flip-phone when a smart-phone is available? The validation of improvement and the shame of backwardness drive people in a certain direction. So even the seemingly prosaic aspects of science and technology are still manifestations of power-knowledge: the imposition of 'truths' through sociopolitical pressure.