In my recent piece about flat-earthers, and a previous piece about the Darwin Awards, I pointed out troubling behaviors of those who ostensibly show themselves to be “science appreciators”. Shaming, ridicule, and even glee over their demise are ugly practices and sentiments that give a bad impression of science advocates.
When an individual says or does something that reveals a rejection of scientific knowledge and basic reasoning skills, the science supporter undoubtedly feels a sense of frustration that science and reason were ignored. And they often assume that the person is ignorant and if they only hear facts or take part in a real-world test, they will change their mind. But if they don’t, then they are incapable of learning or hold less worth as humans. This is dangerous stuff. I can’t address the prejudice behind those feelings but I want to talk about why I strongly feel an over-reliance on science as the ultimate arbiter of what is acceptable is a bad habit built on a shallow understanding of the sociology of science.
Science, what is it good for?
Three people commented to me in disagreement with this part of the post:
“They think science is the best thing ever and can solve all the world’s problems. And if we just use science on it, we can fix it. That’s not a viable position.”
It seems they took that personally because they do subscribe to those sentiments about science as the best thing ever. My statement needs some unpacking and clarifications. It’s critical to understand science can refer to three separate things – a rigorous method to discover reliable information (usually about the natural world), a body of collected knowledge (e.g. science of the earth, zoology, pharmacology), and the community of people and vehicles that generate, disseminate, and maintain this knowledge.
While I do not agree that SCIENCE as a superhero or savior is an apt metaphor, I want to be VERY CLEAR about my position because many readers gloss over this part that I am quite adamant about: I appreciate science as the most reliable way of knowing and it should be used to inform applicable decisions we make – personally and collectively as a society. There are other ways of knowing that aren’t anywhere near reliable as what comes out of the long, drawn-out process of science (that never really ends).
As I wrote in a previous piece on this subject: Science is great, one of the best processes humans have come up with. It has everything to do with how we live long, productive, healthy lives. It is not, however, the be-all and end-all method of how to solve every problem.
Because of those tremendous qualities, it’s easy to overreach and attribute problem-solving capabilities to the scientific method alone. This overreach is frequently called “scientism”. Scientism has several definitions, one of which is the belief that science is a privileged way of knowing and all other ways are not useful to the same degree or at all (e.g. oral traditions, and personal revelation, rationalization, or observations). People who advocate reliance on science to the extent that they disregard other methods of gaining knowledge are practicing scientism. But, to qualify, not all arguments are the same. And where things go off the rails are when science results are used by society.
What always seems to happen in these discussions is that people start with different presumptions and the argument spins in another direction. It’s what happened on my Facebook page this week. Assumptions are regularly made about what science is, how it works, and what role it plays in human endeavors. I contend, but not everyone agrees, that there is more to “knowing” (to understand something as true with certainty) than the scientific method. We make judgments on the information we receive that reflect our values. Should we trust the source of information? How seriously should we take it? How do we best apply it in our own personal context?
In other words, science is the first step towards solving the problem – understanding it in a more precise way. Then, society or individuals take that information and do something with it (or rejects/ignores it). To say “science” can solve the problem is to leave out the second half which ends up being personal or political and almost always the stickiest part.
Blind faith in Science
The issue that has been making me uneasy for years now is the manifestation (regularly on social media, but IRL, too) of an almost blind faith in science that leads to it being fetishized. I include this as an expression of scientism. This is observable in those science enthusiasts who recognize the great value of science – that has given us wonderful technologic innovations, vaccinations that have saved billions of people, the ability to feed huge populations, and incredible knowledge about nature – but they have not recognized its problems and limitations. Many science enthusiasts are often non-scientists who have obtained their scientific knowledge from informal educational sources like media. The media portrayal of science (if positive) does not explore the breadth and depth of the scientific enterprise or the flaws and bias that manifest regularly within it.
Displaying an unquestioning reverence and devotion to science is something I see in things like the I F**king Love Science website and similar types of the commodification of the authority and products of science. People cheer for the news story or meme like devoted sports fanatics and ignore errors or obviously bad science. Or worse, they don’t even notice the errors or pseudoscience – IFLS is well-known for promoting garbage science. Pop science vehicles like this consist of pieces repackaged from the original source to be more palatable to readers cruising Facebook with short attention spans. Critique in response to each post isn’t welcome and comment threads are full of trash, often including vulgarity. The IFLS’s cartoonish image and “us smart people” vs “you dumb people” tone supports outsider’s charge that science is elitist. It’s no exaggeration to say that this audience reflects a significant portion of society’s attitude toward science – there are 25 million followers of IFLS alone. No attempt is made to drill down into the deeper reasons why the rejection of science and adoption of anti-intellectualism, in general, is rampant. I really don’t think the IFLS followers care about that. But, consider where the anti-authority, anti-intellectual sentiment in the US landed us. Serious science supporters should care and must consider going beyond just viewing and sharing science-themed memes that gloss over the underlying science resentment in society.
Why focus on scientism?
Philip Kitcher writes in a May 2012 piece called The Trouble with Scientism that it is folly to think everything human can be reduced to a scientific explanation:
“…it is tempting to infer that all phenomena―including human actions and interaction―can “in principle” be understood ultimately in the language of physics, although for the moment we might settle for biology or neuroscience. This is a great temptation. We should resist it. Even if a process is constituted by the movements of a large number of constituent parts, this does not mean that it can be adequately explained by tracing those motions.”
Kitcher defines science in a narrow way, however. If we interpret science as a structured method of observation, obtaining objective facts, and applying reason, then science applies to much of the humanities as well, particularly history. But his main message still resonates. Over-enthusiasm for science can mask the attention that should be paid to human social issues that are too complex for science to solve neatly and swiftly. For example, if science says that a fetus will be born with a seriously debilitating condition that will result in a less than full life, these facts are probably not the sole deciding factors for whether a child is carried to term. If science says that this food item is devoid of nutritional value and can even cause deleterious health effects, should we ban it? It has other value that I might miss were it to disappear. Can we stop using fossil fuels tomorrow when the best compromise for humanity might be to scale down gradually and/or invest money in other technology? These are all ultimately human decisions, not scientific ones but science has aided in the decision.
Many laws are informed by science (cigarette restrictions, use of alcohol and drugs, environmental regulations) but they are tempered by other human interests such as personal choice and pleasure, social norms, and economic considerations. Scientific inquiry will not get to the core of every issue in the world; human values often dictate the extent of the policy. When we over-emphasize science in informing policy decisions we increase the risk of making a rule that people will not accept. The book, Misunderstanding Science?: The Public Reconstruction of Science and Technology (Irwin and Wynne, 2004) provides case studies of how we mess up when we use a scientific hammer at the expense of other tools and when we shut out the non-scientific views.
Not all questions, especially those relating to social issues, are fit to be answered by a purely scientific approach, and some decisions make little sense when they are solely dictated by the science. It’s fine to talk about the science of kissing, why we dress a certain way, the physiology of falling in love, or making sacrifices for our children. There are far more to those choices than their scientific kernel. When it comes to finding human meaning, objective truths are often not enough.
We have not outgrown the need for philosophical discussion. Some questions will not be answered satisfactorily by solely scientific means. Just as with other societal issues, the problems and answers are not black and white but complex and multi-faceted. People can even look at the same data and see completely different conclusions. The flat earth dustup is an example – it is fed by distrust of the government, media, and scientific authority and there is a heavy social influence. You simply can’t just throw science at it as people who accept a flat earth have undoubtedly considered the round earth consensus and ultimately rejected it for an alternative. The critical question is why? I don’t think it’s education as much as other social causes.
Self-described skeptics may go so far as to reject certain subjects out-of-hand because “science” has already passed judgment on them. That kind of approach limits human understanding and acceptance. Millions of people, the majority of the US population, believes in at least one paranormal claim which are unsupported by scientific knowledge. Should we just berate such people or should we examine the underlying reasons for belief in psychics, UFOs, astrology, spirits of the dead, etc.? The distribution of belief in these ideas shows that different beliefs have different origins and influences. If you’d paid any attention to the history of science and humanity, it’s quite clear that we can’t boil it down to a general dictum that stupid people believe stupid things.
No amount of sciencing works if the belief is based on emotion or some other personal need. If it did, we’d have seen an across-the-board extinction of detrimental beliefs from the time of the Enlightenment and the dawn of the scientific age. Or education would eliminate all such beliefs. Instead, we have these unsinkable rubber ducks that continually float or pop back up. Applying more science to fix the issue is an overly-simplistic view that mischaracterizes the problem. Failing to define the problem correctly means you won’t solve it correctly either.
In conclusion, given the following points:
- Science is a human endeavor, not a perfect system, but a good one that should be employed in decision-making;
- Scientific information applied to a problem is the first step in resolving what will happen next; and
- Personal conclusions are heavily affected by values and other ways of knowing;
I conclude that blind devotion to science is not a good thing as it prevents a holistic understanding of how human society works. A better approach than to “throw science at it” would be to ask “What does the science say?” then ask, “What factors may conflict with or color the scientific conclusions?” Account for values and other worldviews when thinking about human beliefs and behaviors. That opens up not only greater understanding but potential progress toward a better society.
Note: There are likely grammatical and other errors in this piece. Apologies in advance as you have to be my proofreaders. Thanks.