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What Is Science?
The scare quotes around “science” are intentional, because – think about it – it’s such a vague term, isn’t it? What’s behind it, or, to use a different image, under its umbrella? I thought I’d start by doing a search for “what is science” and see what popped up, and this is the first site my search yielded: “Understanding How Science Really Works.”
The first screen begins with a broad statement: “Science is both a body of knowledge and a process.” Okay, good beginning. Facts and a way of gathering them? The site goes on to say that science is “exciting,” “useful,” “ongoing,” and “a global human endeavor,” but we could say that about many human activities, couldn’t we? We have to click to get to other screens and more specific answers to the original question. Pursuing the question, then, we are told that scientists seek explanations of phenomena in the natural world by means of observation, analysis of evidence, and the testing of hypotheses.
I appreciate the way this site lays out the limits of science, acknowledging that science cannot make moral or aesthetic judgments, cannot deal with the “supernatural” (not a big concern of mine), nor can it tell human beings how scientific knowledge should be used. The first and third limitations are ones I take very seriously. As philosophers say, “’Should’ implies ‘can,’ but ‘can’ does not imply ‘should.’” I.e., we are not obligated beyond what is possible for us; at the same time, a possible course of action isn’t necessarily one that’s good for us to follow. And while we may look to science for certain relevant facts, we can’t turn to it for decisions about how we should live.
For a shorter definition of science, look here. What do you think of the definition? Did you read what is included under “methodology”? I’ll come back to this shortly, but first there is the question of public fear and mistrust of science.
So What’s the Problem?
Is it only ignorance and superstition that explain so many people these days backing away from science like nervous, trailer-shy horses? Many scientific issues are so complex, it’s true, that only the most advanced practitioners in their very narrow fields even understand the questions posed. I once worked in an office that had a “Science for Citizens” program among its many projects, but there is a limit to how far such a program can go.
Does human irrationality come into the picture? Doubtless, on some issues it does. Give me statistics until the cows come home about how much safer I am in an airplane than in a car, and I’ll continue to approach commercial flight with trepidation that rarely assails me on the road.
The way we’ve always done things, what we’re used to, what we learned back in school, etc.—all these can get in the way of our accepting new scientific knowledge. But I can’t help thinking there’s a lot more than that going on and that “science” and its would-be defenders have made some very serious public relations problems for themselves. Claiming intellectual superiority over the whole world is not a way to win hearts and minds.
For some people, “science” has become a religion. Again I use scare quotes intentionally, because if there’s anything science should never be, it’s religion. When “science” is used to cut short inquiry rather than to respond to it respectfuly, it isn’t science at all. It’s dogma.
Science gives provisional truths, not eternal verities. Received scientific knowledge must always be open to question. But all too often doubts and arguments are dismissed if and when they contradict “scientific research.” Please, tell me more! Who funded the research? Over what length of time was it conducted? Has it been replicated? What long-term consequences might we expect? People for whom “science” is a religion have a tendency to speak and behave as if anything coming out of a laboratory is above and beyond question. I repeat: this is not a scientific attitude.
And yet, the science-as-religion crowd (and they would never label themselves as such) take themselves to be defending rationality against ignorance and superstition. How’s that for a conversation stopper?
I want to go back now and pick up the Science Council’s definition of science, for which I only gave the link above. For those who didn’t follow the link, here's the definition:
Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.
Further down the screen, the first item included in scientific methodology is objective observation. Repetition, verification, testing, peer review and assessment are also included. (Follow the link for the entire list.)
It is no secret any longer that conflicts of interest rage in academic and medical circles and infect much that is published in the most respected journals. This is not trivial. Read about it if you haven’t already.
Conflicts of interest, fueled by financial considerations or career advancement or both, easily lead to bad “research.” How can a researcher be objective if his or her income or career hangs in the balance? For example, what kind of studies would be necessary to demonstrate safety for human beings of a given drug (or herbicide or hormone or industrial process)? One corporate-funded study? Six weeks of unaffected health in a couple hundred mice?
Here’s something else that has become common knowledge: all human beings are prone to a host of irrational biases. Note that uneducated lay people are not the only human beings to be so afflicted. Scientists are human, too. Go down the list of biases and see how many might affect scientific research, not forgetting for a minute that big money is usually involved, too. Once you get started, it’s pretty easy to see where problems can arise.
A surgeon naturally looks for surgical solutions. A researcher funded by a pharmaceutical company is going to see big benefits in prescription drugs, probably the ones the funding company makes. Engineers seek to solve problems within their realm of expertise; they don't look to other fields. Confirmation bias assures each expert of the superiority of her or his professional approach; ingroup bias strengthens that conviction; etc., etc.
When an established researcher writes a paper on how published research findings are more likely to be false than true, is it any wonder the public doubts the latest pronouncements of scientific truth?
Science in a World Where Everything Is For Sale
Oddly, perhaps, it was a book on economics that put the question of scientific objectivity in my head again this morning--that and (here I digress briefly) the fact that I posted a link on Facebook and got jumped on because not because of the information given (at least not directly) but because of the source of the information. The criticism was legitimate and prompted me to seek out better sources (which are easily found), but once again the question that emerged, for me, was: Who gets to wear the mantle of “science,” and who doesn’t? And the corollary question: How much respect should the mantle confer?
Joseph Schumpeter’s thesis back in 1942 was that capitalism was not headed for failure but that its very successes would be the death of it. I’m only about a third of the way through Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy but find it fascinating. Here, for instance, is a very strong, unqualified statement:
I have no hesitation in saying that all logic is derived from the pattern of the economic decision or, to use a pet phrase of mine, that the economic pattern is the matrix of logic.
Economic logic, he goes, beats magic in being both definite and quantitative, and due to its successes it readily spreads,
...spreads under the pedagogic influence of favorable experiences to other spheres and there also opens eyes to that amazing thing, the Fact.
Human beings were self-interested, even greedy, before capitalism, Schumpeter says, but capitalism exalted the unit of money, leading the way to cost-profit calculations (what we know as cost/benefit analysis), and that attitude, or method—well, let him tell you in his own words—
...this type of logic or attitude or method then starts upon its conqueror’s career, subjugating—rationalizing—man’s tools and philosophies, his medical practice, his picture of the cosmos, his outlook on life, everything in fact including his concepts of beauty and justice and his spiritual ambitions.
[Facts! I am reminded of the Gradgrinds in the novel by Charles Dickens, Hard Times. Wealth and poverty feature in most, if not all, of the Dickens oeuvre, but in Hard Times, Schumpeter’s “matrix of logic” really comes to the foreground.]
Schumpeter thinks capitalism destroys its own support system. As capitalism “chases away” metaphysical beliefs and all kinds of mystic and romantic ideas, and as the capitalist world becomes more and more depersonalized and automated (what would he say in 2017!), and nothing is any longer sacred, everything can be questioned and held up for criticism, including capitalism itself. Rationalism, then, capitalism's motive force, is also its undoing.
If he is right—and his argument stretches over 400-plus closely argued pages, to which I have by no means even begun to do justice—then science too, as a natural outgrowth of capitalistic logic, is a self-cannibalizing proposition. Teach people to reject undemonstrated truths, and they will have no truck with your new shibboleths. Tell them to question authority, and they will question yours. Start down this road, and there is no turning back. But it was--and here's the paradox--the only road along which science could develop!
What about the money that built the road? When the project of “science” seems to have become primarily, in far too many cases, only another avenue for seeking profit at the expense of truth, when it comes to be seen, along with politics, as simply a tool to deliver increased wealth to those at the top by denying self-determination* to those at the bottom, is it any wonder there is growing public mistrust? Science, like politics, has sold out too many times to expect universal unquestioning admiration.
[* "For mankind is not free to choose. ... Things economic and social move by their own momentum and the ensuing situations compel individuals and groups to behave in certain ways whatever they may wish to do—not indeed by destroying their freedom of choice but by shaping the choosing mentalities and by narrowing the list of possibilities from which to choose."]
Here I would close with the old saw, “Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas,” except that I consider it a terrible libel on the nature of dogs. Also, I probably need to say straight out that I am not taking an anti-science stance, nor am I opposing rationality. It's simply that I don’t regard scientists as gods, nor do I trust blindly in “scientific” pronouncements that come from behind locked doors of corporate secrecy. If you do, you are being neither “scientific” nor “rational.”
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