It’s impossible to present so-called scientific “findings” about the human mind that are morally neutral.
Celebrate superstition? An article posted by PhysOrg, a science news site, encourages superstition. “Friday the 13th and other bad-luck beliefs actually do us some good,” the headline announces, parroting uncritically a press release from the University of Cincinnati. According to professors at the university, superstition can help people with “making sense of events that might otherwise seem inexplicable.” So is this benefit good for everyone? Then why don’t scientists use a rabbit’s foot or four-leaf clover to understand the big bang, dark matter or the theory of evolution?
Bad health: For decades, experts told us to avoid dietary cholesterol, especially from eggs. Now, that recommendation is being dropped from the U.S. national Dietary Guidelines, Medical Xpress reports. And Science Daily says that “historic US and UK reports on dietary fats should not have been introduced” because they were so wrong.
National dietary advice on fat consumption issued to millions of US and UK citizens in 1977 and 1983, to cut coronary heart disease incidence, lacked any solid trial evidence to back it up, and “should not have been introduced,” concludes research published in the online journal Open Heart.
This does not mean you can eat anything you want, another Medical Xpress article was quick to add; and New Scientist countered the new study with evidence that saturated fats are still a risk factor for atherosclerosis. But can one trust “experts” who gave misleading advice for 38 years?
Sex sins: Can scientists and their uncritical reporters absolve themselves from moral responsibility for appearing to justify kinky sex on evolutionary grounds? Consider these cases: Stephanie Pappas says on Live Science that “polyamory stigma lessens with familiarity.” The article begins with a photo of two women with a man in a bathtub. Her fellow reporter Tia Ghose on Live Science matched that with this story: “Both Monogamy and Polygamy May Be Natural for Humans,” implying that these “mating strategies” may have evolved as unconscious behaviors, not moral choices. Medical Xpress headlined a recent article, “LGBT teens who come out at school have better self-esteem, study finds.” And Rob Brooks on The Conversation explains why he thinks “Male sexual despots rewrite history,” using Genghiz Khan as an example of “great evolutionary fitness.”
Science says: More evidence came forward that scientific findings can be heavily biased, influenced by money, or otherwise untrustworthy. Medical Xpress reported on a study by Italian investigators who found “Evidence-based medicine is only a restrictive interpretation of clinical medicine” (cf. 9/12/13). Vivian Callier reported for Science Magazine that “A little bias in peer review scores can translate into big money, simulation finds.” One researcher was blown away: “That such a minor bias could change funding outcomes is frankly shocking,” she said, warning about how even subtle bias can alter funding decisions. Meanwhile, a scientist quoted on PhysOrg describes “How storytelling improves science.” Most people view storytelling as the opposite of science.
Trust me: Science media got a black eye last year by hyping premature claims that evidence for cosmic inflation had been found (3/17/14, 9/25/14). But can we trust Science Magazine now when it announces, “Misfire aside, signs of cosmic inflation could come soon”? That’s a pretty big misfire to just put aside. Should the public swallow Chad Orzel’s headline on The Conversation, “Failure in real science is good – and different from phony controversies”? Why is failure good for “real science” but not for other people? What is “real science” compared to “unreal science”? What criteria would Orzel use?
These stories provide good reasons for grounding yourself in philosophy of science. We tend to reify science as some objective Thing out there, a knowledge-generating machine that any flunky can operate by turning a crank. Sometimes, it’s cranks that turn the flunkies into machines.
Rather than thinking of “science” as an objective Thing, we should realize that only fallible human beings do science. People are just as gullible, as fallible and as malleable doing science as they are when doing politics, law, or baseball umpiring. The only thing different is the subject of their inquiry, which is supposed to be animals, plants, cells, stars and other “natural” phenomena. But are human beings merely “natural phenomena,” subject to physical forces? That’s reductionism. Thinking so would undercut science itself. It’s also a symptom of the Yoda Complex. Harry Jaffa said in 1989,
… the fact that the form of a thing can be separated from its matter is the very heart of human understanding, and of human intelligence. Without this possibility, modern science itself would not be possible, because all science presupposes the detachment of the mind from its object as a condition of human speech about the object.
What should matter with scientific claims is the integrity and diligence of the research. A good scientist will not extrapolate beyond the bounds of the experiment. A good scientist will not conflate “is” with “ought”. Lie Seance may find that “polyamory stigma lessens with familiarity,” but that does not mean polyamory is healthy. Fortunately, Live Science did warn in one of its articles that the vulgar, sadomasochistic sex in the movie “Fifty Shades of Grey” sends a dangerous message to teens; two pediatricians warned of dating violence the movie glamorizes. Their authority, however, is mere assertion: “Simply put, some truths are black and white, not shades of grey.” On whose authority? God, in the Ten Commandments? On what basis can Lie Seance glorify polygamy but discourage sadomasochism? Evolution?
C. S. Lewis cautioned that there is no such thing as “scientific” thinking; there is only logical thinking:
The physical sciences, then, depend on the validity of logic just as much as metaphysics or mathematics. If popular thought feels ‘science’ to be different from all other kinds of knowledge because science is experimentally verifiable, popular thought is mistaken. Experimental verification is not a new kind of assurance coming in to supply the deficiencies of mere logic. We should therefore abandon the distinction between scientific and non-scientific thought. The proper distinction is between logical and non-logical thought.
Scientific claims should be judged on their logical basis (which includes proper interpretation of evidence), not trusted merely because they are reported by a website or research that arrogates the term “scientific” to itself.