Is Science Special?
Scientists are gathering this month to march – for what? How different is Big Science from any other special interest group making demands on the government?
In the wake of the Trump presidency, leaders of Big Science (journal editors and academy spokespersons who presume to speak for ‘science’ and for every scientist) are rallying the troops against what they perceive as threats to ‘science,’ as if science is some independent ‘thing’ out there that exists independently of humans and must be protected. There’s the big ‘March for Science’ coming on April 22. There’s been a flurry of editorials. Angry letters protest the Trump administration, primarily worried about cuts to ‘science’ funding (even though Trump very openly congratulated NASA with strong funding; see Space.com). Here are a few examples of the genre:
- “Science for Life,” editorial by Bruce Alberts in the AAAS journal Science. He says, “Science is an amazing human invention—a huge community effort to discover truth through repeated cycles of testing and self-correction”
- “AAAS seeks to uphold science’s role in policy-making,” by Becky Ham in Science. “In Boston, attendees expressed a diverse set of worries about the future of science, stemming in part from their fears about how the new presidential administration in the United States will curtail research spending, international scientific collaboration, and a respect for fact-based policy-making.“
- “How scientists should communicate their work in a post-truth era,” Andy Miah, The Conversation. “There may be a need for politicians to undertake training in understanding the scientific method to help them distinguish fact from fiction.”
- “Why are some people more gullible than others?” by Joseph Paul Forgas, The Conversation. As opposed to System 1 thinking that is anecdotal, intuitive and feeling based, “System 2 thinking is a much more recent human achievement; it is slow, analytical, rational and effortful, and leads to the thorough evaluation of incoming information,” Forgas asserts. “While all humans use both intuitive and analytic thinking, system 2 thinking is the method of science, and is the best available antidote to gullibility.“
Common to these kinds of writings are a number of dubious assumptions:
- Technological advance justifies scientism (i.e., that science is the best path to reliable knowledge, if not the only one).
- Scientists are less prone to error than other humans, by virtue of being scientists.
- Scientific findings are trustworthy, by virtue of the methodology used— the so-called ‘scientific method’.
- All sciences are equally ‘scientific’ (implying, reliable).
- All scientists are generally honest, and those who are not are quickly outed by the community (sometimes stated as, “Science is self-correcting”).
- Scientists are fairly immune to the ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ problems that plague non-scientists.
Philosophers of science have a long history of critiquing each of these assumptions. But even if these statements were taken for granted, they could only be as good as the integrity of the people who call themselves scientists, and the congruence of their actual work to these ideals.
For a taste of scientism’s vulnerability to charges of hypocrisy, take a look at statements by J. Scott Armstrong, statistician and forecasting expert at Wharton College, who critiques the methods of one of the biggest Big Science projects in the world: climate change. Though posted by Breitbart News, the credibility of this right-leaning news source is not the issue, since one can listen to Armstrong’s own words in the video. Armstrong evaluated numerous scientific papers on climate forecasting and concluded that “Fewer than 1 percent of papers published in scientific journals follow the scientific method.” To the extent his analysis is true, scientism deflates. Unless every scientist and every scientific institution illustrates the above principles, ‘science’ forfeits its right to dictate to other people what is true and what they should do.
Update 4/05/17: Dr. Kesten Green, co-author of Armstrong’s study, told Breitbart News the following on April 4: “Most of what passes for scientific research these days is either useless, or it’s harmful, because it seems like science, but it’s actually designed to support a predetermined position. And advocacy is the opposite of science.” Green compared the bias in science to the rampant advocacy in Big Media.
Update 4/05/18: Catherine Rudder (George Mason U) rebuked those who assume they can mix the ‘March for Science’ with partisan politics. Writing in PNAS, she worries that many coming to the march are motivated by anger at Trump’s election and fears of changes in policy and funding it might bring. “Science has always been a bipartisan issue; it would likely be counterproductive for the march to be perceived as opposing one party and favoring the other,” she cautions.
As for #1 (technology justifies scientism), recall that ancient civilizations built monumental works of stunning complexity without modern science. Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb was humbled by the ancient Mayans’ skill in mathematics and astronomy— gained by people who planned warfare by the stars and engaged in human sacrifice! (see Evolution News). “The only way to work out whether we are on the wrong path,” he concluded, “is to encourage competing interpretations of the known data.” But that is not a skill exclusive to science. It’s a general character quality each and every human needs to develop, no matter his or her occupation. One of the biggest gripes of climate ‘deniers’ and Darwin skeptics is that those in the consensus refuse to consider “competing interpretations of the known data.”
In recent articles in the defense-of-scientism genre, one on New Scientist was a little more thoughtful than others. Michael Brooks, writing “Inside knowledge: What makes scientific knowledge special,” begins and ends with the expected conclusion that ‘yes, science is special’. But he gets there through the mud of reality.
NULLIUS in verba: “take nobody’s word for it”. The motto of the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science, encapsulates the spirit of scientific enquiry. Do an experiment, record its outcome faithfully and objectively, and make that record available for doubters.
This way of working means that, if knowledge is defined as the route to the truth (see “Knowledge: What separates fact from belief“), science is an expressway to enlightenment. Thanks to what science tells us about human physiology, the universe’s history, nature’s forces and Earth’s geology, flora and fauna, we know Earth isn’t flat, the universe is nearly 14 billion years old, and that there are no dragons or unicorns. We live longer and in more comfort, and can send space probes to the edge of the solar system. Pretty darn special, huh?
But let’s take a more sceptical look, starting with that “we”. Some people do believe Earth is flat. Others say the universe is 6000 years old. Some doubt the theory of evolution by natural selection, or the reality of human-made climate change. We is not everyone.
He omits the fact that most of the founders of the Royal Society were Bible-believing Christians, but this is pretty typical rhetoric so far: ridicule the Bible-believers, the creationists and the climate skeptics, and associate them with flat-earthers. This either-or fallacy puts ‘science’ (whatever he means by the generalized, subjective, vague term) on a pedestal. Then, however, Brooks turns the gun sight off the straw man and onto the shooter.
First, he admits that scientific truth is only provisional, not absolute. Because of the probabilistic nature of science, it loses certainty the more complex the phenomena under study—such as global climate. Well, what about that ‘take nobody’s word for it’ motto?
It is a weakness (or strength, depending on your point of view) exploited with gusto by climate-change sceptics, among others. But it points to a blunt truth: if scientific knowledge feels special to you, you are in its in-group. As we grow up, we absorb beliefs from our cultural environment. For some that means accepting scientific knowledge; for others it means “revealed” knowledge, from the Bible, say.
And here’s the thing. For all the bluster about “the evidence”, if you are a scientific believer you too are taking almost all of it on trust. “In principle everybody should be able to replicate scientific results given time, money and training,” says Brigitte Nerlich at the University of Nottingham, UK. “But not everyone has a Large Hadron Collider or a climate-modelling computer.” You are taking someone’s word for it. Like other forms of knowledge, most of science comes down to trusting the source.
Kuhnians and those who study the ‘sociology of science’ must be cheering. Brooks has just removed the cardboard armor from scientism, and lowered it off its pedestal. Will he still be able to protect it? Only by taking the bullet himself:
Not special, then? Perhaps – except that science also provides mechanisms to justify trust in the knowledge it generates. “Authority in science is earned – at least, when a scientific community is functioning well – by success at predicting, and more generally at analysing, empirical phenomena,” says philosopher Edward Hall of Harvard University. Science’s conclusions are accepted when they fit with our experience of the physical world, and are discarded when they cease to. That makes trust in science a justified true belief – and knowledge that true science generates a cut above the rest. Just don’t take my word for it.
OK, we won’t.
In our next post, we will look at the source. We will examine the track record of scientism in our time, and see whether it deserves our trust. Meanwhile, look at what the editors of New Scientist advocate: “Philosophers of knowledge, your time has come.” They think our post-truth world is crying out for experts who can teach epistemology, the philosophy of how we know what we know.
And herein lies a problem. In the current crisis over truth, epistemology is nowhere to be seen. Instead, we rely on intuition and common sense – what might be called “folk epistemology”. The argument thus resembles a debate about medical ethics to which nobody remembered to invite a bioethicist.
Philosophers may be reluctant to enter the public square, afraid of being derided by the post-truthers as yet more “fake news” or tarred with that pejorative term “expert”. But epistemology has become one the most relevant and urgent philosophical problems facing humanity. Philosophers really need to come out – or be coaxed out – of the shadows.
They seem confident that epistemology would support their mechanistic, Darwinian view of nature (6/09/08). Let the debate return.
Before moving on, we must all disabuse ourselves of the notion that ‘science’ is a homogeneous thing. Can you really compare psychology to electromagnetic theory? Evolution to genetics? Economics to celestial mechanics? Everybody wants to get under the science tent because of the prestige associated with the word ‘science’. But as C.S. Lewis said, “Strictly speaking, there is, I confess, no such thing as ‘modern science’. There are only particular sciences, all in a stage of rapid change, and sometimes inconsistent with one another.”
The need for rigor, evidence, and honesty are not unique to science. All of us need to strive for these things, whether historians, theologians, or auto mechanics. Parents and children need these things. Teachers and students need these things. Scientists benefit from organized accumulation of tried-and-true findings, but the Mayans and Egyptians had that. Scientists benefit from collaborative organizations and publications, but artists have those. The more complex the phenomenon under observation, the more provisional the findings, and the more the risk of a scientific revolution down the road.
Whenever you acid-wash a defense of scientism, it usually reduces to an argument from authority: ‘trust the consensus.’ Nullius in verba.