Big Science Blind to Its Scientism
Big Science loves scientism, but the view that science is the most reliable path to knowledge suffers a fatal flaw: it is self-refuting.
Advocates of scientism today claim the sole mantle of rationality, frequently equating science with reason itself. Yet it seems the very antithesis of reason to insist that science can do what it cannot, or even that it has done what it demonstrably has not. As a scientist, I would never deny that scientific discoveries can have important implications for metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and that everyone interested in these topics needs to be scientifically literate. But the claim that science and science alone can answer longstanding questions in these fields gives rise to countless problems…..
Of all the fads and foibles in the long history of human credulity, scientism in all its varied guises — from fanciful cosmology to evolutionary epistemology and ethics — seems among the more dangerous, both because it pretends to be something very different from what it really is and because it has been accorded widespread and uncritical adherence. Continued insistence on the universal competence of science will serve only to undermine the credibility of science as a whole. The ultimate outcome will be an increase of radical skepticism that questions the ability of science to address even the questions legitimately within its sphere of competence. One longs for a new Enlightenment to puncture the pretensions of this latest superstition. – Austin L. Hughes, “The Folly of Scientism,” The New Atlantis, Fall 2012
When we say that scientism is self-refuting, we mean that scientism itself cannot be validated by the scientific method (9/08/16). If one thinks that science is the sole path to reliable knowledge, therefore, one would have to abandon scientism. Let’s doubt that claim for a moment. Could scientism be confirmed by the scientific method? A researcher lays out all pathways to knowledge and tests them according to the hypothesis that science produces the most reliable knowledge. Why wouldn’t science come up the winner? Wouldn’t a positive result confirm scientism’s superiority?
Actually, it cannot. One would have to assume scientism to confirm it by the scientific method. For one thing, there is no scientific method used by all scientists. The researcher would have to arbitrarily pick one method to assume it represents science. Then, the method is not itself objective, as if a machine could turn a crank and get a result. Inputs must be chosen. Results must be interpreted. And in order to run some kind of scientific method, one would have to assume many things: the constancy of the laws of nature, the reliability of the senses, the validity of thought and the laws of logic, the validity of induction, and more – none of which can be tested by science. Scientism also fails to address many of the most important aspects of human thought: love, honesty, courage, and morality. To assume that some method could show these values provide the best strategy, one would be assuming pragmatism – a philosophy, not a finding of science. Scientism is not a statement of science. It is a statement of philosophy about science. (For more on self-refuting science, see the 1/19/14 entry, “Materialists shoot themselves in the foot.”)
Despite these well-known weaknesses of scientism, Big Science and Big Media operate under the myth that science provides a superior method of knowledge generation. In some limited fields, it does. Observable, repeatable questions about magnetic induction, chemical reactions and genetic sequences can be repeated in other labs. But many scientific “findings” today are one-time occurrences, or matters of theory concerning unobservable reality, or matters of consensus. The myth of scientism was exploded decades ago by Kuhn, Feyerabend and other philosophers of science. Because Big Science cannot defend its superiority except in certain realms (like how to get a lander on Mars), it needs to be treated like a special interest group often motivated by dependence on taxpayer money.
Here are examples of how Big Science and Big Media continue to delude themselves into thinking science pre-empts all other forms of truth-seeking.
Divining science (Science Magazine). Andrew Robinson critiques Francesca Rochberg’s new book, Before Nature: Cuneiform Knowledge and the History of Science, giving grudging respect to the historian’s contention that ancient Babylonians were doing science in their world, despite being saturated with mythology and divination. Rochberg thinks that by trying to discern orderly laws in nature, their flawed methods were premonitions of modern science. “Before Nature‘s formidable erudition will fascinate cuneiformists,” he says, “while daunting nonspecialists and disturbing scientists, who will likely recoil from regarding divination as part of science.” One follow-up question he avoids is whether any techniques of modern science amount to divination (e.g., 5/21/16).
Take the long view (Ian L. Boyd in Nature). Disgusted with the outside world’s “post-truth politics,” Boyd sees Big Science’s job as making research more “relevant.” Relevant to what? Apparently, politics. Boyd would apparently be happy to see Big Science run the government.
This is not the world of the laboratory bench or the individual theoretician. It is one in which system models are being continually refined on the basis of big, open data about the system’s state and its responses. This will blur the boundaries between experimentalists and those who run the policies — because a policy becomes a hypothesis. And it will turn science back from the path of being perceived as an irrelevant domain of the intellectual elite. Recent growth in anti-science views on both sides of the Atlantic suggests that this change is imperative.
How to check if you’re in a news echo chamber – and what to do about it (Tom Stafford in The Conversation). Stafford comes the closest to recognizing the problem with scientism in Big Science. The psychologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Sheffield points a stern finger at his fellow liberals:
If you were surprised by the result of the Brexit vote in the UK or by the Trump victory in the US, you might live in an echo chamber – a self-reinforcing world of people who share the same opinions as you. Echo chambers are a problem, and not just because it means some people make incorrect predictions about political events. They threaten our democratic conversation, splitting up the common ground of assumption and fact that is needed for diverse people to talk to each other.
After this promising opening, however, Stafford returns to the assumption that political bias is a neurological consequence of our biology. Built-in bias (homophily) and confirmation bias are hardwired into our brains. He fails to notice that the belief in scientific materialism undermines his own beliefs about echo chambers. So much for the ‘truth-seeking’ he writes about. Nevertheless, he offers some tips on recognizing whether you are in an echo chamber, and things you can do to get out of one.
How to overcome end-point bias in the media to make smarter decisions (Science Daily). This article avoids political positions, recognizing “end-point bias” in both liberal and conservative camps. Nevertheless, the research written for Taylor & Francis Group (a sociology publisher) assumes science can solve it. Why not parents? Why not theologians or philosophers or guidance counselors with common sense? The article’s own liberal bias shows through where an experiment is done on how to change people’s minds to favor the scientific consensus on global warming. Why not run an opposite but equal experiment? The authors’ scientism and groupthink reveals itself. The authors already know they are right. The communication must go one-way, fixing misconceptions to prove to people that climate change is real. Shouldn’t objective scientists consider the possibility that the consensus is wrong? They seem blind to their own end-point bias.
Super-you: You have a superstitious mind – to protect you (Graham Lawton at New Scientist). Superstition is hard-wired into human nature, Lawton argues. He can certainly point to a lot of evidence this is true; huge crowds of people doing weird things that have no basis in evidence. But to extricate himself from the problem, he would have to advance to a higher plane of consciousness that allows him to talk down to others. That’s scientism. His Yoda hat on, he pontificates about why evolution produced superstition to protect us.
Accurate numbers are hard to come by, but even conservative estimates suggest that half a billion people around the world (and counting) are non-religious.
But are they, really? Among the scientists who study the cognitive foundations of religious belief, there is a widespread consensus that atheism is only skin-deep. Scratch the surface of a non-believer and you’ll find a writhing nest of superstition and quasi-religion.
That’s because evolution has endowed us with cognitive tendencies that, while useful for survival, also make us very receptive to religious concepts. “There are some core intuitions that make supernatural belief easy for our brains,” says psychologist Ara Norenzayan at the University of British Columbia in Canada.
Why, it’s so pervasive that “Many experiments have shown that supernatural thoughts are easy to invoke even in people who consider themselves sceptics.” Does he ever consider that his own ideas might be superstitious? Not really. “If you’re still under the illusion that you are a rational creature, that really is wishful thinking.” But you can trust me; I’m a rational creature, he thinks. And he will sell you a vacation home on the Isle of DeBris, too.
Super-you: How to harness your inner braggart (Tiffany O’Callaghan in New Scientist). In this episode of “Super-you,” O-Callaghan declares everybody as a braggart, thinking other people are idiots. You can predict our comeback: she’s just bragging. Look at her bravado, presuming to tell you what to do:
So how can we preserve the good while avoiding the downsides? Different strategies and training programmes do exist for overcoming our inbuilt biases. Most begin by simply making people aware of them and how they can affect our decision-making.
Yes, indeed; practice might make you as humble as she is.
Finding the unknowns in the universe (Phys.org). Buried in this positivistic article about the potential for major astronomical discoveries in algorithms that can sift through big data, comes this warning from Ray Norris: “This is a very efficient way of answering the known unknowns. Sadly, it is useless at finding the unknown unknowns. We only receive answers to the questions that we ask, and not to the questions that we didn’t know we ought to ask.” From there, Norris jumps back into positivism, thinking about all the new questions his software can ask. He needs to re-read his quote. If humans don’t know what they ought to ask, the software humans write isn’t going to do much better.
AAAS reaches out to theology students (Science Magazine). In this final example, we see Michaela Jarvis exercising Big Science’s predilection to see everyone else as a sick lab rat who needs fixing through scientism. Doesn’t the subtitle sound noble? “Program fosters dialogue between scientific and religious communities.” Ah, but we find that the purpose is to fix the religious communities who don’t yet understand the superiority of science. If they were more scientifically literate, they wouldn’t be so religious, you see. Would the scientists in a dialogue session seriously listen to someone presenting the gospel to them? Doubtful; they would be too interested in waiting for a break to help the theology student learn to “appreciate science.”
To most effectively connect with seminaries, AAAS partnered with the Association of Theological Schools, an accrediting association for graduate schools that train clergy. The pilot project, involving 10 seminaries representing a wide variety of Christian religious traditions, was designed to help professors incorporate relevant science into at least two of each seminary’s core courses. The participating schools also set out to organize at least one campus-wide event each to explore the relevance of science to theological education.
It’s a sales gimmick, not a true dialogue. Success of the program is measured by how much the theology students change, not by whether the scientists learn to abandon scientism. Imagine one of the theologians asking back, ‘What do you say we talk about the relevance of theology to science.’ Predictable response: “Huh?” Short quizzical look. ‘Uh, yeah; right. Say, want to hear about how the AAAS is expanding its program to include rabbinical schools?’
The delusions of grandeur run so deep, some of these Big Science advocates see themselves as the only ones who can save the world. Slowly, as they preach, their pedestals sink into the quicksand.
Listen to this podcast on ID the Future, “How the Consensus Can Blind Science.” It talks about Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb’s sinking feeling after visiting Chichen Itza’s astrological temples and learning about the Mayans’ success at predicting eclipses and planetary motions. He wondered if modern cosmology might be just as deluded as the worldview of the ancient Mayan priests, who used extremely careful observational “science” to tell them when to go to war, and how many humans to sacrifice to the gods. The Mayan astrologers were highly regarded in their society, just like modern scientists are in ours, Loeb mentions with a groan.