posted by Richard, Jul 24, 2018
I’ve loved science ever since I was a little kid.
And not just science fiction, though I’m sure, like many budding scientists, it provided the initial shove. No, for me, it was Mr. Wizard’s World. It was Bill Nye the Science Guy. It was Carl Sagan.
When Cosmos released on VHS sometime in the mid-90s, I bought the set, lost them in a move, and subsequently bought them again. I still remember sitting in class fascinated the day we learned about different classifications of clouds, which might as well have been characters from Roman mythology as far as I was concerned. Ah, lovely Cirrus, stealthy Stratus, mighty Cumulonimbus…
Yep, clouds. That’s one nerdy kid, right there.
Even my tenth-grade biology teacher, with his droning, insectile voice and interminable blackboard notes, could not dissuade my love of science. In college, the day I found out I could do so, I promptly changed my major from Philosophy to History and Philosophy of Science. Suddenly I was writing papers about Einstein, time travel paradoxes, and wormholes, pretty convinced I had discovered just about the coolest subject ever. When I turned in my final paper on the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics, I was pretty certain I was setting the scientific world on its ear. (I wasn’t. But that’s a sad story for another day).
So, I find it a little more than disturbing lately, in medias both traditional and social, the concept of “science” being used as a bludgeon.
Science, we are told, is now the end of an argument, as in: “I’m right, because Science.”
This bothers me. A lot.
It makes my inner nerdy-child self want to cry. “I’m right, because”, is, after all, the schoolyard bully’s argument–it’s what the kids beating up on the nerdy kids used to say.
In fact, it may well constitute a direct Orwellian inversion, where the word “science” is being used to refer to its exact opposite.
So, for the sake of my inner child, let’s clear a few things up, shall we?
What is Science?
Let’s start with a description of what science is, from a source that I think we can all agree is one of its most beloved modern champions, Carl Sagan:
“Science is an ongoing process. It never ends. There is no single ultimate truth to be achieved, after which all scientists can retire… It is not perfect. It can be misused. It is only a tool. But it is by far the best tool we have, self-correcting, ongoing, applicable to everything. It has two rules: First, there are no sacred truths; all assumptions must be critically examined; arguments from authority are worthless. Second: whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded or revised. We must understand the Cosmos as it is and not confuse how it is with how we wish it to be.” (Cosmos)
Here’s another one:
“Scientists, like other human beings, have their hopes and fears, their passions and despondencies—and their strong emotions may sometimes interrupt the course of thinking and sound practice. But science is self-correcting. The most fundamental axioms and conclusions may be challenged. The prevailing hypotheses must survive confrontation with observation. Appeals to authority are impermissible. The steps in a reasoned argument must be set out for all to see. Experiments must be reproducible.” (Broca’s Brain)
“Reasoned criticism of a prevailing belief is a service to the proponents of that belief; if they are incapable of defending it, they are well advised to abandon it. This self-questioning and error-correcting aspect of the scientific method is its most striking property… the idea of science as a method rather than as a body of knowledge is not widely appreciated outside of science, or indeed in some corridors inside of science.” (Broca’s Brain, emphasis mine)
Here’s what I take from all this…
1. Science is not a body of knowledge. It is a method of testing knowledge claims.
2. Science is not infallible. It is subject to all the errors that humans are capable of: faulty reasoning, ignoring evidence, wishing, prejudice, close-mindedness, territoriality, jealousy, professional backstabbing, etc.
3. But this fact is ameliorated by its utter rejection of authoritarianism. Science, done properly, welcomes criticism, and is made stronger by it. Science encourages skepticism, which means not accepting anything merely on someone’s say-so.
4. Science is never finished. It is always subject to criticism, forever. No truths are sacred. Someone can always come along with a better explanation than the current prevailing theory, and if so, the current one should be discarded.
5. Science is doable by anyone. It is not restricted to a privileged class of humans called scientists, and is not subject to pronouncements of authority based on any governing body. If someone entirely outside the scientific community, a Swiss patent clerk, for example, were to submit a paper that set the prevailing physics of the day on its ear, the scientific community should embrace that effort and grow stronger by it. In fact, given how prone humans are to close-mindedness and territoriality (see #2) scientific institutions should be constantly seeking and welcoming contributions from the outside.
Science is the Utter Rejection of Authoritarianism
This is the science I grew up loving–the one where no truths were regarded as sacred or beyond criticism. Where arguments from authority were impermissible. Where anyone, from any walk of life, could challenge the prevailing scientific views of the day and cause a revolution.
The message of science is, therefore, not: “I’m right, because Science.”
It is: “I believe I have the current best explanation. Let me show you why. You are welcome to prove me wrong.”
No scientist, properly construed, claims to be at the “end of knowing”, about anything. Ever. A scientist merely claims to have the best available theory of the time, and they are prepared to defend it against any and all comers… even against non-scientists. They are also prepared to accept that if a better theory comes along in the future which supplants theirs, then that theory deserves to do so.
We have to remember: science deals in models. Models are not the same thing as reality. To believe so is hubris. Models are really “best descriptions”. Our descriptions might get better and more accurate over time—and when they do we must toss out the inadequate models. In other words, a model stands only until a better one comes along.
The thing I think I loved most about science growing up was its accessibility to all. You didn’t have to be a specialist with a degree working in a multi-million dollar laboratory to do science. Mr. Wizard showed us how any eight year old could do science in their kitchen, using string and magnets and paper. The universe has knowable laws, accessible to anyone with their brain switched on. It operates on experimentation, evidence, and explanation. Two people might speak entirely different languages with no possibility of communicating, but because they speak a common language of science, be completely inside one another’s mind.
On the Other Hand, Here’s how Science is Being Portrayed These Days:
Here’s one from Facebook the other day. It’s pretty typical of the “It’s true, because Science” argument (ironically posted on the “I fucking love science” group):
Now, for a second, put aside with whether you agree with this list or not. Pay attention to the fact that what we are being asked to stand up for here is a set of edicts or commandments or immutable truths.
The idea here is that there exists a set of claims which constitute finished knowledge. These claims presumably have been verified (i.e., declared true) by a scientific authority. No one, on this view, may challenge or argue against these and claim to be doing science. And certainly no one who is not a scientist. To disagree or challenge any of these, in the poster’s view, would be to champion “anti-science”.
Except that science is not a set of edicts or commandments or immutable truths. It is a process. It involves argumentation, dissension, theories, counter-theories, marshaling evidence for your view, and poking holes in your opponent’s. That is precisely what is so beautiful about science: science welcomes dissension.
The people proclaiming to “love science” because it purportedly agrees with their point of view are missing the whole fucking point. What makes science great is not that it is “right” (Often, it is not). What makes it great is that it does not make knowledge claims from a position of authority. It welcomes criticism, dissent, argumentation, and any attempts to prove it wrong.
This is why we praise science for being what it is: it is a method of approaching knowledge that takes the precise opposite of the authoritarian view.
“Please,” science says, “challenge me. Dispute my findings. Invalidate them. And in so doing, we will both be better off.” After all, the findings are either made stronger by the attempt, or, if they are invalidated, the entire enterprise is made stronger by not clinging to falsity. Thus, we are that much closer to the truth (or at least we have been prevented from miring in falsity).
Science is not the end of an argument. It is an invitation to argument.
(And, quite frankly, anyone who believes that scientists universally agree on everything has never been in a room with two or more scientists!)
I stand up for science. What the poster posted here is it’s precise opposite.
There is, of course, a name for immutable knowledge as handed down from on high by an authority and appropriately enforced–it’s called religion.
The Difference between Science and Religion, in One Handy-Dandy Chart:
|A body of knowledge.||A method of testing knowledge claims.
|Knowing is finished. There are no further things to know.||Knowing is never finished. Quite the opposite: “The more we know, the more we know we don’t know.” (Richard Feynman).
|Argument, questioning, and criticism are heresy.||Argument, questioning, and criticism are both welcome and critical to the enterprise, since they either strengthen our claims or invalidate our falsities (either of which makes us better off).
|Knowledge is received/revealed from higher authority (e.g., priests, or the deities themselves).
|Knowledge is available to anyone, at the cost of mental effort.|
|Those who claim knowledge are never wrong and must never be questioned.||Those who claim knowledge are subject to bias, false loyalty, backstabbing, political pressures, bribery, laziness, and wishing some things to be so—in other words, all the same mental faults of any human. They are frequently prone to error and therefore must be questioned ruthlessly.
|Practitioners should never disagree on anything—the truth is, after all, revealed.||Practitioners should (and do) disagree on matters, all the time. This is healthy since that way truth never becomes enforced and fixed in place, but remains open to constant revision and even upheaval if it leads to a better explanation.
|Knowledge claims must be enforced (e.g., by laws, punishments, proselytization, persecution, suppression of counterviews, wars to eradicate opposition, etc.)
|No authority should ever be able to dictate what is true, or suppress opposing views. To do so would cripple our ability to find the truth, since the current claims might be invalidated or completely replaced by some new way of looking at things.
Get the difference?
Okay, moving on.
Why Has the Concept of Science Been Perverted in This Way?
Well, social media is partly to blame. If you wanted to invent a medium that encourages bite-sized truths, blind followers, and uncritical acceptance you could hardly do better.
But more broadly, I believe our society cripples its young: we discourage young folk, from infancy on, from thinking for themselves. We never give them a proper set of operating instructions for the organ that lives between their ears. What we do give them is a lot of pressure to accept received wisdom, and a lot of grief any time they try to defy it. After a few years of this, it becomes easier to coast than to challenge.
Also, consider the human bias toward sheer mental laziness. Defending a scientific claim takes effort. One must sharpen one’s arguments, marshal evidence, and withstand attack from endless criticisms, from now until forever. How much easier to simply dismiss anyone who does not agree with you as “anti-science”?
Using the concept of “science” as a bludgeon provides an all-too-convenient shortcut: it skips right over the necessity of defending one’s point of view.
But just as “science” is not the conclusion of an argument, neither is it the substitution for one.
It is the invitation to one.
Conclusion: Real Anti-Science
If you claim someone is being anti-science for disagreeing or asking questions you are creating a kind of theocracy of science, where only scientific authorities can dispense truth.
This is the direct antithesis of the scientific spirit.
Rational-minded people do not like being told they must accept your views because you say so. Present your reasons, show your evidence, and then (and this is crucial) be prepared to defend yourself. This is the essence of science.
Also consider this: when you claim authoritarian knowledge you create more skeptics toward your point of view than you do converts.
Science, construed properly, welcomes disagreements, challenges, and questions. It does not rest on authority but method as the true test of any knowledge claims. Even then, there is never a “final” test. Scientific conclusions are always understood as open, subject to revision or even outright rejection if future knowledge claims turn out to be better. The opposite view, that truth is revealed and knowledge is therefore “finished”, is a characteristic of religion.
So when you shoot down questioning and disagreement as “anti-science”, consider this carefully: who is being anti-scientific?
You see, science bullies? You can only push our inner nerdy children so far.
Richard Weir claims no authoritarian basis for any of his claims and hopes you challenge everything in this article. 😉
Photo Copyright: Prometeus / 123RF Stock Photo