Science and Politics

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Photograph of Alfred Wegener, the scientist

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Most people probably have not heard of Alfred Wegener. Wegener (1880-1930) was a German scientist who worked in meteorology and astronomy. But he is most famous today for being the first scientist to propose (in 1913) the theory of continental drift, the position that continents do not remain in one position but move vast distances over geological time. Continental drift is universally accepted today, but Wegener’s theory was ridiculed and his reputation suffered during and after his lifetime. Professional geologists did not believe a non-geologist could come up with an good theory. I remember reading a children’s book on science when I was a child–the book said that Wegener’s theory of continental drift had no real evidence in its favor. Wegener died a broken man because of the dirt heaped on his reputation by the scientific establishment.

But in the late 1950s and early 1960s, more and more scientists accepted continental drift due to advances in developing a theory behind it. Eventually plate tectonics, the view that continents float on semi-molten plates that can move vast distances over millions of years, was accepted. Wegener, who was long dead, would have been proud. But why would scientists, who are supposed to be open-minded, reject Wegener so strongly?

The reason is that science is not nearly as objective as it claims to be. It is, to a large extent, a political enterprise. Some theories are “in”; others are “out” in the political circles of the scientific establishment. Today, with millions of dollars of government grants at stake, few scientists are willing to question the establishment, lest they get ostracized, lose grant money, and fail to receive tenure due to lack of publications if they work in higher education. The pressure on an innovative scientist can be enormous.

More cases could be named: the failure of most psychologists to accept the existence of seasonal affective disorder despite strong evidence that it is a real entity. Another example is the failure of oceanographers and meteorologists to accept the existence of single large waves that sometimes occur in fair weather and topple ships. This was thought to be a sailor’s myth until the existence of such waves was revealed in a satellite photograph. The existence of psi (ESP and psychokinesis) has overwhelming evidence to support it, but the majority of psychologists claim that parapsychology is a pseudoscience. This is not because they examine the evidence fairly, but because they have a prior philosophical bias against the existence of these abilities. These psychologists then use their political influence to stop funding for psi research. An examination of much of the skeptical literature of psi reveals a selective reading of parapsychological literature. Some skeptics present such a distorted picture of parapsychology that the only reasonable conclusion is that they are either self-deceived, or worse, they lack integrity.

In the life of the state, there is often a battle between politics and truth. This is the same with science. The scientific community is like a new priesthood, declaring what is heretical and what is orthodox. The problem is that many of scientific heretics have been right.

The Arrogance of Scientism

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Science icon from Nuvola icon theme for KDE 3.x.

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The late American philosopher Paul Feyerabend once said that scientists were arrogant and need to be put in their place. I agree–with one caveat–I would say “many scientists” instead of “scientists.” Universal affirmative claims are very hard to justify.

No one would deny, outside of nutty postmodern relativists, that science has contributed greatly to our knowledge of the natural world. Science has also given us the wonders of modern technology, from electric lights to super-fast computers and the Internet. Science has also given us the atom and hydrogen bombs and other weapons of mass destruction, but even those terrible inventions reflected the knowledge physicists had gained about the atomic and subatomic worlds. Aside from the ethics of technology, then, what is the problem with many scientists?

The problem, especially in the United States and to a lesser extent in the United Kingdom, is that many scientists accept the doctrine of scientism. Scientism is the view that science is the only reliable source of knowledge about the world. So introductory science textbooks often downplay alternate sources of knowledge (although in my experiences there is a welcome improvement in this area) and portray scientists almost as a “new priesthood” (Feyerabend has made the same point). The claims of philosophy, theology, art, and literature to give us insight into the way the world words are dismissed, and only those who follow the “scientific method” can, it is claimed, gain knowledge of the world.

There are a number of flaws in the philosophy of scientism. First, the idea that there is only one effective scientific method is a myth. A study of the history of science reveals different methods at work, from primarily inductive methods before Newton, to primarily deductive methods after Newton, to experimental methods, to field study methods (used in anthropology and to some extent in sociology). The naive method of (1) collecting facts, (2) noting relations between those facts, (3) forming a hypothesis, (4) testing the hypothesis by a well-designed experiment(s), resulting in (5) either a confirmation or disconfirmation of the hypothesis is inaccurate in its very first claim. No scientist collects facts without some idea of what he is looking for. Usually a scientist already has a theory in mind he wants to test in order to know what facts to find. Any idiot can sit down and write thousands of facts about trees; but a scientist needs more than a collection of “bare” facts. And there are no “bare facts”–all facts are theory-laden; thus, if I identify an object as a “table,” I must have at least implicitly some low-level theory of what a table is in order to be able to identify it. This does not imply that there is no such thing as “facts” or that facts are arbitrary. The real world does constrain our selection of facts–and theories. But there is no sharp separation between theory and facts.

Those who espouse scientism frequently claim that empirical testability is what makes scientific knowledge the only valid form of knowledge. But what about string theory, which cannot be tested by current technology–the ability to adequately test high-level theories in physics, especially Grand Unified Theories, may be centuries away. How, then, do physicists decide between theories? They usually appeal to “epistemic values” such as simplicity, elegance, and beauty to make their decision.

But if someone who espouses the philosophy of scientism sticks to his guns and says that only scientific claims are empirically testable, what about his claim that science is the only reliable source of knowledge? Is that a scientific claim? Or, rather, is it a philosophical claim that has to be justified or refuted by the tools of philosophy? It is the latter; scientists are free to make philosophical claims as long as they admit they are such; but they have no right to call them scientific claims. In any case, philosophy does appeal to both experience and reason in its attempt to answer questions. Even theology, though authority-based to some extent, can appeal to experience and reason in order to better understand its faith commitments. To deny these fields their claim to give insight into the world without argument is an arrogant claim–and scientists who espouse scientism are arrogant–and wrong.