Monday, August 25, 2008

Science, The Bubble Reputation And The Scary Fact That Only Good Will Is Going To Save Us by Anthony McCarthy

Allegra Goodman’s op-ed in Monday’s Boston globe asks an odd question, “Why do we distrust scientists”. It’s a question I’ve been asked in many variations and temperatures of accusation, in the second person as a result of things I’ve posted here, as recently as this week. I don’t think it’s a valid question, put that way. Not that people don’t “distrust scientists”, they do. But, it’s just that there is no category “scientists” which is treated with uniform distrust or suspicion by an equivalent, unvaried “we”. If she had said “Why do we distrust science,” it would be an absurd question on its face.

Distrust or skeptical suspension of trust is an intrinsic part of what scientists are supposed to do. They’re supposed to seek verification before they consider work in their field to be reliable. They aren’t supposed to take the word of their colleagues on faith. But, like any other human activity, scientists have a success rate in practicing what they preach that falls way sort of 100%.

Skepticism is routinely suspended for practical reasons. You can’t read everything, you can’t verify everything you need to accept in order to just get on with things. Short of standing still, that ideal can’t be practiced.

And you often just accept things because of the reputation of people asserting them, everyone does that all the time. And there is the tendency to believe something just because you want it to be so, because you like the person saying it or you like what they are supposed to represent or because it props up your personal preferences. And many people, certainly including scientists, reject research on the basis of it offending some aspect of their personal preference. Much of the popular history of science creates drama based solely on the resultant wrestling matches and personal struggle created by this widespread phenomenon. Experience leads me to believe that most of the acceptance of science and much of the rejection of it is based on anything but personal verification of claims.

And scientists can be some of the most exigent, sometimes vicious and notably unfair critics of the work of their colleagues.

And what is true of people who make their living in science goes even more for people without the training to understand the original assertions, never mind supporting evidence or critiques of them. People constantly accept all kinds of science on faith. You don’t even have to be the type of science reporter who couldn’t calculate a probability or detect a break in a line of logic to do that.

The idea that “science” doesn’t enjoy the highest repute of just about any human activity today is most clearly and ironically contradicted by the “Intelligent Design” industry. It’s been pointed out here, before, that people wishing to confirm their religious or other metaphysical beliefs with science are giving science the greatest possible creedal reverence. They yearn for their beliefs to enjoy the repute of science, they want their religious beliefs to have the functional certainty of science. They are as human in demanding their personal preferences enjoy what they unconsciously admit is the unquestionable status routinely granted to “science”, which is just as routinely insisted on by some materialist devotees of scientism.

But in doing that they pay science a compliment that it can’t accept honestly. They want science, which is equipped only to study the natural universe, to make the supernatural its subject. You can’t turn a god into a subject without diminishing what you define as being god. You can’t make a god subject to natural laws, which can only exist within limits, without implying that god is limited by them. If god is not limited in such a way, science wouldn’t be able to make an approach, in any part. To assert the use of science to study the supernatural is to claim the supernatural as a part of the physical universe. It is to accept, tacitly, the assertions of materialists. You would think religious people would gladly, joyously embrace that the deity they believe in is not in any part subject to the human invention of science. Yet they, themselves, insist on chaining their god within the confines such laws of the universe as we limited beings have the power to discover them.

So, you see, even the enemies of science respect science more than you would think they would ever want to. Would that they realized that. And also that materialists who assert their ability to use science to study what was beyond its competence would also stop pretending what cannot be. It’s impossible to quantify which group are the more clearly irrational in their pretensions.

Science doesn’t also just enjoy the suspension of skepticism and necessary acknowledgment of its fundamental limitations, it also enjoys a form of reverential sanctity.

What jumped out of Goodman’s piece most was the seemingly unconscious removal of science from the sordid context in which an impressive amount of it is done. She mentions two scientists by name, Bruce Ivins, the suspected anthrax murderer and Stephen Hatfil, who has been pretty well vindicated as a victim of a smear by the government and the press. But nowhere in her article does she mention who they worked for. The military.

Some of the most be sainted figures in science have been weaponeers, those in various countries who produced atomic weapons, conventional munitions, biological and chemical weapons, etc. It’s astounding how often people assert that science is a beacon of light, the hope of humanity, the blameless, chaste pursuit of knowledge. It’s incredible how people involved with full knowledge of the purpose of their work, to kill more people in more efficient and easily effected ways, are given a place on a pedestal previously reserved for religious icons and anointed princes.

Quite often when the connection between science and the resultant military and industrial uses it was commissioned for is mentioned, the blame for that is quickly and loudly placed on engineers and other Beta level techies. It’s as if those most nearly omniscient scientists had no idea how their money from the DOD was intended to be spent in the first place. How can you talk about Bruce Ivins without acknowledging who he was working for and the ultimate use to which his research could easily have been put by his patrons? If he did send the anthrax through the mail, how could anyone suspect him of some diabolical innovation unknown to the people who were working with it.

I used to be a science romantic in that way. My mother has a degree in the biological sciences and other members of my family work in science. We were taught to respect science from the earliest years. And I do respect science and those who do it, but not universally and not removed from the context in which it is made manifest in practical reality. In other words, I put science on an equal footing with the rest of human life. I don’t think it’s an illuminating beacon, a talisman of purity or an Ariadne’s thread out of the labyrinth of death. It is a human activity, conducted by humans, within our species limitations of perception and our species, perhaps, biologically limited ability to address the universe. It is human activity carried out by individuals and entire communities which are as fully heir to human folly and villainy as religion or the arts, or politics or, especially, the sordid machinations of university and corporate departments.

The fact is that those who have made evil use of science aren’t routinely expelled from the cannon or even their positions of honor, prestige and influence. I recall reading a figure of scientific sanctity* once complained that even the odious Edward Teller wasn’t paid the respect due a physicist of his stature. Considering his history of scientific politics and back stabbing, you have to appreciate the size of the ethical disconnect in such an assertion.

It is an open question whether the science for the purpose of saving the biosphere, life and the human species will outstrip the science which is so widely used to destroy them. The assertion that “science might save us” is not even an unambiguous inference you can make from the available evidence. I don’t believe the contention is anymore than romantic and automatic piety of the kind that used to be the reserve of religion. “Science” seen this way is wishful thinking, the deus ex machina that will save us from ourselves even as we use science to destroy ourselves.

Science doesn’t provide the self-denial, self-sacrifice and empathy for other living beings which will be necessary to save the planet. It doesn’t contain them in sufficient quantities to make scientists notably less immoral than lesser mortals.

If the species is going to make it, those and other virtues will need to be practiced by a universally potent majority of humans. People holding those values might use science in the way that technology is taken to be the tool of science by the apologists of science. We will need science in order to save ourselves. Science is the most potent means of understanding and manipulating the physical universe we have. But without the governance of those scientifically unverifiable virtues overriding self-interest, self-service and indifference, science will serve other purposes. In fact it, like most other human activities, largely does now.

* Will provide the name as soon as I can locate an online citation.