A Few Words on Science and its Critics

darwin2Since I write about science-related topics, I sometimes find myself in discussions about the role of science in finding “truth” (discussions that seem especially relevant as we come to the end of the Darwin bicentennial).  An argument that surfaces in the more heated of these chats is that science is an overvalued discipline—a secular deity defaulted to by those with a dangerously inflated view of humankind’s wherewithal. 

This argument often comes from two sources that are in most ways polar opposites. The first, and most obvious, is theistic. In this view, science has become a false replacement for God. Our “faith” in science is a flimsy proxy for faith in higher power(s).  Humanity was limited by its creator from the beginning, so what makes us think we can pretend to the throne with trite explanatory powers of science? We may as well be climbing the tower of Babel to shoot arrows at the sky. This devotion to science isn’t just arrogant, it’s an affront to the almighty. Worship of reason is making us blind.   

The other source is on the far side of the philosophical field from the first: postmodern-atheistic.  In this view, as with the first, humankind has replaced God with science, but since there never was a God to begin with, Science (capital “S”) is just as empty a figurehead as what it replaced. In some ways this view is even more critical of science than theism—it paints humankind as naïvely privileging one discipline above all others in an effort to save ourselves from the plainly inevitable.  Has science saved us from wars, from age-old religious conflicts, from diseases and disasters? Science can’t fend off the barbarians at the gate any more than it can cure the common cold, and we just lived through the bloodiest century in history as proof of its failures.    

Both of these positions target the same foe, which I’ll call the hard position of science.  The hard position is all or nothing: either science is the highest order discipline for uncovering the truth and showing the way to a better future, or nothing is. Science demands our respect because only it is capable of getting us where we want and need to go. It stands apart from every other conceivable route to knowledge because all the others are corrupted by varying levels of subjectivity and bias. Only the empirical route of science yields objective truth. 

Before I discuss the alternative, it’s important to mention that I personally don’t know anyone who holds exclusively to the hard position of science, and seldom do I even read a book written from this position (with a few exceptions. E.O. Wilson comes to mind). Overall, it’s little more than a straw man target, no more legitimate a characterization than an atheist painting all Christians as science-hating fundamentalists. 

The alternative to this straw man is what I’ll call the pragmatic position of science (I’m not going to use “soft” because it implies meanings that don’t apply here).  The pragmatic position, by my definition, views science as one of our best tools for figuring out our place in the world and our world’s place in the universe. To the extent that truths can be uncovered, science is one of our most effective methods for finding them. But it’s not the only one. Logic is another, as is philosophical inquiry and the humanities, among others.  All of these are tools that, at their best, broaden knowledge, expand understanding and help us determine how we can leave the world in better shape than we found it.   

The pragmatic position doesn’t claim for science, or for scientists of any stripe, an “objective” privilege.  Paraphrasing the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty (who was paraphrasing Daniel Dennett), there is no magical “sky hook” available to pull anyone out of their perspective into a rarified position of seeing things “as they truly are.” Humans are bias-prone through and through, and despite efforts to assume a different perspective, we still see the world through our own eyes.

And that’s exactly why we need the tool called science. You can’t move a boulder alone, but with the right tools the challenge shifts from unthinkable to possible. Science is one of the best tools we have to reach beyond our limited capacity. It’s not a flawless tool by any means, and it can’t right all the wrongs that beset our brains. But when compared to several other modes of inquiry, it’s one of the best we have.    

In response to those who target the hard position straw man, we might ask where we’d be if science wasn’t in our toolbox. For example, for every disease that still plagues us, another has been cured or made less harmful through a steadfast scientific dedication to improving lives. Another example: for every species that has suffered extinction at human hands, others have been saved through dedication to better understanding the natural world and the impact of our actions. 

Hundreds if not thousands of similar examples could be named, but the point remains the same: we can’t rid ourselves of the problems that come with living on this planet, but having science in our toolbox gives us an opportunity to manage many of them, some of which would otherwise finish us off for certain.

Targeting the straw man generates sound and fury, but when it comes to providing concrete alternatives to the explanatory and edifying role of science, it signifies precisely nothing.  If supernaturalism or postmodernism were reliable tools for expanding understanding and improving our lot, we’d have every reason to value them as much or more than science—but the truth is, they’re not. In fact, the absolutism endemic to both makes them philosophical cul-de-sacs. 

Science, in contrast, is an open road. It’s not the only road, but without it we wouldn’t get very far. Indeed, we might have dead ended already.  

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9 thoughts on “A Few Words on Science and its Critics

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention A Few Words on Science and its Critics - David Disalvo - Brainspin - True/Slant -- Topsy.com

  2. Mr. Disalvo,

    I have to disagree. Science is ultimately the final tool for the investigation of knowledge because it is reproducible. Anyone can do it, well if you have the right equipment and training. For example, anyone anywhere can take some salt water, put some electrodes in, apply a direct current and produce chlorine in the water and explosive gases (hydrogen and oxygen) in the air. The greater the current, the faster the chlorine and gases are produced. People have been doing this for 200 years and it works the same for everyone.

    In contrast, put two Christians (or Muslims or Jews or Hindus) in a room and if you can get fewer than three opinions about the nature of God it would be a miracle. The experience and understanding of God or god or gods changes over time and between cultures and even individuals.

    It is the universal and egalitarian aspect of science that is its superiority.

    • Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris use the con of reducing the world to science vs. religion because doing so helps them sell lots of books. And make lots of money.

      And it’s precisely the absolute, this-or-that fallacy DiSalvo rightfully repudiates.

  3. I’ve argued with on-line scientists and neo-atheists who clearly regard science as the source of all wisdom. They treat it like a religion containing all the answers to life, and they operate under the weird impression that pledging allegiance to logic and reason is somehow a substitute for actually practicing those disciplines.

    I know these folks aren’t the norm, and I thank God for that. But the hard position of science isn’t a straw man when applied to those con artists, like Sam Harris, who cater to absolute thinking for gain. Or, at least, to those taken in by their con.

    Either/or thinkers are a fairly common lot. They’re not the rule, but they’re not an endangered species, either.

  4. Excellent summary of the debate. I just wish the theistic crowd would be willing to co-exist with science. I think they are afraid of science and thus the “straw man” provides the bad guy to focus the wrath of their troops.

    • The theistic crowd is made up of people who have issues with science and those who don’t. A couple weeks ago, at the United Methodist church I attend, we were instructed (via a statement from the local Bishop) to take global warming seriously. For example.

  5. Look, I’m not exactly unsympathetic to your argument, but I have to call bullshit on this claim right here:

    “Another example: for every species that has suffered extinction at human hands, others have been saved through dedication to better understanding the natural world and the impact of our actions.

    Hundreds if not thousands of similar examples could be named,”

    Name one single species that was saved by science, where technology derived directly from science was not the thing threatening the species in the first place. Science saved the bald eagle– from Dow Chemical’s popular pesticide DDT. Science saved the spotted owl– from logging that would not be economical without the shipping technology developed from the work of scientists. Science cured us of small pox– but not before it and diseases like it killed tens of millions of Native Americans thanks to global colonialism, a process only possible because of the advances granted by science, in ship-building, in accounting and business, in weaponry, and of course, in medicine, giving us the knowledge to give infected blankets as gifts to the natives. And while you’re at it, name another example.

    No, an objective view must accept that science has at best attempted to clean up after its own mistakes, with varying degrees of success, often due to the stubborn greed and acrimony of the rich and powerful. Science is just a tool. It is a way of approaching a problem, not a coherent world-view of its own.

    And speaking of straw-men, who exactly are these postmodern atheists you’re speaking of? Who among them has ever argued against using scientific method in making important decisions for the good of all? I’d consider myself a postmodern agnostic, wholly unconvinced that ANYTHING in particular is true, and I’d still put my money on science tending towards being right more often than any other human system. How is the crux of your argument any different? And how exactly is postmodernism incompatible with science? Where exactly is the absolutism in a philosophy suggesting that all experience is merely subjective? And quite regardless of its actual use in pursuing technological solutions to the world’s problems, doesn’t it seem more reasonable that the ideological flexibility of postmodernism would enhance its students’ ability to understand the perspectives of competing world-views, thereby improving the lot of all through mitigation of problems caused by very subjective human attitudes? And how exactly would this flexibility hinder one’s ability to conduct the serious business of science?

    And while we’re at it, what part of that argument you attribute to postmodern atheists is actually inaccurate? Science has indeed made us more efficient at killing each other and our planet, while being inadequate in and of itself to address the ethical ramifications of that advance in technology. That is simply truth. If you object to this point, I would have to argue that you have indeed replaced blind faith in a supernatural deity with a blind faith in the inherent goodness and sustainability of our civilization and its long march of scientific progress, which is now bringing us to the verge of ecological collapse.

    Where would we be without science? Living in nature, in small villages, in simple homes we built ourselves, eating food we grew and gathered and herded and hunted ourselves, killing each other for no good reason with sticks and rocks and arrows instead of guns and bombs, dying at the hands of carnivorous beasts. And there would be no pollution but some shit and piss in the rivers. And there would be traditional diseases, as there are now for billions of people, malaria and cholera and many other easily treated medical problems. But there would be no flu epidemics, there would be no HIV, no cancer or heart disease or adult-onset diabetes, no threat of super-bugs or biological warfare or car accidents. And we could live that way for millennia, as we did, as many still do on this planet, with no danger to the ecosystem. You may find that prospect unappealing. Personally, it’s not how I would choose to live. However, that is not an objective argument against its superiority with regard to maintaining human life on this planet. No model more complex has been shown to be truly sustainable. It’s undeniable– science has brought us to the brink of a mass extinction that makes the end of the dinosaur era look like a bad day, regardless of the fact that it remains the best tool to get us out of this mess without killing off a few billion humans.

    To get back to the point, here, you really don’t know a damn thing about ‘postmodern atheists’, any more than crazy Christians know a damn thing about science. It’s a cultural, political divide, and you want no part of the real left, though none of your actual espoused views conflict with it. You assume those left-wing ideas must be crazy and nonsensical, whereas you are a stolid moderate democrat, focused on achieving some sort of mythical middle ground, developed from a misguided belief that the establishment is probably mostly right about most things. With many fields of science and mathematics, that is a valid position to hold. In many others, it merely seems more authoritative than it actually is (psychology what?). With regard to ideas political and economic systems, believing in the validity of the mainstream discourse is a ludicrous idea akin to believing that there is an actual species of tiny winged humans who fly through the woods at night granting wishes.

    I can’t blame you, really. That’s certainly the dominant paradigm, right now. I encourage you to try critical thinking instead.

  6. I was hoping for some engaging comments on this post, and everyone who took time to comment did not dissapoint. Thanks to davidlosangeles, savio, fleetflee and uriahz for providing excellent points.

    uriahz — have to tell you, I’ve read your comment a couple times now and still enjoying it. I don’t agree in all cases, but your argument is solid. Thanks very much for putting so much thought into it. I’m sure others who land here will get something out of it as well.

  7. Pingback: Hello, True/Slant: Let’s start with something simple – the meaning of science - JR Minkel - Working Dogma - True/Slant

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