The culture and the cult of science
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2012/12/07
About contemporary science I wrote in my last post:
What the media and the public and the policy makers hear about matters of science has become untrustworthy to a dangerous degree, on such important matters as HIV/AIDS and global warming — see my Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland, 2012.
The lack of trustworthiness results from the manner in which science has become entangled with politics and big money in this 3rd age of modern science. Personal and institutional conflicts of interest are everywhere, largely as consequences of external funding by patrons whose prime aim is profit-seeking and not truth-seeking. But even in the absence of such distortions or corruptions, outsiders should beware of trusting what scientists say because their statements reflect their own peculiar culture and can easily be misinterpreted if one does not understand the culture of science, in particular the unspoken presumptions that underlie and guide scientific work.
How different the mindsets of scientists and of non-scientists are can be illustrated by scientists’ remarks that outsiders might well judge to be so peculiar as to border on insanity. Take cosmology as an example. New Scientist just published an article, “Before the big bang: something or nothing” (by Marcus Chown, magazine issue 2893, 3 December 2012, pp. 32-5). The sub-title is “Has the cosmos existed forever, or did something bring it into existence? Time to grapple with the universe’s greatest mystery”. Chown reports that there have long been these opposing views — that the cosmos has always existed, or that something brought it into being. And now “cosmologists Alex Vilenkin and Audrey Mithani claimed to have settled the debate. They have uncovered reasons why the universe cannot have existed forever.” Then follow details of the history of the debate and the evidence and arguments that Vilenkin and Mithani now offer.
What’s entirely missing is any consideration of the question, How are human beings supposed to understand the question of whether the universe had a beginning or not?
Our understanding of what it means for something to have a beginning, to have come into being “from nothing”, can only be based on human experience of Earthly objects. We have no touchstone for what “nothing” could mean in the context of the universe or the cosmos. That scientists are content to talk about such things doesn’t make their discourse meaningful in any human sense.
Cosmologists also distinguish between the cosmos, presumably “everything”, and our universe, which may not be everything because cosmologists are quite happy to discuss the “many worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics. That solves issues of quantum uncertainty by postulating that every event spawns not only what we know happens but also what else might have happened (by quantum-mechanical logic) . Every event creates a new universe, in other words, so whole worlds or universes are spawned at every Earthly event.
Shouldn’t I rather have put scare quotes around “solves”? How does such a fantasy really help to understand quantum uncertainty — or anything else, for that matter?
Scientists qua scientists are not bothered by questions of that sort. They’re happy manipulating equations, seeking models that mimic observations, and speculating about the meanings underlying those equations and models. If an equation seems to contain the possibility of a universe arising “from nothing”, then they are content to believe that might be what actually happens. The fact that their equation’s “nothing” has nothing to do with any human meaning of “nothing” doesn’t bother the experts.
On this issue, cosmologists are exemplary of scientists in general. Physicists — high-energy or particle physicists — can be equally happy pretending or believing that equations can reveal actual reality, that the equations are somehow synonymous with reality. So when long effort appeared to have found signs that the Higgs boson actually “exists”, one overjoyed physicist declared that now we understood where mass comes from. Another physicist who recently published a book about the Higgs explained in an interview that now we know everything about the matter we are familiar with, and it remains only to understand the dark energy and the dark matter that make up the rest of the universe — or so they now believe, despite that these “dark” things are fudge factors about which we know absolutely nothing except that they’re needed to make equations seem to fit reality.
When geneticists had decoded the DNA sequences of a number of organisms, humans included, one enthusiastic expert declared that we now understood that yeast is just like us. Outsiders might respond that yeast is quite unlike us in almost every way that matters to the everyday life of human beings.
Such differences in mindset illustrate that science is not just a particular area of knowledge, it’s a culture: scientists behave and believe and use language differently than do non-scientists. “Reality” does not mean the same thing in the scientific culture as it does in everyday life. Many other terms mean different things inside and outside the scientific culture. Moreover there are sub-cultures: physicists and chemists are culturally different — for example, that something is “stable” means different things in chemistry and in physics. And experimental chemists and theoretical chemists differ in a number of ways. Every so-called intellectual discipline, in fact, is in a meaningful sense a culture; see Disciplines as cultures and Barriers against interdisciplinarity.
A good way to think about science is as a glorious entertainment (Jacques Barzun, Science: The Glorious Entertainment, HarperCollins 1964) that can be entirely addictive and all-consuming for its practitioners, who may even become dysfunctional in everyday practical terms. The stereotypes of the mad scientist and the absent-minded professor are not without grains of truth. It seems to me that believing that human beings are capable of understanding how the cosmos began, or how it has always existed, is not a mark of sanity. I suggest that human brains or minds or spirits are simply incapable of grasping either of those possibilities in any meaningful way. I think Fred Hoyle took the same view in his superb The Black Cloud, a science fiction populated by entirely authentic scientific characters and a fine understanding of the scientific culture.
Unfortunately it isn’t widely understood that science is an alien culture. What’s worse, science has become a cult of supposedly authoritative knowledge: its pronouncements are taken as unquestionable truth, and what is merely a mainstream consensus becomes dogma (Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth). That makes it vital to recognize that pronouncements by the scientific community are functionally in a language that differs from the common tongue. Journalists, policy makers, people in general need to learn that scientists have a peculiar mind-set and that what they say can easily be misinterpreted. Scientists see things from the viewpoint of their own work, not what it would mean to translate their hypotheses into social action.
Doing research, one inevitably proceeds as though one’s hypothesis were true. One has to use some basis for designing research projects, and in practice the basis that one chooses is thereby treated as though it were true, it isn’t itself questioned. So, for instance, the people who are working on computer models that attempt to describe climate must, in the course of their work, take a number of assumptions for granted, as if they were known to be true. When speaking to reporters or policy makers, the modelers of course don’t point that out — they themselves are hardly ever conscious of it, it isn’t on the tip of their tongues. So what the experts take as highly probable, as a useful basis for further work, may be misinterpreted by policy makers as having been established beyond doubt.
When further work shows that a research project was misguided in some way, that one or other presumption was not valid, it matters only to the researchers. It might make it harder to get another grant, it might hinder rather than help a career, but it doesn’t matter outside the research group and perhaps its patrons or employers. But when national or international policy goes awry, the consequences could be very damaging to large numbers of people and institutions and even nations.
If the global-warming modelers are wrong and emissions of carbon dioxide are not appreciably adding to climate change, the modelers may have to look harder for research grants and they may lose prestige in the halls of power. But if carbon dioxide is not appreciably adding to climate change and nations have based thoroughgoing changes in energy production and manufacturing on that mistaken premise, standards of living will have been greatly damaged for huge numbers of people.
Policy makers and scientists base their judgments on quite different criteria. For a given set of actual scientific data, scientists and policy makers might well reach opposite judgments as to what should be done in the actual practice of legislation and regulations.
So science has become unreliable not just because of money and politics, it can also be an unreliable guide to action because scientists live in a world that is almost free of consequences for actions taken, a world in which what they do has no consequences outside their experiments and calculations.
When policy makers imagine misguidedly that the advice they receive from scientists is attuned to the real world, the consequences may be little short of disastrous. That scientists rather than STS scholars are typically used as advisers to policy makers about matters of science and technology carries considerable risks. The case of supposedly human-caused global warming serves as a scary example.