The Gadfly Bytes -- July, 2002
IS SCIENCE JUST ANOTHER DOGMA?
Scan the shelves of a bookshop or a public library and you will see that most of the books are about the evanescent concerns of today... They take so much for granted, wholly forgetting how hard won was the scientific knowledge that gave us the comfortable and safe lives we enjoy. We are so ignorant of the facts upon which science and our scientific culture are established that we give equal place on our bookshelves to the nonsense of astrology, creationism, and junk science. At first, they were there to entertain, or to indulge our curiosity, and we did not take them seriously. . Now they are too often accepted as fact.
A student asks: why should we believe in global warming, and you respond with a meticulously logical argument, along with a citation of scientific research. As you continue, the student's eyes begin to glaze and the student-bodies begin to squirm in the seats. And as you conclude, you hear that dreaded question: "but who's to say?"
At length it finally dawns on you: to these kids, logic, science, rationality, are just "cultural artifacts" -- no more or less credible than witchcraft, astrology, divination, tarot cards, or plain off the wall hunches. (See my essay, "Yes, Virginia, There is a Real World.")
Nor are these views unique to our students. Just listen to the media, to corporate public relations, to televangelists, or worst of all, to the policy pronouncements of the Bush administration. Consider the spectacle of the tobacco company CEOs telling the Congressional committee, under oath, "I do not believe that nicotine is addictive" this, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that nicotine is, in fact, addictive. We are all aware of the evangelical Christians' avowed disbelief in evolution, the fundamental organizing principle of modern biology. And George Bush (who also has his doubts about evolution) is confident that he and his associates in the "awl bidniss" are fully qualified to dismiss the reports on global warming by two thousand leading atmospheric scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the National Academy of Sciences. (See "The President of Fantasyland," this site).
Sadly, the virus of irrationalism has spread even to the colleges and universities of the realm, in the guise of "post-modernism whose most extreme adherents regard competing theories of reality, such as astronomy and astrology as "social constructs" and "stories," each with an "equal right to be heard and appreciated." Post-modernism was (or should have been) discredited by Alan Sokol's notorious hoax: A parody article, "Transgressing the Boundaries..." which the post-modernist publication, Social Text swallowed hook, line and sinker, in its Spring 1996 issue. Sokol thus describes his article as "a mιlange of truths, half-truths, quarter-truths, falsehood, non-sequitors, and syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever."
What was Sokol's motive? First of all, he writes, "I'm a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them." And furthermore, "my concern is explicitly political: to combat a currently fashionable postmodernist/poststructuralist/ social-constructivist discourse and more generally a penchant for subjectivism which is, I believe inimical to the values and future of the Left." (Sokol and Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense, Picador, 269-270).
He has a tough battle ahead. For, as most of us who have taught college for more than a couple of decades will testify, the struggle to defend the integrity of critical intelligence against the onslaught of subjectivist and post-modernist mush has, of late, lost considerable ground. Thus, as George Englebretsen, a Canadian philosopher reflects:
We've become increasingly a society of people who consider channeling as effective as archival research for discovering the past, who believe therapeutic touch can heal more than modern medicine, who believe it appropriate to teach Klingon in the university but doubt that Latin serves any academic purpose. And why not? After all, many of them have been taught by professors who cannot distinguish between a legitimate treatise on a problem physics and [Alan Sokol's] bald, outlandish parody of it." (Skeptical Inquirer, July/August, 1997 )
How has it come to this? Throughout the just-completed century, the United States has been the world leader in technological innovation and scientific advancement. And yet, the American public, by and large, is dismally ignorant of basic scientific information. Thus the Los Angeles Times reports (May 10, 1992), that a third of Americans believe that astrology "has some scientific merit," and reportedly half do not accept evolution. And in May, 1996, the Associate Press reported that "fewer than half of the American adults understand that the Earth orbits the sun yearly... Only about nine percent knew what a molecule was, and only 21 percent could define DNA." (See my "Regarding Junk Science and Other Detritus").
But however ignorant the average American might be about the content of science, that ignorance is exceeded regarding the method of science. And from this ignorance of scientific method emerges the widespread belief, embraced large portions of our population, including the post-modernists, that science is "just another dogma" a "story" that deserves no more credence than any other "story" such as astrology, aromatherapy, or whatnot.
A library of books have been written about the methodology of science, many of them quite controversial. Among philosophers of science one will find a myriad of hotly contested theories about "how science works." Even so, there are a few fundamental features of scientific activity that most observers of science will accept, and which the ordinary non-scientific citizen might readily understand. They are also features that set science distinctively apart from non-scientific truth claims. I will discuss just seven of these features.
First, scientific activity is public and replicable.
The community of scientists is elite and restricted, and yet, paradoxically, it is also open. Few individuals are qualified to conduct an experiment with a particle accelerator, or to carry out a DNA test. But anyone with requisite intelligence and diligence who is willing and able to undergo the required training may, in principle, perform these activities. Moreover, any and all such qualified individuals must be able to repeat the experiments and produce the evidence claimed by other scientists. Remember "cold fusion," that "revolutionary scientific breakthrough" that was going to supply us with and endless supply of cheap energy? It failed the "replicability test." Repeated failures by other scientists to duplicate the results claimed by Fleischman and Pons led to the well-deserved demise of this "breakthrough." "One-time-only" episodes of "Divine revelation" and "anecdotal evidence" from singular events do not cut it, scientifically. (However, as we will see below, some accounts of singular events can launch fruitful scientific investigations).
Science is Cumulative.
"If I have seen further," said Isaac Newton, "it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." And thus, of course, Newton became another of those "giants." Mathematics necessarily developed sequentially, from arithmetic to algebra (the Arabs) to analytic geometry (Descartes) to calculus (Newton and Liebnitz). Without Galileo and Kepler, there would have been no Newton. Without Linnaeus, no Darwin. Because science is ever open to new discoveries (see "falliblism" below), science allows nature to "speak to us" through experiment and observation. But only if we ask nature the right questions (i.e., if we know what we are looking for and describe it with an adequate (often mathematical) vocabulary. The science of the preceding "giants" gives us those questions. Thus science, as an accumulating body of knowledge and theory, is vastly greater than any scientists.
Science is Systemic, Coherent and Comprehensive.
Scientific theories are marvelous structures built out of scientific concepts ("vocabularies"), laws, empirical facts, and logical entailments. (They are not, as "creationists" say of evolution, mere unconfirmed "facts." See my "Creationism and the Devolution of the Intellect"). As theories encompass more observed and confirmed facts and formulate new "laws," this growth reverberates throughout the entire theoretical system. Thus, for example, post-Darwinian discoveries in genetics, bio-chemistry and paleontology have not "refuted" evolution, they have enriched and expanded it.
Robust scientific theories are characterized by their scope of application (comprehensiveness) another indication of their structure and coherence. Thus, for example, "natural selection" explains such diverse phenomena as dated sequence of fossils, comparative anatomy and physiology, comparative species DNA, declining potency of insecticides and antibiotics. Similarly, Einstein's theory of relativity explains observations at the working end of particle accelerators, nuclear and thermonuclear reactions, the behavior of clocks on spaceships, astronomical observations, and the apparent bending of light near massive objects (e.g., during a solar eclipse).
Science is Empirical.
A scientific investigation "begins" and "ends" in experience. A scientist might find, in the field or his laboratory, an interesting phenomenon worthy of investigation. For example, Darwin found varieties of finches on the Galapagos Islands and the South American mainland. Why both the variety and the similarities? And Wilhelm Roentgen accidentally made a momentous discovery while experimenting with X-Rays in his laboratory. In a desk drawer below his apparatus, a key was placed atop an unexposed photographic plate. He later discovered an image of the key on the plate. How come? His search for an answer led to X-Ray photography.
Darwin and Roentgen developed hypotheses ("hunches") to explain these experienced phenomena. Some failed to "pan out" in experience, so new hypotheses were formed. Eventually, they came up with hypotheses which, in conjunction with settled scientific concepts and data, predicted events which were empirically confirmed by experiments.
Scientific theory and laws are not made up of "hunches." And yet creative imagination ("hunches") can play an important role in scientific investigation. Legend has it that Archimedes came upon the concept of specific gravity while taking a bath. (Did he really? Who knows? Who cares? The story is illustrative, not scientific). James Watson tells us that the idea of the double helix came to him as he recalled his boyhood exploration of the spiral staircase at a lighthouse. And Einstein thought of relativity as he was riding a Zurich trolley and contemplated the "relative motion" of a passenger walking in the trolley .
But when the scientific community demanded confirmation of the theory of DNA, Crick and Watson did not look to lighthouses. Nor did Einstein demonstrate Special Relativity with a trolley car. These insights were the beginning, not the end, of scientific inquiry. The inquiry "ended" with empirical confirmation in the laboratory or the field.
Scientific assertions are Fallible and Falsifiable.
For any statement whatever in the body of science, we know what it would be like for that statement to be false. (I exclude "formal" statements: e.g., definitions, logical rules and tautologies, which lack external empirical reference a technical point which I won't elaborate here). It is thus possible, in principle (i.e., through the wildest imagination), to describe a refutation of a scientific claim. In other words, scientific statements, hypotheses and theories are falsifiable not "false," but falsifiable. The distinction is crucial.
To put it another way, for an hypothesis, prediction or confirmation to have scientific meaning, one must be prepared to say, "expect to find such-and-such empirical conditions in the world, to the exclusion of other describable conditions." If you find these conditions, your statement has been proven true of this particular "real nature," and not some "fanciful nature." For example, Galileo determined that a free-falling object falls at a distance of d = ½ gt2 (with "d" for distance, "t" for time, and "g" for a gravitational constant at the Earth's surface). Not 1/4g or 1/3g, but 1/2g. And not time cubed, or time to the 2.5 power, but time squared. In other words, that sample equation describes one sort of nature to the exclusion of an infinitude of other "natures" described by different formulas. But experimentation and observation has proven that Galileo's formula applies to the "nature" we live in. In short, the free-fall formula is falsifiable. We can easily describe how it might be false, but have determined experimentally that it is true.
Similarly, in Eddington's famous 1919 eclipse experiment, Einstein's theory of relativity predicted that star near the eclipse would appear in a precisely defined location, and not in any other location in the night sky (a falsification). And sure enough, it appeared where predicted by the relativity theory. Confirmation!
In contrast, dogmas give us unfalsifiable assertions. Once in a debate with an evangelical minister, I asked: "Why should I believe that the Bible is the inerrant truth, and that I must believe in Jesus Christ to be saved?" He replied, "just you wait when you die and face your maker, then you will find out." Of course, that challenge was utterly unfalsifiable to anyone alive, which is to say, to anyone at all. Similarly, economic dogmas, which are "theory rich," have an "explanation" (after the fact) for every and any developments in the national economy. What they cannot do is describe a turn in the economy that would disprove their dogma. In short, unfalsifiable assertions, because they describe every possible world, describe nothing unique about the world we live in, which is to say that they "describe" nothing at all.
An important implication of the falsifiability rule, is what Charles Peirce called "Falliblism." Because every scientific statement is falsifiable, we must be forever open to the possibility (however remote) that some new observation or experiment will prove it wrong. The "falliblist" says, in effect, that "while I have strong beliefs, I am forever prepared to change these beliefs if confronted with compelling evidence to the contrary." (See "One Nation Under God, Divisible")
The Order of Scientific Inquiry proceeds from evidence to conclusion.
In science, as in jury trials, the outcome remains in doubt until all the evidence has been examined and evaluated. Evidence is assembled, hypotheses and theories are tentatively formed, and from all this, events and conditions (all "falsifiable") are predicted. Only if the predictions "pan out," are the hypothesis and theory confirmed, whereupon science progresses once again.
In contrast, dogmatists take the position of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland "verdict first, trial afterwards." The caption of a New Yorker cartoon that I have used for years in my classes summarizes that "method" perfectly: "That is the gist of my position, now go out and get some evidence to base it on." This is the strategy of the preacher, the advertiser, and the political propagandist. The doctrine, or the client's product, or the party policy are all sacrosanct not to be questioned. Beneath this exalted and unalterable truth, a scaffold of concocted "evidence" and argumentation must be assembled. This is the methodology of "creationism," of the Tobacco Institute, of the Global Climate Coalition (funded by the fossil fuel industry), and of the Supreme Court decision of December 12, 2000, Bush v. Gore.
And, of course, it is a "methodology" that is unfalsifiable no amount of evidence to the contrary will budge these advocates from their pre-ordained conclusions.
In Science, the Burden of Proof is on the Affirmative.
We've all heard it in political and religious debates: "Prove me wrong." It a cry of despair. A belief, innocent of supporting evidence, is proclaimed to be true, absent a compelling argument in the negative. (Logicians call this "the ad ignorantum fallacy.")
This tactic of placing the burden of proof on the negative is inadmissible in courts of law, where the burden must fall on the prosecution (to prove affirmative guilt) rather than on the defense (to negatively prove "not guilty").
Common sense shows us the wisdom of placing the burden of proof upon the affirmative. For example, no one has found any evidence of Noah's ark on Mt. Ararat. "So prove to me that it isn't there and never was!" Of course we can't. Is this sufficient reason to believe the Bible story, and that this mountain is the place in question? Similarly for stories about Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle, and UFO abductions. "Prove me wrong!" Well I can't, but so what?
The rule of "burden of proof on the affirmative" is a splendid device for de-cluttering the mind of intellectual rubbish. One might approach the world with the attitude of believing everything not disproved or, on the other hand, believing nothing unless proved. The latter, the approach of the scientist, is a far more reliable guide to truth, not to mention the management of one's practical affairs.
George Santayana had it just right: "Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect."
This list of seven (among many more) distinguishing qualities of science indicates, I trust, that science is "not just another dogma." This fact is demonstrated by the universal appeal and application of science. Scientists from around the world and from numerous cultures and traditions, readily communicate with each other, as scientists. Science is an institution and tradition which, while not without subjective elements (e.g. creative "hunches" and imaginative theories), attains an objectivity through its constant commerce with nature, and through the discipline of its methodology which ruthlessly culls out theories and hypotheses that fail the test of confirmation. Science is not perfect no human institution is. Nor does science encompass all human knowledge, for there is much more to be learned from the arts, from literature, from moral reflection and practice, and from living in the company of fellow human beings. But science is supremely good at what it does discovering the nature of physical, biological, and social reality, and articulating that reality in abstract and general laws and theories.
All Americans affirm science every time they boot up a computer, start a car or make a phone call. These everyday activities take place only through the successful application of thousands of scientific laws and theories. When Jerry Falwell stands before a TV camera to denounce evolution, or George Bush to debunk global warming as "unsound science," they both know that the device that is pointing at them will send their image and words to millions "out there." Thus they implicitly affirm the validity of physics, chemistry, advanced mathematics and computer science, even as they deny biology and atmospheric science.
The downgrading of science is quite agreeable to the religious right, of course. But also to the corporations that own the Congress and that put George Bush in the White House. And as the pesticide and tobacco cases vividly demonstrated in the past, and the global warming issue reminds us today, scientific research and discovery can be very threatening to the corporate bottom line. A scientifically educated and sophisticated public would appreciate the significance of that research and discovery, and would see through the sophistry of corporate public relations. That same public, under a democratic system, would select leaders that act in behalf of all citizens, act to preserve the natural environment that is our ultimate source and sustenance, and act to the benefit of future generations. Accordingly, those corporate elites whose concerns are confined to their own self interest have no stake in a public that thinks critically and is scientifically informed. Sadly, the American public today gives those elites little cause for concern.
Copyright 2002 by Ernest Partridge