I read this NYT op/ed by Columbia physics professor Brian Greene whilst flying home from Europe in the Herald Tribune. On its face, Greene seems to be promoting better science education both in schools and among the general public. But it struck me that his underlying message is that science should be elevated into a first principle that provides us with our personal values and our existence with its overarching meaning. Green writes:
The reason science really matters runs deeper still. Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable–a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations–for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth–not because they are declared dogma but rather because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.
With that, my scientism radar deployed through my skull and began twirling furiously. It seemed to me that Greene was preaching a sermon that would end in an altar call rather than promoting greater scientific knowledge and appreciation.
My concern was confirmed a few paragraphs later:
It’s striking that science is still widely viewed as merely a subject one studies in the classroom or an isolated body of largely esoteric knowledge that sometimes shows up in the “real” world in the form of technological or medical advances. In reality, science is a language of hope and inspiration, providing discoveries that fire the imagination and instill a sense of connection to our lives and our world.
But science has also provided us with the means to destroy the world, ruin the environment, and wipe out mankind in a worldwide pandemic. But that doesn’t mean anyone should say that science is a language of fear and nihilism. Science is a powerful and awesome method, but that is all it is. It cannot be elevated into a transcendent Source.
As the piece reaches a crescendo, Greene urges that we teach our children that science can provide our lives with value, meaning, and purpose:
We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living…It’s the birthright of every child, it’s a necessity for every adult, to look out on the world…and see that the wonder of the cosmos transcends everything that divides us.
Sorry, but that is more weight than science can carry and still be properly called science. Finding meaning and purpose in life, determining how we should live, what our values, principles, ethics should be–such as good literature can sometimes do–these matters lie in other human pursuits such as philosophy, religion, and the quest for truth with a capital T. Science can provide us knowledge that we can use in that quest–but it can’t provide transcendence. Scientism can because it is a subjective belief system. But transcendence isn’t what science does.
In my view science is undermined when adherents of scientism conflate it with science. And we see that all around us today with the ubiquitous practice of ideological advocacy tracts masking as scientific papers and opposition to certain political approaches branded by their supporters as somehow anti-science. This turns science–now actually something else–into a special interest or a sectarian-like clique, and that alienates rather than unites.
The difference between science and scientism is as vast as the deep space about which Professor Greene is in awe. Everyone who truly supports science–properly understood–must carefully distinguish the one thing from the other. To do otherwise is to sow divisiveness and confusion.