Phi Beta Cons

Experiencing Science

This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education contains a interesting piece by Penn’s Carlin Romano taking aim at the ego and disdain of so-called “science warriors,” people like Massimo Pigliucci, author of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk:

The problem with polemicists like Pigliucci is that a chasm has opened up between two groups that might loosely be distinguished as “philosophers of science” and “science warriors.” Philosophers of science, often operating under the aegis of Thomas Kuhn, recognize that science is a diverse, social enterprise that has changed over time, developed different methodologies in different subsciences, and often advanced by taking putative pseudoscience seriously, as in debunking cold fusion. The science warriors, by contrast, often write as if our science of the moment is isomorphic with knowledge of an objective world-in-itself—Kant be damned!—and any form of inquiry that doesn’t fit the writer’s criteria of proper science must be banished as “bunk.” Pigliucci, typically, hasn’t much sympathy for radical philosophies of science. He calls the work of Paul Feyerabend “lunacy,” deems Bruno Latour “a fool,” and observes that “the great pronouncements of feminist science have fallen as flat as the similarly empty utterances of supporters of intelligent design.”

In the comments, the science warriors rally to Pigliucci’s defense, demonstrating the very disdain and contempt (particularly for the devoutly religious, typically called “fundies”) that Romano decries. Whether the attack is against global warming “deniers,” or — worst of all — those people who commit the unpardonable sin of questioning various evolutionary narratives, the attitude is the same: The superstitious rubes are blocking human progress, and the time has come to treat the rubes with the contempt they deserve.

Yet doesn’t this attitude entirely fail to understand how the average person experiences science? Let’s say that you’re John Accountant, father of three, little-league baseball coach, and faithful church attender. You have time to read the daily paper and occasionally watch cable news. What you learn from science seems to change year by year. New study: Eat this kind of food! Newer study: No, wait, that food may cause tumors! New study: Earth getting warmer, faster! Newer study: No, wait, maybe it hasn’t warmed as much as we thought! New drug released, lowers cholesterol without side effects! No, wait, the drug causes your heart to explode! Hero scientist speaks truth to the world! Oops, hero scientist hides data, loses his work, and suppresses dissent!

If Joe Accountant bothers to look at his kids’ science textbooks, he’ll find a host of definitive statements about the world that differ substantially from the definitive statements in his late Eighties textbooks. Now, is he really a rube for treating the scientific decree of the day or the year with a healthy amount of skepticism?  Is he an idiot for thinking that his religious tradition prepares him and his children to confront the world — by providing a coherent and time-tested moral framework that does not shift with the latest study?

Noting the obvious truth that our understanding of the world is ever-changing does not negate the significance of science. To the contrary, it shows how much we need the scientific method to stand as a firewall against stagnation and to encourage experimentation. But shouldn’t our ever-changing understandings lead to a natural element of humility and caution? What we “know” today we may not “know” tomorrow, and there is always the possibility of new discoveries shattering conventional wisdom (after all, before the discovery of the background radiation of the “big bang,” there were a lot of pretty definitive statements about the nature and history of the universe that turned out to be wrong).

To be sure, there are some scientific truths so well established that we no longer even think about them — they are just assumed elements of life. But on the margins, where the vast bulk of the controversies lie, the truths are not quite so settled, and there is more than enough room for debate.

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