The God’s-Eye View: When Science Becomes Religion

The God’s-Eye View: When Science Becomes Religion February 15, 2018

We’ve gotten rid of gods, but for some reason we still need that scientific God’s-eye view of reality.


Most of us have a basic understanding of science, and are interested in its history and potential. However, we acknowledge that scientific inquiry has its limits and that there’s a downside to scientific and technological progress. We don’t think we can run our lives, or our societies, like scientific experiments.

Science believers, on the other hand, hold science in a very unhealthy reverence. Many are former religious believers who have just traded Sky Boyfriend for Science Boyfriend; they still need comfort in the form of an underlying order to the universe, a short-cut to certainty, and that now takes the form of science factoids instead of Scripture. But a lot of people have just found secular validation in the folkloric construct of Science.

How can you tell when people have stopped looking at scientific inquiry as a vast and often problematic historical human endeavor, affected by cultural and political influences, and start looking at it more like, well, a religion?

They say that science is our sole source of knowledge about reality.

Science tells us what’s real, according to the science bunch; as I always point out, however, this is because we call what science tells us reality. They even deny that our own senses and reasoning also give us legitimate knowledge about aspects of how the world works. This exclusivity leads to the idea that if everyone just affirmed belief in what Science says, the world would be a better place. When something so monopolizes the idea of Truth that it denies all other ways of seeing the world, we’re not dealing with a skeptical, objective mindset as much as we’re dealing with something that resembles religious belief.

Just last week, a poster on another Patheos blog made this claim:

My view of nature is simple, and based on observation. Nature is simple. Nature has no secrets. Everything about the Universe is discoverable, and science is the only tool we have to make those discoveries. Not metaphysics. It is out of its depth trying to explain anything about the natural world. As is philosophy in general.

Talk about a true believer!

The problem with that sort of rhetoric (aside from epitomizing the sort of anti-intellectualism we usually revile when it comes from religious fundamentalists) is that it ignores the philosophical assumptions that ground scientific inquiry. It’s not like science dropped from the sky or sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus. Metaphysics and philosophy are what allow us to create the definitions and distinctions without which science wouldn’t be possible: the subject/object distinction, cause and effect, how we abstract a provisionally objective view of nature from many subjective observations, and even what it means to explain phenomena.

They believe science is something separate from human activity.

Science is just a tool, so the logic goes. Furthermore, it’s a tool that humans didn’t invent, they discovered it through the process of inquiry itself. And science is fine, it’s the people who conduct science that do bad things with it. This sounds as weird as saying that the English language is the only true and complete description of reality, but it’s the people that speak it who mess it up. But this is science worship at its essence: when someone criticizes science, the cultist says, he or she is merely criticizing the way imperfect humans are conducting it.

The strangest cognitive mirage that scientism creates is the one that describes objective reality, a mind-independent universe that happens to be the exact same universe that humans have created to make the chaos of reality intelligible to human consciousness, except without the humans. If this isn’t the God’s-eye view, I don’t know what is. The truth is that reality is to a large extent culturally constructed; we didn’t simply discover things like cells, species and atoms, they’re concepts humans devised to interpret the results of experiments humans conducted, with tools of inquiry that humans created. We can’t just remove humanity from reality when what we consider reality is something we’ve derived from our own modes of inquiry.

It makes them profess belief in things they don’t understand.

It’s funny enough when Darwin Day rolls around each year and science fans get to show how tenuous their grasp of evolutionary theory is. (Are we really “more evolved” than bacteria?) But there’s a deeper problem here: people are professing the belief in things they can’t understand, through the authority of science. Plenty of anti-theists say that Who can make you profess absurdities can make you commit atrocities. But what about our belief that light can be both a wave and a particle? That the universe was once an “infinitely dense singularity”? Maybe absurdity is in the eye of the beholder. Or maybe these are the things that the science faithful utter like a credo, to show their submission to the authority of science.

It’s prudent to accept the scientific consensus even when we don’t fully understand the details. However, it’s obvious that we affirm the validity of these matters not because of the evidence, but rather because of a realistic acknowledgment that scientists oughta know. Evidence has become a meaningless axiomatic expression that the science faithful use to validate beliefs they didn’t arrive at through assessment of data points at all.

Saints of Science

They dismiss all criticism of science as deriving from bias and ignorance.

When religious people say we should only judge religion by the good things it does, we have every right to demand that the judgment include the bad things as well. So why doesn’t that fair-mindedness apply to the way we judge science? We’re told we can only judge science by the way it has expanded our understanding of natural phenomena and things like the eradication of smallpox. We’re not allowed to talk about the A-bombs, or the fact that things like internal combustion engines have contributed to the global warming that threatens human life.

The other thing that the science faithful does to insulate science from criticism is redefine it in a way that makes any criticism appear self-evidently freakish. So science becomes “applied reason” or “the enterprise of advancing human insights and the human condition,” and how could anyone find fault with such noble pursuits? This is mere equivocation, the rhetorical equivalent of dealing oneself a winning hand and then demanding one’s winnings.

Scientific research is crucially important to human well being and the environment, so it needs to live up to its own standards. Where it succeeds in expanding our knowledge, it should be applauded. But where it panders to our credulity, our sense of superiority, or our wishful thinking, it should be criticized in the same way as we criticize other nutty ideas in our society.

What do you think? Are we allowed to criticize science, or is it considered sancrosanct? Do people take criticism of science personally, like religious believers take criticism of their beliefs? Is science a surrogate religion for people in the 21st century?

Keep in mind the Code of Shemmurabi, the posting policy here at Driven to Abstraction.

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  • TheBookOfDavid

    Give science the credit it’s due: it does fly us to the moon. A few of us, for short periods of time. The rest of us are stuck on earth taking sides in a debate over whether that actually happened.

  • I certainly do think science deserves praise for what it has allowed humanity to achieve. Like I said in the OP, the eradication of smallpox is a stunning triumph. All I’m asking is for a little perspective, that’s all. Science made Hiroshima and the Holocaust possible too.

  • Humans use the scientific method in order to learn more about their universe. The findings can be used to do great things and to do not so great things. I don’t doubt that there are people who “worship science” in the same way people worship deities and religious doctrines. What we need to understand is that what we find through science can change as our knowledge expands, as our tools of measurement and observation expand, etc.

  • What we need to understand is that what we find through science can change as our knowledge expands, as our tools of measurement and observation expand, etc.

    Good point. It’s not usually the case that our knowledge undergoes complete revision. Most times the ways we conceptualize phenomena, or the tools we use to observe them, change enough for us to interpret the data differently.

  • Foxglove

    Science made Hiroshima and the Holocaust possible too.

    Yes, and Wisdom, if we had any, would have told us that such things weren’t desirable. I don’t blame Science for things like this. I blame our lack of Wisdom. In fact, I think this is my view of the human race in a nutshell: very clever creatures, but not very wise.

  • Well said. My only concern is that we think science is something completely separate from the way humans conduct it, and unrelated to the motivations for conducting it. Our ethics and our political milieu are going to influence scientific research, and the possibilities of scientific progress are in turn going to condition the way we conceptualize social problems and foreign policy.

  • Foxglove

    Shem, I wouldn’t argue with you on this. And I will acknowledge that when it comes to science, I’m out of my depth. I’d say that for a layperson I have a pretty fair general background in the sciences, but my main areas would be literature, languages and the arts.

    However, I can say this: we could do worse. In these days when countries are being battered by seemingly stronger and stronger storms, in times when mass shootings occur with numbing regularity, some people are telling us we should pray. Just today I was reminded of the Roman ceremony of the “lectisternium”, when in times of crisis, e.g., a plague, a banquet was offered to images of the gods arranged on dining-couches.

    In contrast, when once upon a time a doctor told me that my son urgently needed his appendix taken out, I took his word for it and didn’t hesitate to sign the papers. My son was back up on his feet in no time.

    So we could do worse. And if we’re agreeing that we need to have a sense of perspective when it comes to science, I can point out that that’s true of a lot of things. Who would ever question that justice, e.g., might be less than desirable? And yet it can be. When you’re dealing with someone you love, e.g., they’d probably hope for better than that from you. Because when you’re giving someone justice, you’re keeping track of what you owe them and doling it out accordingly. But when you’re dealing with someone you love–a partner, a sibling, a child, a close friend–sometimes you need to make allowances, sometimes you need to be generous and understanding. Giving them nothing but justice comes across not just as cold, but even as unloving.

    So this is what I mean when I say that we need to show some wisdom–an awareness of what we have at our disposal and how and when and to what extent we should use it. Sometimes it’s helpful to try and think “scientifically”, and sometimes it isn’t.

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    You have a habit of quoting unnamed persons from unnamed blogs. This is underhanded, and you should provide a link and attribution.

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    This is an outrageous strawmanning of ‘scientism’. Who, for example tell us

    “we can only judge science by the way it has expanded our understanding of natural phenomena and things like the eradication of smallpox. We’re not allowed to talk about the A-bombs, or the fact that things like internal combustion engines have contributed to the global warming that threatens human life”


  • It’s not strawmanning at all. The “I-Fucking-Love-Science” brigade celebrates the good side of scientific inquiry while never acknowledging the bad. We don’t allow religious people this kind of double-standard, and rightly so.

  • I’m not carrying on a vendetta against the person who made the quote, and it’s not my intention to call people out for attitudes I think are quite widespread in the blogosphere. The person quoted is active on these boards, and if he feels like coming here to defend his claims, he’s welcome to do so.

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    How does he know you quoted him?

    Let us see the quote in context.

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    It’s ridiculous to expect a FB page promoting science to ‘balance’ its posts with the evils of science as you see them. And no, a religious FB page should not be expected to post bad stuff about religion, either.

    You’ve still failed to provide a single example of where we are told by ‘scientismists’ that discussion of nuclear weapons or global warming is not permitted. That’s pretty silly really, considering that’s all groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists do talk about.

  • I’ve engaged with a lot of science fans here and on my Disqus channel, and I observe a lack of perspective when it comes to acknowledging the downside of science. Wouldn’t the billboard pictured above have a lot different meaning if, instead of an astronaut, it featured the image of an A-bomb’s mushroom cloud? Let’s face it, when it comes to enabling the powerful in slaughter and domination, science blows religion away.

  • Matt, I know how petulant you got on Matthew’s blog after I didn’t chase bait and jump through hoops to your satisfaction. This being my blog, I regret to inform you that you’re setting yourself up for even more frustration and disappointment.

  • sabelmouse

    pretty irrelevant.

  • sabelmouse

    and yet when it comes to vaccines you believe in mythology.

  • sabelmouse

    and vested interests!

  • Play nice or play elsewhere.

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    Oh, I can call out sophistry until the cows come home.

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    So you think the world was a better place before science?

  • So you refuse to acknowledge the downside to scientific and technological progress?

  • Anytime you’d like to engage with the topics here instead of throwing your weight around would be fine by me.

  • sabelmouse

    I see that you engage in censorship and that your sense stops either at vaccine mythology , or vested interests. i am very disappointed and shall unfollow. spare you deleting of my worldview shaking comments.

  • Conspiraloons like you couldn’t shake a tambourine, let alone a worldview.

  • sabelmouse

    i was so sadly mistaken in you. makes me wonder what goes on in your head. you actually contradict everything else that you say when it comes to vaccines. really weird.

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    I do acknowledge it. Pretty much everyone but your strawman does. You, however, apparently want every positive mention of science or the scientific mention to include a lengthy side effect disclaimer, kinda like with Rx ads.

  • Pretty much everyone? Tell you what. You count every time a science fan says, if we praise science for the good it does, we should also blame it for the evil it does, or science isn’t our only source of valid knowledge, and I’ll count every time a science fan says science isn’t perfect, but it’s our only hope, or science works!

    Wanna bet whose bucket fills up first?

  • Chuck Johnson

    But what about our belief that light can be both a wave and a particle?-Shem

    That’s not a good way to state the scientific understanding of light.
    Light (for the purposes of understanding, research and explanation) should be considered to be a wave under certain circumstances and considered to be a particle under other circumstances.

    Considering it to be both, simultaneously would lead to confusion.

  • Chuck Johnson

    That the universe was once an “infinitely dense singularity”?-Shem

    I consider the notion of “infinitely dense singularity” to be absurd because empiricism shows us that such things do not happen.

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    Here again, you expect everyone to join in your vendetta against Science.

  • So you consider acknowledging the downside to scientific research a “vendetta against Science”?


  • Matt Cavanaugh

    Nice polemic. Anyway, I do not acknowledge any downside to ethically-conducted scientific research. There’s always the potential for ‘downsides’ with the application of scientific discoveries, but that’s not a problem with Science, per se.

  • Well, that proves the point I was making: to science fans, by mere definition anything that has a downside isn’t capital-S Science. This sort of double standard is typical of religious folks.

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    What downside is there to any scientific research, as distinct from the application of the discoveries?

  • Phil Rimmer

    I think we need to think scientifically, act humanely and for ourselves live like poets.

  • Well, the end result is part of science, isn’t it? There are problems with the way science is funded, conceptualized and conducted. The way we use the scientific knowledge that results, particularly when it’s for warfare and oppression, or to reinforce our biases or the prevailing social order, is all part and parcel of the human, social and cultural context of science.

  • Phil Rimmer

    My view is that we are like the Iron Giant a seeming innocent, a child not yet fully aware of our potentially lethal capacities. Stumbling in ignorance more often than not into others. But…

    We have done astonishingly well to survive so far. We are indeed wired for compassion, which is why a species with enormous varieties of folks with differing cognitions have increasingly succeeded. Bound by an unusual and necessary level of mutualism, we succeed by our very diversity, dreaming poets, farmers wedded to the soil, systemising aspies, Greek soldiers discovering romantic love (love for its own sake) first, even sociopath’s agrandising visions…

    This ape succeeded ever better by being many differing apes bound together by empathy.

    Might I invite any here to look at “Enlightenment Now”, Steven Pinker, if they need a bit of a lift. The Iron Giant may just grow up.

  • Foxglove

    I’d go along with the general sentiment there–just not sure how well I do at living like a poet. More like an icebreaker, I think.

  • Mr. A

    However, it’s obvious that we affirm the validity of these matters not because of the evidence, but rather because of a realistic acknowledgment that scientists oughta know. Evidence has become a meaningless axiomatic expression that the science faithful use to validate beliefs they didn’t arrive at through assessment of data points at all.”

    Singling this out because it points out a true probel of the scientific method, and could warrent a discussion on its own. For now though I’d like to hear your thoughts on this matter.

    It’s completely true that that we rely on the assumption of “scientists know what they are doing” in order to validate points we are otherwise unaware of. It is also true that these so called “authorities” could very well be wrong, and provide a textbook case of the Argument from Authority fallacy.

    However, and this is where it gets interesting, what other way is there? As an example: Last week I went to take my car into the shop becausenit needed its oil changed. The only reason I know this, however, is because the people working there told me so. I cannot possibly know how true this is because my degree is in biology and not mechanics. I have to rely on these people to tell me when my car is messed up.

    This is obviously an argument from authority, but in this case what other choice do I have? Spend time that I don’t have validating how cars operate? And obviously, this is just one facet of my life: the same argument could be made true about how this iPad I’m typing on works, or the internet itself, or hw the facuet turns on. I must trust in these “authorities” that thier products work because I cannot have time to validate each and every facet of my life.

    Going back to scientists, this is, unfortunately, the best we have. How do we know that the Higgs boson is real? Because that’s what scientists said. How can we confirm that this is true or false? Buy one large hadron collider and wait a year or two to sort out the results. Can you do that? I certainly can’t, my job doesn’t pay me enough.

    Humans have become so specialized in knowledge that anything else simply won’t work. We rely on “authorities” every single day in our lives just to live, because again, we cannot possibly have enough time to independently verify everything we have questions about.

    The best way to solve this problem in my opinion is to keep doing what gains results. If trusting in NASA flies us to the moon, then we can continued to trust in them provided they give more results. This is however, my opinion, so I’m curious what you would think is a possible solution, or any other thoughts.

    (Apologies for the long comment, that took longer than I realized…)

  • We rely on “authorities” every single day in our lives just to live, because again, we cannot possibly have enough time to independently verify everything we have questions about.

    Right. I just wanted to point out that science fans talk about having evidence-based beliefs when they’re merely appealing to the authority of scientists. And the common motto science works is another meaningless axiomatic expression, because we just call what works science.

    I’m not criticizing science per se, just the way people look at science as something it’s not: the arbiter of truth, a prophylactic against error, the last word on any matter concerning human endeavor, the only real way of seeing the world.

  • Phil Rimmer

    I think we all do live like poets, did we but know it.

    A great movie, by Jim Jarmusch, “Paterson” about a poet bus driver somehow entangled with poet, William Carlos Williams, I suspect is exactly about how humans find meaning.

    Its a movie that is best stumbled upon, so apologies for drawing your attention to it. Many think it just empty and remain puzzled. Others think it trite. I am haunted by it.

    OK now look into this little flashy thing for a moment.

  • Mr. A

    Yes, I was just wondering if you had any thoughts on further refining the scientific process, so that it functions better.

    And before I forget again: “The strangest cognitive mirage that scientism creates is the one that describes objective reality…”

    – If its erronous to assume objective reality, how should we view reality? Or were you just pointing out how its erronous to assume objective reality is the one people assume they see?

  • I’m not trying to fix the scientific process, I’m just of the opinion that it deserves our skepticism as much as any institution in our culture.

    As far as objective reality goes, I’m not claiming that nothing is real or any such nonsense. All I’m saying is that what we call reality isn’t just self-evident, it’s something that’s been put together from various lines of inquiry. What we see is part of it, and scientific inquiry is part of it. But when people say something like “science gives us the most accurate picture of reality,” they make it sound like they have independent knowledge of how reality is, and they’re able to measure how accurate a picture of it science provides.

  • Mr. A

    Ah, I see. Too bad, I would have loved a discussion on how to fix the problems in science…

    Yeah, I suppose people who don’t understand science think that way, so its a valid viewpoint. Well, I have no further questions, so I suppose I’ll leave.

  • Well, what specifically do you see as the problems in science? I’m all ears.

  • martin_exp(pi*sqrt(163))

    one question leads to another. if you start with something like an ipad you might end up reading about charles babbage and the difference engine, or you read about the development of the semiconductor (maybe after you tried to understand how a compiler translates a high-level programming language into machine code). this are all things which no longer make the headlines. it’s the same for all those other things. i get a bit frustrated when people mention the moon landings. if you don’t just leave it at that there is the possibility that, after reading about celestial mechanics maybe, you end up with ptolemy. it depends on how interested in science you really are or just in things which make the headlines.

    “Do you have to build the most complex scaffolding to find out the simple rules?

    But it is not complicated. It is just a lot of it. And if you start at the beginning, which nobody wants to do – I mean, you come in to me now for an interview, and you ask me about the latest discoveries that are made. Nobody ever asks about a simple, ordinary phenomenon in the street. What about those colors? We could have a nice interview, and I could explain all about the colors, butterfly wings, the whole big deal. But you don’t care about that. You want the big final result, and it is going to be complicated because I am at the end of 400 years of a very effective method of finding things out about the world.” – richard feynman

  • Apollo was a glorified tech demo.

  • I think a good barometer is whether someone can call trans women: female.
    Nobody is fooled by someone trying to pretend that their interpretation of trans women as male is innocent,
    in the exact same way that nobody is fooled by someone trying to interpret black-on-black crime statistics is making their conclusions innocently.

    People who like to pretend that their views are based entirely on data are trying to mask the fact that data never makes conclusions; only people do,
    and the values and unspoken assumptions that those people have will become encoded into their conclusions, and the only way to distinguish
    between hostile science and benevolent science is to use a criterion of charity.

  • TheBookOfDavid

    Totally worth the effort, if only for the Moon Rock Needle.

  • Michael Weis

    Hail Sagan!

  • SageThinker

    How does one see comments by those one follows? I’ve not figured that out.

  • sabelmouse

    on the dash?

  • SageThinker

    I don’t see it.

  • sabelmouse

    you go to home, then click latest comments next to it.

  • sabelmouse

    or do you mean their whole list, for that you need to click on your own profile pick on the right side of the screen, i think, mine is zoomed in, it could be in the middle,then click on following, and you get their names/profiles.

  • Chuck Johnson

    But when people say something like “science gives us the most accurate
    picture of reality,” they make it sound like they have independent
    knowledge of how reality is, and they’re able to measure how accurate a
    picture of it science provides.-Shem

    It’s not necessary to compare the “reality” that science provides with the “real and true corrected and perfect reality” that you are referring to.

    Understanding the methods practices and traditions of science shows the quality of scientific investigation and the quality of scientific data and theories. Other ways of discovering the truth about our universe are not as through and ambitious.
    Science, engineering and technology give the best results.

    The observation that scientific ideas are less than perfect is just a consequence of the fact that nothing is or ever will be perfect.

  • I agree that scientific methodology has given us extremely useful knowledge, and (pace Rorty) this is the aim of any mode of inquiry. What I dispute is that it brings us any closer to Truth or that it makes the notion of truth any less problematic.

  • Chuck Johnson

    To me, truth is those stories that best explain the available evidence. I use that definition, and truth is not especially problematic for me.

    But you refer to Truth with a capital T.
    What do you mean by this ?

  • Duane Locsin

    I’ve been taking Science classes all throughout school and Uni (bachelor in Science and Engineering majoring in Biotechnology at Murdoch), and this is the first time I’ve heard of this ‘Scientism’.

    It sounds like the same baloney as ‘Evolutionist/Evolutionism, gavitationalist and ‘Science is a Religion’ angles.

    Like any Science subject Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Sociology, Geology etc.,you don’t need to believe it, just first understand it, scrutenize it, put it through tests, verification and elimination/confirmation.

    Worshippping, faith with out good reason, asserting without evidence, proclamations and claims made out to be absolute, this is Religion’s shtick.

  • If you’d even bothered to read the OP, you’d realize there’s nothing religious here. I’m just pointing out where we’re not being as skeptical as we should about science.

    I don’t dispute any mainstream scientific theory: Big Bang, species evolution, the efficacy of vaccines, anthropogenic global warming, etc. It’s just that a lot of people have a problem admitting that science is a human endeavor, prone to all the personal and cultural biases of any other.

    If you don’t have that problem, then don’t sweat it.

  • To me, truth is those stories that best explain the available evidence. I use that definition, and truth is not especially problematic for me.

    That seems like a realistic definition. But that means we largely create the truth, rather than (as you said previously) discover it. I’m still fine with that, but I don’t know how many other people here would agree with it.

  • Chuck Johnson

    I consider creating, discovering or inventing the truth to be very similar ideas

  • Ameribear

    Doesn’t allowing a metaphysical camels nose under the tent flap cause all kinds of problems with the default materialist only viewpoint? How do you square that?

  • I’m not sure what that question has to do with this discussion. How exactly am I compromising materialism, pray tell?

  • Although I side with science over religion, this article makes a few interesting and valid points.

    Bottom line, there is a tribalism factor. Human nature is to reject information from outside groups… that bias is true for everyone.

  • I might not make it as clear as I should, but I’m not religious and I “side with science” too. But it disturbs me when people make science a sort of surrogate religion.

  • there’s a lot of hubris in science… especially when profit-motives come into the picture.

  • Ameribear

    My question is based on the premise that materialism denies the existence of immaterial mind independent things. Metaphysics is all about defining and proving the existence of such things so how do you reconcile the two?

  • TinnyWhistler

    Or desire to one-up the people around you! Most of the lay-adherents to “scientism” that I know spend most of their effort talking about how much better they are than this or that person or group. Because they’ve chosen Science as their god and Science is the ultimate Truth. “No one comes to the Truth except through Science”, if I can parallel Jesus’ words.

  • The natural enemy of all scientists is not religion. The natural enemy of all scientists is HUBRIS.

  • Lucy

    I also dislike it when science is treated as a religion. And believe you me, when you’re in the animal behavior field, or in something related, you see a lot of quasi-religious stuff grow up around the science. Take clicker training, for example. this can be a very effective way to teach tricks, yes, and works fast and produces a lot of measurable results. So you get people treating it like this magic wand or something, like it would solve not only problems with animals but all the world’s problems as well. And I mean it. I kid you not, Karen Pryor, the person who pioneered clicker training, said her goal was to revolutionize parenting forever because clicker training would mean parents never had to yell at their kids ever again and, by extension, clicker training would take all the rough edges out of parenting. Except in reality, it wouldn’t. And it doesn’t remove all other problems, either – I’ve seen some of the problems clicker training can create when applied in a hardcore fashion (of the sort clicker training aficionados recommend). Those aren’t pretty either – one case I saw was of a dog who went through literal thirty-second cycles of absolute hope over getting a treat, and deep disappointment when he didn’t get one (which he wasn’t going to because it was at a sort of conference event and not training time, and in fact wouldn’t be training time for hours). Seriously, it was like that dog was on a mood roller coaster, and it’s a wonder he didn’t have a greater barking problems than he did – those mood changes were far from subtle, and I bet his owner learned to tune them out or doesn’t realize that such changes are obviously unhealthy, such that even special needs dogs don’t typically experience that sort of mood cycle. Yet, the data doesn’t talk about stuff like this – it only says how quickly you can teach an animal a trick and how quickly and efficiently they can perform it and how long they can retain it. The data doesn’t talk about more intangible stuff, like emotion and social connection (heck, it still debates about that, or whether it even exists, so if you wait for the data to say animals have feelings, you’d likely leave a lot of sad puppies and other such animals in your wake as you act as if they don’t have feelings). Even with people, there was debate – like with autistic people, who were long thought to lack empathy and some basic feelings. And in fact, debate like this is why I myself was treated as less than human for much of my life. It’s as if I was spiritually abused by science, in a way, as a kid in the special ed system. And it’s not like I’m anti-science – heck, I’m trying for a degree in it, and I know I wouldn’t do that if I thought science was worthless. It’s just that I’m against science being treated as a god, because that makes it very easy to treat the good things as a sort of magic/miracle (not in so many words, of course, but with that sort of reverence) and ignore the bad, then in fact if you don’t ignore the bad, that makes science better because it means you can be able to find other methods or to know what needs fixing or shoring up in cases where the bad isn’t irredeemable. And also, not treating science as a god means that more disabled kids won’t be abused in the name of science, either, because maybe they will be allowed to be themselves (and in the case of those who do need some form of treatment, they will be able to get them with their perspective taken into account so they are not subject to torturous or abusive treatments just for convenience’s sake and just because those treatments give pretty data points). And no more treating science as a god, and more treating it as a tool with potential biases accounted for, will mean that science could deliver better benefits and there would be no more children who experience that sort of science-flavored spiritual-like abuse that comes of being treated as a human lab animal who deserves to be treated like a specimen on a slide, dispassionately experimented on with techniques that in reality mess with your head.

  • Lucy

    Agreed. Hubris is a trait that those who treat science as a religion have in spades. Hubris about themselves, hubris about the progress of science that ignores flaws, or both. Such that they see only the benefits in science, never the ways in which it can go wrong. And in order to do science effectively, as science, and not as a god, you really need to leave both forms of hubris at the door. Because a lot of scientific progress gets held back by people who take that hubris into their scientific work, and because the very thing that makes science so useful and so beneficial to humanity is that it doesn’t get treated as a religion, and that it doesn’t get infected with biases masquerading as rationality. Because in areas where science is infected with these things, it tends to be held back and in some of those areas is worse than no official scientific approach – better than the worst of those approaches, sure, but in those areas of science (mostly involving marginalized groups), the best non-science-based methods sadly tend to run rings around the peer-reviewed stuff. And that really is a shame. Because science would do a lot better if the biases behind these sorts of conclusions were critically examined. Because science is supposed to make these things better, not worse, and that can’t happen when biases towards the status quo are treated as “objective” by default.

  • Let’s not forget how market-driven imperatives also “corrupt” science. Because that happens in spades.

  • Lucy

    Yep. Some of that is obvious corporate stuff, but also things like clicker training and ABA science (both of which are encountered in my field) may not be tied to a specific company per se, but there are massive financial incentives to push this sort of thing – clicker training sells lots of books and gets lots of accolades, and gets even more when it’s treated as a magic cure of sorts, and ABA therapy? Parents have been known to take out second mortgages to pay for this abusive, normalizing therapy (which in actuality is dog training techniques used to make kids appear better behaved) for their autistic kids – that’s how desperate these parents get sometimes, a desperation that comes not only of their own internal worries for their child’s future, but pressure from the ABA industry itself to get their kids these services as early as possible or else their kid is doomed to a hopeless future, which in reality is bunk and hokum, since plenty of people, including disabled ones, can learn skills they need way late and be none the worse for it – it’s not like the aim is to make them Olympic gymnasts or some other thing that absolutely requires young training, and besides you can’t change an autistic person into a neurotypical anyway. Also, parents who claim ABA saved their kid will say things like “after 8 years of ABA, my child is no longer having all these bouts of aggression” – and yes, the 8 years is a real example. Except, 8 years is a very long time in a child’s life, and plenty of time for issues they had to die down or lessen due to simply growing up, and so that is not an impressive time span for any program.

    Parents would not have to take out these second mortgages if those “therapy” sessions weren’t insanely expensive. And even when parents don’t pay these expensive fees, governments sometimes do (like for kids in certain residential school placements, including a school called the Judge Rotenberg center that uses what amounts to a shock collar on kids to control their behavior – that is, punitive shocks, not ECT therapy). So there’s a massive financial incentive for making this stuff look like the best and most viable option – the financial incentive creates more motivation to make people into “true believers” in these methods. And in that way, these branches of science are also disturbingly similar to religion – religion also uses financial incentives, directly and indirectly, in that case to keep butts in the pews rather than wallets paying for expensive services that are at best barely helpful and have a questionable scientific background (again due to quasi-religious devotion).

  • Yes, but I don’t see this as “science” as a corrupt healthcare industry.

    Science and doctors play a role, but profit is the goal at the beginning and end of the day.

    I would point to the fake cholesterol fear mongering in order to push Lipitor and fake “low fat” food, which is full of crap!