Scientific Privilege

Scientific Privilege November 19, 2013

According to an enthusiastic radio report, children benefit from creative play. The reporter could say this with confidence because an interdisciplinary team of psychologists and anthropologists have confirmed it. Benighted hick that I am, I’ve depended on unsubstantiated hearsay for the past seventeen years of parenting. As they say in baseball, “I’d rather be lucky than good.”

I mean, I suppose luck is better. The scientific community has not yet established, so far as I know, a robust body of empirical evidence regarding the relative advantage of luck over skill, though a large number of politicians and corporate CEOs seem to substantiate this adage.

I’m theologically and politically inclined toward folk wisdom, and therefore suspicious of scientism. That doesn’t mean that I oppose scientific inquiry, however. Without a doubt, some of the folk wisdom passed down by my grandmother is flat-out wrong. I know several African-Americans, for example, who do not in fact know all the other African-Americans. And the eyesight difficulties I presently suffer did not commence until well after those awkward boyhood puberty years.

So by all means, Science, lay waste to Nana’s oeuvre of accumulated insights on the human condition. Report with great fanfare that we should not be starving fevers, or feeding colds, or letting sleeping dogs lie. Civilizations survive based on their ability to transmit accumulated wisdom across generations, and this body of knowing certainly includes the valid findings of its scientists.

I get the feeling, however, that the scientific method, rather than being one avenue by which we may come to know something, has become the only respectable avenue. I suppose it’s helpful for scientists to confirm that most people prefer mates who are sexually attractive, or that exercise is good for you, or that bullies pick on unpopular kids—each being a finding reported in science journals in recent years—but was our knowledge of these facts less valid before scientists undertook to measure them?

Less quantified, perhaps. But less valid? Given how often empirical studies are nullified or contradicted, we can’t even say with confidence that scientific studies have a lower error rate than folk wisdom. So why this privileging—if I may borrow a term from my non-quantitatively oriented colleagues in the literature department—of science? Why report scientific confirmation of the obvious as if we’d had no previous sense of its truth?

None of this is to say there can’t be benefits from studying our beliefs more closely. For example, you could probably anticipate the finding of recent childhood abuse research, which reveals that victims have a greater likelihood of mental and emotional difficulties as adults. Before you call your senator to complain about truckloads of tax dollars going to academic frauds, however, consider that neuroscientists have recently documented the aforementioned damage with brain scans. In other words, abusing children can literally scar their brains.

Abuse survivors have weaker connections, for example, between the prefrontal cortex, where thought is processed, and the hippocampus, which functions, among other ways, as a “fear filter”—the source of rationality that keeps you calm on Halloween night, even though you are surrounded by people in vampire and zombie costumes. This comports with observations by counselors specializing in childhood abuse, who note that victims are more likely to exhibit anxiety and fear in a situations that others handle with ease.

Scientists responsible for the study say their finding is valuable for diagnosis and treatment. Now they can scan your brain to determine what’s wrong with you. Neuroscience offers yet another span along the bridge from physiology to psychology.

Nobody is saying we should run an abuse victim through an MRI, give her a calibrated pharmaceutical cocktail, and call her cured. At least not yet. But the danger with privileging scientific findings is that it tempts us to think what we can know most concretely is therefore what’s most important to know. It reduces people to a single dimension, rendering them nothing more than amusing sacks of chemical combinations. Scan the brains of enough abuse victims, perhaps include their spines, maybe for good measure, the electromagnetic impulses cast off by their entire central nervous system working in concert, and pretty soon you forget that they have souls, and likely distorted notions of God and self.

A friend told me about engaging a psychiatrist for help with all-consuming depression. After a few sessions, his doctor leaned forward and said: “What you need is a church, not a psychiatrist.” He then introduced my friend to a preacher, who brought him into the Church, where his soul has been unburdened.

I suspect this is unorthodox psychiatric behavior, even though the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has an entry titled “Religious or Spiritual Problems.” There’s room at the margins for our spirits, but for the most part our experts are accustomed to looking for solutions to brokenness in the brain rather than the heart. Every time some soul-sickened boy shoots up a schoolroom, journalists declare that the newest community to be thusly shattered is “looking for answers.” The unstated assumption is that those answers can be found in the psyche rather than the soul.

Only now we want to go a step further, simplifying the psyche as well. Science lends itself to the isolation of variables, and its hunger for observable variables further pushes the study of humans into the study of their physical parts. People become fleshy machines, their malaise a malfunction to be isolated and corrected.

In our zeal to know creation, we reduce it to what we can know. Ironically, that entails reducing ourselves. Perhaps that’s simply a necessary cost of progress, but my grandmother always warned that pride goes before a fall. Of course that’s just a correlation; we still have lots of testing before we can confirm it.

Tony Woodlief lives in North Carolina. His essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal andThe London Times, and his short stories, two of which have been nominated for Pushcart prizes, have been published in ImageRuminate, and Saint Katherine Review. His website is

Art Pictured: Francis Bacon. Crucifixion, 1933 oil on canvas, 62 x 48.5 cm.

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  • agh

    Wish I’d said that. Puts me in mind of Wendell Berry’s “Life is a Miracle,” in which he takes apart the hubris of scientific materialism championed by E.O. Wilson’s “Consilience.”

  • Tony Woodlief

    Thanks A.G. — I’ll check out Berry’s essay.

  • Bearnabas

    I think churches are great at being able to go deep into a person, access places others can’t. But that comes with a caveat. Deep access can mean deeper wounds. People who get hurt in a church or hurt by a church carry deep wounds away that can effect their spiritual lives forever. Science and medicine have trained their professionals to think about the patient, to be careful. There are no professionals in the pew. Many many people have been irrevocably wounded in churches. Some thinking they were coming for a cure. Christ can cure. Churches are less careful when meeting an already deeply troubled person.

  • Bearnabas

    Hard to edit these on a phone. Continuing from my other post:churches are not a cure-all. They can be worse than the problem. They can wound people who have no idea what kind of a place they are walking into. Because we have access to the heart and soul of a person, churches are better able to cure and kill a spiritual life. Makes me want to take my chances with a little science sometimes. They can’t reach my soul and sometimes that’s a good thing.

  • Peggy Rosenthal

    Right on, Tony. There’s a big difference (an abyss) between knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom, says Scripture, was present when God created the world, whereas knowledge? Well, it can be a very useful thing (it saved my husband from fatal heart failure), but — as you say so elegantly — it doesn’t touch our souls.

    • V. Bocassi

      Yes, knowledge and wisdom are of course different…but one is pretty useless without the other. A mind and a soul are not the same either. I prefer to have both, thank you. And knowledge alone never saved anyone from heart failure: the knowledge had to be applied by someone with at least a modicum of wisdom.

  • T. Martin Lesh

    The one simple reality/wisdom that Science has unfortunately chosen to leave behind in the Modern ( and post modern ) Era is …

    … that ‘ Science ‘ is as much ‘ Art ‘ as it is about ‘ fact ‘ e.g. As in ‘art ‘ … the ‘ facts ‘ aren’t always exactly what they may appear to be

    For the record though … ‘ Art ‘ is also as much about ‘ Science ‘ as it is ‘ art’ . Genuine ‘ art ‘ requiring technique , theory etc…e.g. ‘ science ‘ in order to create it .

    Losing that bit of wisdom doing more IMO to bring down both Art & Science in the modern and post modern era than any other single factor

  • Danielle Earley

    I feel if we reduce humans to lab rats, scientist have taken away the humanity that goes with the individual. I think sometimes a spiritual community is a better prescription I think it is more important to want to help individuals not solve some kind of scientific puzzle. If both can happen in harmony then that is a different story, but consent needs to be there always.

    • V. Bocassi

      Why do you insist one must exclude the other?

  • Maybe the superstitious nonsense of religion can make some people feel better, but this is false comfort coming from irrational beliefs.

    • thanks for that

      aaaand scene!

  • Eliot Parulidae

    Does your Nana have any folk wisdom regarding the biosynthesis of cobanimides in prokaryotes? I’m asking because of an exam; intuitive biochemistry is an area in which my Nana was lacking. My Nana was more of an intuitive elementary particle physics person. I remember when my Nana told me the story of the double slit experiment and the wave-particle duality of light. A treasured memory.

  • Grotoff

    Science is about Why and How, not just what. Yes, our experience tells us x but why is that the case? How does it work? That’s the central endeavor of science.

  • Pofarmer

    “Less quantified, perhaps. But less valid? Given how often empirical
    studies are nullified or contradicted, we can’t even say with confidence
    that scientific studies have a lower error rate than folk wisdom.”

    The thing is, this is NOT a weakness of science. A hypothesis being put forward, tested, and proven wrong is how we progress. Folk wisdom does not progress. That’s pretty much the main weakness of religion, as well, it doesn’t, or can’t, incorporate new information into it’s world view. Therefore, religion see’s science as a threat. As a farmer, I love folk wisdom, I’m steeped in it, and I try to figure out which ones are based in science, and which ones are not. No one has a problem with that. But, do we figure out which of religions positions are based in scientific fact and then change those positions to mirror physical reality? Not generally, which is where the conflict comes in.

    “In our zeal to know creation, we reduce it to what we can know. Ironically, that entails reducing ourselves. ”

    See, I don’t see this as true at all. In our zeal to unlock creation we unlock all the wonder that is out there. Is there more wonder in thinking that God is sitting above the firmament directing the Sun and stars, or is their more wonder in knowing that there are 100’s of billions of Galaxies each with 100’s of billions of stars, and here we are on this tiny blue dot riding it out? I would personally choose the later. There is so much more to study and know than what religion would give us. As Shakespear said. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. ” Where “Philosphy” is often seen as a jab at religion.

  • ortcutt

    So-called “folk wisdom” is often right but also often wrong. We use observational and experimental scientific methods to figure out which a particular case is. Why are scientific methods better than blindly accepting “folk wisdom”? Because we are subject to limitations of experience and cognitive biases. Most parents only have several children, so their data is limited. They are also both the experimenters and the subjects, leading to experimenter’s bias. “Folk wisdom” suffers from an availability cascade, because it is considered “folk wisdom”, observations are interpreted to fit the theory. I don’t really understand why there is so much fear and disdain of science. Maybe people who aren’t engaged in the scientific process see it as a elite cabal, but to deny the value of scientific methods on those grounds is nothing more than anti-intellectualism.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Humans have always had a need to make attempts at understanding the past and predicting the future, based on their observable pasts. Science is much better at these things than were the prophets because of the vast sampling base that is available, and becomes even more available and testable as time goes on. I certainly don’t want to go back to the fear of the unknown that went hand-in-hand with old time religion. I am grateful for the evolution of the brain and consider the ability to reason the greatest single gift of The Sacred Spirit in humanity.